Dan Brown's 'Lost Symbol' reveals his greatest secret

Writing for the mainstream American public is not an easy task. A well-educated readership, America's book buyers simultaneously yearn for the highbrow and the heady, the playful and the thoughtful. They want books that respect their intelligence, even as they tap into their most escapist fantasies. In short, they want a big piece of sugary cake, paired with a nutritional profile that would get the Michael Pollan seal of approval.

If the past few years are any indication, Dan Brown has mastered the art of giving the American public what they want. The DaVinci Code, his breakout novel, has sold 40 million copies worldwide, and Angels and Demons, which featured the debut of Brown's signature character Robert Langdon, was also a bestseller. The movie versions of both novels also did exceedingly well, with The DaVinci Code grossing over $217 million and Angels and Demons grossing approximately $480 million.
The Lost Symbol, Brown's latest outing into the world of Langdon, is already a bestseller, despite the apparent handicap of not having been released yet. For the last two weeks, it has been number one on Amazon, merely based on advance orders, and it is already on the British best-seller's list. Despite Brown's claims of performance anxiety, it seems a foregone conclusion that the book's success will be legendary. As for the film adaptation, the only question is over Tom Hanks' hair: will the star go with the greasy roadie look of The DaVinci Code, the short, preppy look of Angels and Demons, or a new, exciting 'do?

It's not hard to understand why Dan Brown's Langdon books have been so popular. The ultimate key to the author's skill lies in his ability to combine apparent opposites. To begin with, there is the matter of reputation: his books fit firmly in the realm of popular fiction, with all the scholarly opprobrium and stylistic shortcomings that that term suggests. Brown's characters -- like the hidebound detective Bezu Fache and the psychotic albino Silas -- are often almost cartoonishly exaggerated, with personalities that shift depending upon the needs of the plot. For that matter, the plots themselves tend to move along at a sweaty, breathless clip; in terms of pacing, the Brown oeuvre lands somewhere between Run, Lola, Run and Crank 2.

On the other hand, Brown's books don't feel like empty calories. With a heady dose of religious history and symbology, he assumes -- correctly, as it turns out -- that his readers are interested in learning a few new things. While he applies a thick lather of poetic license to his tales, his eye for fun details and exciting historical anecdotes gives his stories a patina of intellectual respectability. Moreover, the Langdon novels have inspired a cottage industry of contemptuous experts who snidely expound about the shortcomings of the books, apparently happy to ignore the fact that Brown's writings -- warts and all -- are almost solely responsible for reviving public interest in a wide variety of academic arcana.

Beyond that, Brown's stories are plotted exceedingly well, with twists and turns that, if not plausible, at least are sufficiently explained. Plot has, over the last few decades, become something of a lost art, with navel-gazing "literary" novels squaring off against mechanical mysteries, romances and adventures that often feel like they were churned out by one of Orwell's book-writing machines. In this context, Brown's books sometimes feel like a perfectly prepared fillet mignon slapped down in the middle of the unappetizing buffet of contemporary fiction: his stories are energetic, fanciful and realistic enough to please his audience.

Brown's ultimate flattery lies in the organization of his stories: the Langdon books are structured to allow the reader to discover things a moment ahead of the genius protagonist. Having spent hundreds of pages establishing Langdon's bona fides, Brown's decision to let the reader constantly one-up the professor makes each of the books an ongoing exercise in self-congratulations. To put it bluntly, by the time Brown's readers finish a Langdon book, they feel smart.

Langdon's numbers indicate that this combination of highbrow and lowbrow, populist and professor is a heady mix, bordering on the downright addictive. As those who have read Brown's Deception Point and Digital Fortress might attest, it was not an easy recipe to perfect, but perfect it he has. While he may suffer a measure of performance anxiety as his latest tome lands in the laps of millions of hungry fans, chances are that The Lost Symbol will resonate with readers who are eager to learn, eager for validation and -- most of all -- eager for a good story.
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