I don’t have much love for Adam Gopnik. I’ve never gotten over his horrifying and, I think, sensibility-defining comment about the smell of lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11: “Not entirely horrible from a reasonable distance—almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella.” This unwitting Hannibal Lecter routine is the least of Gopnik’s problems, though: See this classic takedown by James Wolcott, which I could read once a month and never tire of. I do check out Gopnik’s work from time to time—usually to see if he’s outdone himself, but occasionally because I suspect I might actually like it.

For instance, I’ll read anything ridiculing Dan Brown, the richer-than-Jesus author whose Da Vinci Code rewrote the rules about what an adult can read in public without having a milkshake thrown at him. Brown’s new chapter book, The Lost Symbol, was just released to much fanfare (“THRILLING AND ENTERTAINING, LIKE THE EXPERIENCE ON A ROLLER COASTER,” raves the Los Angeles Times on the dust jacket, though in fairness this is a brazen ESL remix of the original review). In this brief piece, Gopnik makes a few interesting speculations about the distressing popularity of Brown’s work:

The connection to the twelve-year-old boy might be the key. Brown’s writing resembles less the adult best-sellers of the past, which popularized high literary forms—“Gone with the Wind” was a kind of kitsch Tolstoy—than the adventure stories that were once the staple of adolescent literature. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys were always in the midst of compelling conspiracies; there was always a code that had to be cracked, and ancient Asian priests and ancient Asian cults invading their cozy American worlds.

And that may be the secret of Brown’s appeal: his books are as sweet-tempered as they are secret-minded. Langdon exposes horrible conspiracies, but it turns out that, with the exception of a few homicidal hotheads, who have maybe let the thing run away with them, decent, well-intended guys run even the weirdest cabals. Brown’s repeated point is not that we are mired in ancient conspiracies but that ancient conspiracies anticipate modern opinions. What is “coded” in “The Da Vinci Code” is that the ancient Christians were modern feminists; Jesus was a loving husband who deferred to the wisdom of his wife, Mary Magdalene, the Hillary Clinton of Galilee. When we come to the end of this new book, we discover that what the Masons were really practicing was a neat kind of cognitive science. The old codes of the pyramid are merely the newest discoveries of psychology, a thought that turns the text once again toward italics: “‘The Bible, like many ancient texts, is a detailed exposition of the most sophisticated machine ever created. . . the human mind.’ She sighed.”

And then I sighed—this turns out to be an excuse for Gopnik to sound the alarm about “the conspiracy theories out there today—the ones about the socialist fascists who are coming to get you at the behest of the alien President.” These theories, Gopnik informs us, are “not cute.” (Remember, coming from Gopnik, this is a serious offense, possibly capital.) Now, I’m no defender of paranoid ignorami in misspelled sandwich boards, but permit me two small complaints. Number one, if you’re sincerely frightened of conspiracy theorizing, don’t pretend the Bush years didn’t happen. Number two, when you’re handed something as reliably awful as a Dan Brown “novel” to review, try to be much funnier.

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