Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 20, 2009


David Plotz, Slate - 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. . . . 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.

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.


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