By Paula Bohince
In the copse
of her mind, a fluster
of quail, tonic
of quail, each her own
boozy and flushed
from briar by a panic
gripped from kin
so they hover—
mother and daughter
Cloud of quail, eying
her covey backlit
and looming, huge
when it balloons
down, scribbling earth
with its landings.
They tell a tranquil-
days of luckless
labor and sadnesses
too frail to utter.
Shoulder to shoulder,
the quail of her
actual and the quail
of her oblivion.
Another from this week's New Yorker.
I am completely behind on my friends list, Facebook, etc. because I spent all morning reading The Lost Symbol -- I probably could have read more quickly, but I told the Green Man Review that I'd write it up, so I was taking notes, which I don't have entirely transcribed yet (I write them on note paper in shorthand since that's easier than stopping to type, but I have to transcribe them right away or I forget what "p. 13 hahaha like NT" is supposed to mean. I need to look back at Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.
Brief blather and spoilers, not for the conclusion, but mentions of plot points along the way:
As a longtime resident, I love the Brown architecture tour of DC -- and the Redskins as constant distraction/excuse, though then Brown drops them and never tells if they won the game! On a more serious note, though, since the theme of the book is the enlightenment of the human mind, I wonder if he realizes that even if enlightenment were offered on a platter to all takers, a lot of people would not -- not because they have chosen the path of hatred like his villain, but because they'd rather just watch the Redskins, and play video games, and read mediocre thrillers. Surely Brown has noticed that people are more interested in the Illuminati and the Sang Real and now the Masons when he's writing fiction about them rather than in serious non-fiction treatises, whether they're academic or populist?
There's no denying that the novel is a fun read -- engaging, funny in spots, well-paced, about on par with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons...more predictable, for me, than the latter (I'd read most of the source material for the former), but I'm not sure how much of that is because I know DC's landmarks pretty well and how much is just because I've read Brown's other novels. On the one hand, Brown, like his villains, can't resist showing off his cleverness, giving away his secrets too soon, but on the other hand, there's something satisfying about finding out you were right in solving the mystery -- I was quite certain both about both the villain's background and the location of the Masonic Pyramid by the middle of the novel, not because I tend to be clever about such things but because Brown tends to project them. I could hear so many of the lines in Tom Hanks' voice that am not sure whether it's because I've seen Hanks as Langdon twice and Langdon always talked like that, or Brown is now writing for Hanks' inflections.
There are some themes I appreciate that are explored with slightly more depth than in most pop culture -- Brown is a fan of Clarke's declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, he reiterates Doctor Who's declaration that thoughts can change the world especially if many people start focusing on the same thought, he appreciates the National Treasure movies' veneration for the Founding Fathers (all rumors that George Washington is portrayed as a shady character in this novel are completely off base). As usual, Langdon announces that various esoteric and occult subjects are fairy tales, only to have them be proven true -- literally true, not mythological archetypes or metaphors. On the one hand, I am always pleased when a writer interested in science doesn't dismiss what historically was understood as science out of hand -- alchemy and astrology came complete with an ethical system that I might wish nuclear physics could share -- but it's as if Brown doesn't grasp that a legend can be true if it's a metaphor.
Of his villain, Brown has Langdon say, "He's made the same error many zealots make--confusing metaphor with literal reality," yet I sometimes wonder whether that's true of Brown as well. (The villain also says, "Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries...endures for a reason," with which the prominent female scientist finds herself agreeing, and it turns out to be true...I think that's the author's motto, it's what he's preached in his previous books.) When Langdon realizes at one point that he is holding a key to decoding a map, rather than an object venerated for symbolic reasons, he thinks about how he possesses a talisman and reflects on how the word "talisman" comes from the Greek word for "completion" -- it's as if the author thinks the story won't be complete without something literal and physical. This is quite ironic, considering that the villain fails to grasp that some words are meant to be interpreted as parables.
Though the halls of power are definitely possessed by older white men, there are plenty of women and people of color in supporting roles, my favorite of whom are the Japanese-American who's the highest-ranking CIA official we see in the book and the female assistant of a prominent female scientist. As Brown has Langdon point out, the Masons are open to people of any race and creed so long as they believe in a higher power...with the exception of women. Though he's quick to point out that women can join the sister organization, Eastern Star, he doesn't mention that for a woman must be a spouse or relative of a Mason to join, and he characterizes the woman who protests the all-male Masonic order as a member of Harvard's Women's Center, as though only a radical feminist would find the all-male Masonic organization objectionable.
Unfortunately, Brown wants to portray the Masons as a misunderstood group of enlightened souls while keeping alive their Mystery School connections and circles within circles...he positions Masons in the top positions of power they have historically held, as Presidents, Senators, Supreme Court justices, etc. Eastern Star ultimately comes across in the same manner as the younger sister of one of the protagonists -- brilliant, promising, but in urgent need of the support and protection of her far more important older brother. That protagonist builds his sister her own personal Warehouse 13, where she toils in near-obscurity while her brother enjoys the privileges of a Masonic tradition that is treated here like the natural birthright of his aristocratic family. Whether the Masons are the philanthropic holders of ancient wisdom or a shadowy group clinging to power for its members, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of venerating their power, especially considering it's a group Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton could never join.
The theme of enlightenment might be more successful for me if the two main characters other than Langdon didn't act so absurdly, well, enlightened in the end. They are both tortured and they suffer a horrific family tragedy as well as some smaller professional tragedies, yet they are so enthralled at the discoveries they've made that it's as though those traumas are completely erased. It's almost like Harry Potter -- people are permanently stuck in the personalities they had as teenagers, can't break out of those molds, to such an extent that one almost starts to sympathize with the villain until he goes back to plotting to kill innocent women. Langdon never considers that maybe it's the all-male rich aristocratic cliquish nature of the Masons that makes them a target for people who think they're, well, an all-male rich aristocratic clique -- a New World Order. In some ways they unnervingly resemble the Vatican of Angels & Demons, despite being open-minded about the true nature of God.
I finished the book before my kids got home from school, meaning that I got to fold laundry while watching Vienna Teng Live At World Cafe. And I watched Glee, which is amusing but still not making me hyperventilate as it seems to be doing to many other people I know, both in and out of fandom (I think there's more squee on my Facebook home page from people with whom I grew up than on LiveJournal from my fannish friends). Spoilers: I howled at the line about Desperate Housewives fan fiction, of course, and Testostertones vs. Acafellas, and Finn's unhappily asking whether Rachel was doing one of those chick things where it sounds like you're pissed about one thing but it's actually something else. I adore Sue ("Smell your armpit. That is the smell of failure.") and the fact that Quinn is turning around so quickly into a full Gleek just makes that stronger. I adore Mercedes, too. If Kurt wants to stay in the closet, though, why the clothes that beg people to assume? I assumed that was Kurt's way of coming out to the world, to avoid the conversation.
I just heard about Mary Travers' death and now I'm all verklempt. Not surprised -- she survived with leukemia longer than many do -- and I knew when she stopped touring with Peter and Paul that she must be critically ill, but I'm still very sorry I didn't see them two summers ago which was the last time they were in D.C. together. I don't even have any photos of her to post because the last time I took a camera to see Peter, Paul & Mary, I didn't have a good enough digital camera to bother to bring to Wolf Trap. And Henry Gibson, too...I've only seen clips of Laugh-In but I adored him on Boston Legal. Very sad.