The Poetry of Dan Brown

It’s only been a couple of weeks since the release of The Lost Symbol but it has already inspired countless parodies. Most highlight Brown’s formulaic plot, his overuse of Italics, even his Brownian style. Some have made us laugh. Some have elicited no more than a shrug. But Maureen Johnson’s ongoing, chapter-by-chapter Reader’s Guide to The Lost Symbol continues to impress with its lighthearted and imaginative reading of the novel.

Here, Johnson, an author of young adult novels, highlights the parallels in Chapter 35 of The Lost Symbol with the poets William Carlos Williams and T. S. Elliot:

Chapter 35

Much is made of DB’s writing style. In particular, people cite his use of italicized “thought bubbles,” his page and a half long chapters, and his single sentence paragraphs.

The ones that divide up the action.

Like this.

To give you a feeling that something is happening.

Some people suggest that he does this because he is not a good writer, or because he assumes that his readers haven’t really gotten past the single-line, compacted story form usually used in elementary reading books. These people are wrong. What DB is actually doing . . . is writing poetry.

It took me a while to figure this out, but I see it clearly now. I feel that he is following in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, a critical American poet. Consider “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams’s most famous work.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The language and the style are so simple. The lines are short, and so is the work as a whole. And yet, in those eight lines, sixteen words, you can find an entire world. Compare this to the end of Chapter 35—which you at first think is this noodley, pointless chapter about the arrangement of the Capitol Building’s basement—but then you are hit with the last four sentences:

“My God,” Anderson shouted.
Everyone saw it and jumped back.
Langdon stared in disbelief at the deepest recess of the chamber.
To his horror, something was staring back.

Do you think that this has been chopped up by accident? Do you think this same effect could have been achieved in a single, flowing paragraph? Do you think it needs more detail?

Of course not.

These particular lines also strongly echo T. S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker.
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

It’s uncanny how these two men could communicate such similar ideas in a similar form—and yet, DB manages to cleverly plant these moments in a considerably larger work. T. S. Elliot never wrote anything nearly as long as The Lost Symbol.

Think about that, English majors, before you judge. Just think about it.

Another recent favorite is Johnson’s take on Chapter 37. (Spoiler Alert!: Stop here, if you have not reached this chapter yet):

Chapter 37

I guess the one complaint I have about The Lost Symbol, if I have any at all, is that it seems like Mal’akh is seriously overworked. If there was a Union of Bad Guys, there is no way they would let him work this long and not have a break. He does everything bad in the book. Everything. No one helps him.

So far, he’s had to: call Kathleen Solomon and pretend to be Dr. Christopher Abaddon, hack off Peter Solomon’s hand, stash Peter Solomon, and lead HSRL on this treasure hunt . . . all at once. And he does this, mind you, while wearing full makeup and having to constantly change costumes and juggle cell phones and manage at least three different identities. Would have it been so much to ask to give him one henchman? Just one?

This is why I am annoyed by the fact that in Chapter 37, he has to corner Trish Dunne, get her access code out of her, and drown her in the tank of ethanol with the giant squid all by himself. That right there could have been the work of one henchperson. It’s not like extra characters cost money. I’m just saying.

The Lost Symbol Reader’s Guide (Maureen Johnson)

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