A Note On Author Dan Brown's Use Of Flashbacks

A Note On Author Dan Brown's Use Of Flashbacks

The Lost Symbol on top of a real book
As much as I am a fan of great literature, I am also quite the bibliophile. So, even though his previous efforts hadn't impressed me much, the temptation was too great when I happened across a massive and pristine hardback copy of Dan Brown's latest offering about masonic rituals, The Lost Symbol . It was a nice looking book an it had cropped up several times during The Blind Banker, an episode of the new BBC series Sherlock.

Whereas some eager Da Vinci Code fan had originally shelled out €23.99 for this first print edition, I got it for €0.50 in a deal with five paperbacks in a charity shop. It's a high quality publication from Bantam/Random House, with heavy paper stock from mixed source renewable forests, a textured dust jacket with embossed designs, and a comfortable modern serif typeface.

The other books on my bedside locker at the moment include Don DeLillo's Libra, Umberto Eco's The Prague Graveyard, and Gavin Menzies' 1421 (which it turns out is basically fiction) — all fascinating in their own way. So why on earth am I talking about Dan Brown's disposable hack-lit thriller?

Well, I ploughed through it on and off for a few days, and though I enjoyed some of the historical trivia (e.g. the U.S. Capitol building's rotunda is based on the Temple of Vesta in Rome) upon finishing it I was left with a familiar feeling of indifference towards all of his characters and their highly implausible antics. But one section in particular simply vaulted off the page as a sterling example of awful writing, and why Brown remains a second-class author (even in the pop genres) at best.

(Let me preface by saying that Brown seems like a nice enough guy during interviews and I don't mean any personal offence — and given his bank balance, he doubtless cares very little about my opinion anyway.)

In the opening third of the book (I don't think this is much of a spoiler) a character named Katherine Solomon is assaulted by the same man who had previously attacked her family some years before. She manages to escape from him and frantically drives away at speed, and the action switches to Brown's ubiquitous alter ego Robert Langdon for a few scenes.

Then in a new chapter we return to Katherine in her car. Now follow me as we count the time zones.

Present moment:

She was pushing her Volvo at over ninety as she fled blindly up the Southland Parkway.

Remembering five minutes ago:

As she did, she felt a stab of pain from the bruise on her neck, where the powerful hand had latched on to her neck.

Recalling the day before:

The man who had smashed her window bore no resemblance to the blond-haired gentleman whom Katherine knew as Dr Christopher Abbadon.

Thinking about ten years ago:

Katherine felt angst-ridden as the memories flooded back. It was almost exactly ten years ago. Christmas day.

And some years before that (when Zachary was 21):

Katherine felt particularly pleased to give her brother something positive to think about this Christmas, since the holiday had also become a painful reminder of a terrible tragedy. Peter's son, Zachary. Katherine's nephew's twenty-first birthday had been his last.

And three years earlier again:

Shortly before Zachary's eighteenth birthday, Katherine had sat down with her mother and brother and listened to them debating whether or not to withhold Zachary's inheritance until he was more mature.

Finally, a couple of hundred years before that:

The Solomon inheritance — a  centuries old tradition in the family…

All this in about ten paragraphs, less than two pages. Just as you settle into a time setting, he whisks us off to an earlier one. I understand the details of Katherine's family history are important, but the clumsiness of this reverse chronological retelling jolts you from the page. I was dizzy from trying to remember when any of this was taking place (I mean it was a struggle to care in the first place).

How did any decent editor let this stand?

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