In the mid-1990s, just before Dan Brown discovered angels and demons, Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the City Paper, published a popular column in which it tried to solve local mysteries sent in by readers—uncovering the truth about baffling buildings, locations, and phenomena. The column was called “Washington’s Mundane Mysteries,” because, it turned out, that’s what all of them were. Those sinister brown metal boxes on certain downtown street corners? Merely storage bins for extra copies of the Washington Post. That massive vault looming over Rock Creek Parkway? Just a Department of Public Works pump house.
This is not Dan Brown’s Washington. In his new novel, The Lost Symbol, there are no mundane mysteries in Washington, no mysteries that can be solved with a phone call or two.
When I heard that Brown was setting his newest novel in the city where I’ve spent my entire life, I confess I was secretly excited and curious. I’m an addict of D.C. books, a sucker for conspiracies in the halls of power. Having slogged through The Da Vinci Code, I knew that Brown’s Washington wouldn’t precisely be the city as seen on C-SPAN. I expected a heavy dose of Freemasons but also hoped he could offer a cunning take on theologically suspect Supreme Court justices, ominous senatorial rituals, and the secrets of the White House. (“Robert Langdon slid the West Wing blueprints on top the 3,900-year-old Codex Hammurabi, matching up the two mysterious crescent symbols. He stared at it, dumbstruck: So that was why it was an Oval Office!) But after my own Langdon-esque sprint to read the entire book in a day, I am sorry to report The Lost Symbol turns out to be perhaps the strangest novel ever written about Washington. It is awesomely wrong about what makes the city compelling.
As you’ve probably heard by now, The Lost Symbol recounts—and recounts, and recounts—Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon’s race to discover the secret of the “Ancient Mysteries,” a lost method of unlocking the power of the human mind, guarded for centuries by the Freemasons and hidden right here in the nation’s capital. Pursued by a gigantic, blood-draining, tattooed eunuch psychiatrist—don’t even ask!— and the CIA through the crypts of the Capitol, the Reading Room of the Library of Congress, and the ceremonial hall of the Scottish Rite Temple, among other postcard stops, Langdon uncovers a conspiracy involving ancient Egyptian adepts, the Rosicrucians, mathematical puzzles secretly encoded in the prints of Albrecht Durer, “The Order,” the machinations of the Invisible College, encrypted Masonic pyramids, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Isaac Newton, the House of the Temple, the “Lost Word,” the “circumpunct”—the arcane symbol that will unlock …
Oh, never mind. It’s beyond parody. (Or maybe it’s not. Try Slate’s Dan Brown Sequel Generator.)
Brown’s Washington does overlap with my Washington in some gratifying ways. The eunuch, for example, kidnaps the head of the Smithsonian, chops off his hand, and carries out grisly demonic rituals on him. In real life, the chairwoman of the Smithsonian is an occasional Slate columnist and has both her hands. Brown sets critical scenes at the National Cathedral, where I went to high school, conducts “harsh interrogations” at the U.S. Botanical Garden where I take my kids, lands a helicopter in the traffic circle out my office window, and gives his psychopathic eunuch a mansion a few blocks from my house. (But don’t get me started about Brown’s renowned accuracy! Langdon drives north to get from the Cathedral to Kalorama Heights? The eunuch crosses the Anacostia River into Maryland on Independence Avenue? The tip of the Washington Monument is the highest point in the city? If I can’t trust Brown to get the location of Tenleytown Metro station right, how can I trust him to reveal the truth about the Kether, the highest Sephiroth, the Monad, the Prisca Sapientia, the “at-one-ment of the mind and soul”? Also, he has the Washington Redskins making the playoffs. Please.)
But I digress. Despite Brown’s Google Maps check-off of Washington landmarks, he managed to miss the city itself. The Lost Symbol is a novel about a Washington conspiracy, but it’s not the kind of Washington conspiracy you’ve ever heard about. There are no murdered Supreme Court justices, no slutty press secretaries or dissipated journalists. In fact, there are hardly any people at all. By cramming the events of the novel into a single Sunday night, Brown conveniently ensures that none of the people who actually make Washington Washington will intrude on his nutter antics. (The closest he gets to a Washington notable is Warren Bellamy, his heroic Architect of the Capitol. In real life, the architect of the Capitol is a bureaucratic functionary who could barely count the beans in the Senate bean soup.)
The fundamental premise of The Lost Symbol is that Washington is a “mystical city,” and it is this error that makes the book so maddening. In Brown’s Washington, the marble, the wide streets, the monuments all signify some kind of connection with the divine. The city encodes transcendental secrets about God and the potential of the human mind. But anyone who has spent more than a Tourmobile ride in D.C. knows that what makes Washington interesting is its very smallness, the contrast between its grand architecture and the human machinations that take place within it. From high to low, from Democracy to The Pelican Brief, Washington novels have exploited and reveled in this human spectacle. There are conspiracies in Washington, but they are conspiracies about money, sex, elections, and public policy. Those are the currencies of our city.
Brown posits a Washington oozing with spiritual energy and secrets of the known universe. But in the real Washington, if you held a panel about the Ancient Mysteries, the unification of religion and science, and all that other Brownian hoo-ha, you couldn’t fill a small conference room at the Brookings Institution—even if you served a free lunch and invited all the interns. Washington is the least spiritual, and least mystical, place imaginable: No one has thought about their immortal soul here since Damn Yankees.