November 24, 2017

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A symbolic return

Harvard code-cracker in fine form in Dan Brown's latest thriller

Markus Schreiber / The Associated Press files</p><p>Dan Brown’s new novel may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is a return to form after a couple of mediocre sequels to The Da Vinci Code.</p>

Markus Schreiber / The Associated Press files

Dan Brown’s new novel may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is a return to form after a couple of mediocre sequels to The Da Vinci Code.

Robert Langdon is back, the fictional Harvard professor bringing his equally fictional academic discipline to bear on a new web of conspiracy, murder and world-shaking intellectual revelation.

Can the world-famous symbologist still be a hapless academic? He’s done this five times now. But author Dan Brown throws in enough twists to keep his hero on his toes, and makes just the right tweaks to his familiar recipe to produce his strongest effort since The Da Vinci Code itself.

Odds are you’ve read that worldwide bestseller. It sold more than 80 million copies, and if current estimates of global English speakers (some 1.5 billion) and the size of the leisure reading population (estimated at 10 per cent) are correct, then more Free Press Books section readers are familiar with the modern-day grail quest of Robert Langdon than not.

Even those who haven’t read The Da Vinci Code may remember the controversy and media attention surrounding the 2003 book, which featured secretive Catholic sects, pagan rituals, conspiracy and murder, each helping to fuel a political firestorm as books flew off the shelves.

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Robert Langdon is back, the fictional Harvard professor bringing his equally fictional academic discipline to bear on a new web of conspiracy, murder and world-shaking intellectual revelation.

Can the world-famous symbologist still be a hapless academic? He’s done this five times now. But author Dan Brown throws in enough twists to keep his hero on his toes, and makes just the right tweaks to his familiar recipe to produce his strongest effort since The Da Vinci Code itself.

Odds are you’ve read that worldwide bestseller. It sold more than 80 million copies, and if current estimates of global English speakers (some 1.5 billion) and the size of the leisure reading population (estimated at 10 per cent) are correct, then more Free Press Books section readers are familiar with the modern-day grail quest of Robert Langdon than not.

Even those who haven’t read The Da Vinci Code may remember the controversy and media attention surrounding the 2003 book, which featured secretive Catholic sects, pagan rituals, conspiracy and murder, each helping to fuel a political firestorm as books flew off the shelves.

But what of Brown’s 2009 and 2013 followups, The Lost Symbol and Inferno? Of course they were bestsellers in a strict technical sense, easily moving millions of copies. But that still marks a rather precipitous drop. The Lost Symbol was even passed over for inclusion in the Tom Hanks-starring film series.

Perhaps it was because, unlike The Da Vinci Code, these stories didn’t really attempt a paradigm shift in closely held human values. So now the author has returned to the Catholic Church, to deep, humanity-defining questions — Where do we come from? Where are we going? — and to a revelation that promises to shift perspectives and upend world views.

There are many allusions and even direct references to Langdon’s most famous adventure here, and none whatsoever to the more recent outings; Origin could very well be treated as the true sequel to its great predecessor. But it’s important to understand what both The Da Vinci Code and Origin are, and also what they aren’t.

These are page-turning thrillers, designed to be finished at 3 o’clock in the morning as readers keep telling themselves "just one more chapter." The plot moves rapidly and twists reflexively. Stunning ideas are thrown out quickly and just as quickly pushed aside as the story runs ahead. These novels are not world-changing literary works of art or philosophical powerhouses, even if they name-drop real-life examples of both.

Comedians are known for using "no-joke jokes" when they are on a roll, issuing a punchline that doesn’t actually make sense and then quickly moving on to the next bit, giving hysterical audiences no time to process the holes in the setup or finish. Brown uses the "no-revelation revelation" — insights, connections and leaps in logic that don’t actually hold up under scrutiny but feel true in the midst of the breakneck narrative.

And that’s all fine. Even on a first read, it’s clear much of the science in Origin is nonsense. Brown is no more a scientist than he is a religious scholar — that latter fact having been pointed out when The Da Vinci Code came out — but that doesn’t make his books any less fun to read. Most readers will gloss over misrepresentations, factual errors and plot holes until well after the book has been put down and the ride finished.

These adventures are as much about letting the reader experience the thrill of intellectual discovery as they are about dodging assassins’ bullets and diving out of helicopters. Despite a relative dearth of code- and symbol-centric puzzles, Origin achieves that feeling of apparent learning and perspective-shifting from its earliest pages through to a satisfying conclusion.

There is an art to writing an "unputdownable" thriller, and Brown has just about reached the state of it. Enjoy this for what it is and it should be very enjoyable indeed.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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