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Friday, January 08, 2010


If you haven't read The Lost Symbol (or my guide), very little of the following will make sense. But this was my presentation from this evening's "Secrets of the Lost Symbol" panel at the Tribeca Y.


I come to you this evening to tell you why Dan Brown is right and everyone else is wrong, and why Robert Langdon is the hero we need.

I think Dan Brown was tired of Jason Bourne, James Bond, Jack Bauer, Indiana Jones, and John McClane and decided to make us what we really want . . . a nebbishy hero whose name does not contain a J. Someone who is not fearless, but deeply fearful. A reading of The Lost Symbol alone reveals his fears of: planes, elevators, running in loafers, spontaneous speaking, basements, long hallways, rats, stairs, fast driving, catwalks, and tiny conveyor belts. This is a man who wears turtlenecks because he is afraid of ties.

This is also a man who could not save his own ass with a two-handed ass-saving machine, so he is incapable of helping anyone else. Indeed, he never saves the damsel in distress—she is saved from death twice, once by herself, and once by the CIA. On the first occasion, not only does Robert Langdon not save her life, but she is forced to drive herself across down in her own Volvo, crash into the steps of the Library of Congress, and fling herself into his arms just to show her appreciation for just how much he has not done.

He spends most of the book having absolutely no idea what is going on. Like a cat lost in an airport, he dodges and weaves his way around massive, frightening figures. He repeatedly denies the reality of everything that is happening. “What the hell?” he asks. “You cannot be serious.” “But that’s not real.” He is periodically lifted up and carried from place to place, and set down again in increasingly uncomfortable surroundings. He will go anywhere he is told to go, even if that place is completely crazy—like on to a plane at a moment’s notice at the invitation of a stranger, down the book chute of the Library of Congress, or to the house of a known madman. Ten hours after the ordeal, he allows Peter “The Stump” Solomon to blindfold him and push him around Washington DC—into black cars and ominous elevators. When Katherine tells him to go to the top of the dome of the Capitol building, he goes. If your parents ever used the “if your friends all jumped out the window would you do it too?” line on you, they were talking about people like Robert Langdon, who would not only jump out the window because his friends told him to—he would do it because anyone told him to.

He would like nothing more than to cave in to any and all demands placed upon him. In Mal’ahk’s house of horrors, he is subdued within seconds of walking in the door, and when forced to give up the secrets of the pyramid or die, he trips over himself in his effort to give up the secrets as quickly as possible. A beloafered jerk in a Mickey Mouse watch whose only known routine is his daily swim and subsequent hand-grinding of coffee beans . . . Robert Langdon would like nothing more than to be left alone to study weird puzzles and dead languages and teach the surprisingly dimwitted and slavishly devoted students he openly despises. But sadly, his phone always rings, and he must do whatever the voice on the other end tells him.

At the end of the book, when he is busy not making out with Katherine, she gives him a suggestive hug and says, “How can I ever thank you?”

Missing the hint entirely, he delivers the great truth of the novel. “You know I didn’t do anything, right?” he says.

Now, in saying all of that, you may think that I may be suggesting that the book or its characters are deficient. Far from it. Dan Brown just saw that the world was ready for a completely unironic, unsexy, inept, scaredycat, easy-bleeder, indoor-kid, nerd hero who succeeds not by trying, but by being forcibly pushed into danger, which he quite sensibly hates and wants to avoid. He is the opposite of a Boy Scout—he is never prepared. This unpreparedness is the key to his success—had he known what was going to happen, he most certainly would have hid.

How does Robert Landgon roll? He rocks some Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. He likes comfy chairs and smooth rides and looking at the decorations. He doesn’t know what Twitter is. He’s like your grandpa, but he’s not as cool as your grandpa. He’s that guy at the party who will just not shut up about the things he saw in Rome. You could kick his ass, even if you are twelve years old and armed only with a bag of goldfish. This is why, to use a word he despises, Robert Langdon is awesome. Adventure comes to the lazy, nerdy, and easily influenced. You too—armed with your comprehensive understanding of signage and your workmanlike knowledge of Klingon—you too might be called. You too can defeat the big bad, no matter how big, oiled, hairless, and tattooed he is—even if you do so almost completely by accident.

And in what forms does danger come? It comes in SUDOKU. Because, just as you suspect, the forces of good and evil spend all of their free time making codes and building puzzle cities. Everyone in power is full-tilt-boogie crazy, secrets are the building blocks of the universe, and absolutely everything is interesting if you are just boring enough to see that fact.

This is the world I want to live in, and this is the world Dan Brown has shown to me.

The man, the myth, the loafers

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