Monday, January 29, 2007

Chapter 13

Brown's most admirable writerly attribute is his sense of pace, although this may be an optical illusion created by his remarkably short chapters.* This is the second consecutive chapter that takes place entirely in the gentlemen's lavatory of the Louvre, and there's no sense that Langdon and Sophie are dawdling. It's all go.

I mentioned in the last post that the bizarre plot developments and unlikely coincidences don't really bother me. But isn't it handy that Saunière had the foresight to bestow upon his granddaughter a nickname that has the same initials as an abbreviation commonly found in written communications? And that, even as he lay dying on the floor of the gallery, he was alert enough to make use of the fact in such an elegantly ambiguous way?

* Possibly rivalled only by Sterne:

"--Thou wilt get a brush and little chalk to my sword-- 'Twill be only in your honour's way, replied Trim."
Tristram Shandy
, vol VIII, ch 29

and Carroll:

"--and it really was a kitten, after all."
Through the Looking Glass
, ch XI.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Chapter 12

"Tear him for his bad verses..."
Julius Caesar
, Act 3, Scene 3

I started this blog because I wanted to find out why TDVC is so popular; specifically, far more popular than books held to be "better" by people who claim to know what good writing is. There seemed to be a number of answers to this apparent paradox: the people who claim to know, don't know; the people who claim to know are right, but it doesn't matter; there are different types of good writing; the bad writing is part of the fun; shut up and enjoy the story.

I think it's important, because there seems to be the germ of a good book here. Yes the plot is far-fetched, but so is most of Dickens. Yes, the theology is suspect, but I've never seen the problem with challenging organised religion. They've got God on their side after all, so they should be able to handle it. The characters are pretty cardboard, but I've never held this to be the greatest of literary sins. Most of the people I know in real life are pretty cardboard.

The reason I keep coming back to the bad writing is that it gets in the way of the potentially enjoyable bits, like an off-key piccolo in a symphony orchestra. OK, maybe I'm too picky, too literary, not the target audience. Maybe Brown's readers don't mind about that sort of thing. Fine, I'm not here to start a culture war. But surely if Brown and/or his editors had purged the more grisly embarrassments from his prose, he would have been able to carry the literati along as well. I'm not talking about making it difficult, or high-faluting; I'm just talking about making it not bad, which would have won over a new group of readers, without alienating the base.* OK, there's a bigger market for genre fiction than for the literary stuff, but he could have sold five and a half million rather than five million, or whatever the figures are.

So why didn't he? The first, and most obvious answer is that he didn't because he can't, because he's a bad writer. Fair enough, that's what editors are for, to sort these things out. The fact that the combined minds of Doubleday didn't see fit to put things right this suggests either that they don't care, that they're as sub-literate as their author, or that this, specifically, is what the punters want. None of these possibilities fills me with joy.

Let's look at Chapter 12, then. It's a pretty important one, because it's the point at which Langdon's overriding emotion switches from puzzlement to fear.

Brown conveys this well enough, but for some of us, the howlers just get in the way. Just one example: "Sophie's olive gaze was keen." Now, we know that Sophie has green eyes, so presumably this is what Brown is getting at. But olives have other associations. Oil, for one. Oily eyes? If it is the greenness we're meant to infer, it's not a very pleasant green, is it? It's khaki green, putty green, babyshit green. And Sophie's meant to be attractive.

Also, to most readers, green olives are seldom seen without a little strip of red pimento inside. The image I can't get out of my head is that Sophie has green eyeballs, with protruberant red irises, a high-definition variant on Silas's pink globes. It's as if someone's told Brown about the art of elegant variation (try to avoid unnecessary reptetition of specific words and phrases - although he slips in the ugly "jacket's left pocket" twice in eight lines), so he's gone to a thesaurus, found "olive" as a synonym for "green" and bunged it in without thinking of how the reader might interpret it. That's not just bad writing, it's a more heinous crime - it's lazy writing.

The obvious retort to that is that I'm being too analytical, too academic, too literary. But all I'm doing is thinking about the words. I'm not searching for hidden meanings or neat parallels. I'm not invoking Marx or Freud, Leavis or Derrida. I'm just thinking about one word, and what it means, and why the writer might have chosen it. That's not analysis, that's just the normal process of reading, or should be. Anything else is lazy reading, although Brown seems to have set a precedent for that.

Maybe this is what beach reading really means. You just lie there, and let it wash over you.

* Of course, good writing can be as simple, direct and accessible as you like. A few years ago, I went for an interview for a job teaching literature at an English-speaking school in Bangkok. I was asked what I'd do with a disaffected 14-year-old who decided he didn't like books. I suggested showing him some Hemingway short stories. "Ah, but Hemingway's not on the curriculum," replied the interviewer. Fortunately, I didn't get the job.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chapter 11

Apologies for the recent fits of self-pity, and the gap in transmission. I'm surprised how difficult this is: if I can write about Milton and Beckett and Swift (which I did half a lifetime ago, plausibly enough to get a half-decent degree), why can't I cope with the rather less challenging prose of Mr Brown? I suppose when you're looking at Literature (with a big L) you know (or at least assume) that there's going to be something significant at the end of the rainbow. When you're dealing with this sort of thing, there are no such guarantees. Is it worth it?

OK, Chapter 11. By now, it's pretty clear that the enigmatic doodles scrawled by the renowned curator are going to be pretty significant. Or are they? Sophie Neveu's first contribution the the debate seems to be that the first of them is some sort of abstruse mathematical joke, "like taking the words of a famous poem and shuffling them at random to see if anyone recognizes what all the words have in common" (something I'm sure all of us do on a regular basis).

So, according to Sophie, it's the way one cryptographer signals to another that what he's written should not be taken too seriously: the equivalent of putting everything between quotation marks. It's also a bit like one of those disclaimers that promises that all the characters are invented; the mirror image of Brown's own promise that everything in his book is true.

Just as Silas's back story is being fleshed out, so is that of Bezu Fache, although a running grudge with the US Embassy is less of an excuse than being holed up in an Andorran prison for 12 years. And we start to suspect that Le Taureau may not be as smart as he makes out. Falling for the I-need-to-go-wee-wee routine, indeed.

One thing in Brown's favour: as appropriate to a novel about the sacred feminine, the lead female seems at the moment to be the only person who isn't a) borderline retarded or b) barmy.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chapter 10

There, I almost said something nice about the way Brown plays with the notion of codes in the previous chapter, setting up Sophie as both codebreaker and codemaker. But then he has to go and overreach himself.

"Silas fought that familiar undertow..." If you're going to introduce a flashback, there are more elegant ways to do it than the prose equivalent of a harp glissando and making the screen go all wavy. However, when we get there, he does a neat job in fleshing out Silas's back story, making him less of a monster (Dr Frankenstein, we presume?) as well as slipping in a neat Biblical analogy. He beats up women and sailors, but deep down he just needs love. Aringarosa's concern for Silas is nicely ambiguous: he clearly cares, but is he just setting up the albino for a different kind of abuse?

Incidentally, does anyone know if the correct mode of address for a Catholic bishop is "Bishop", rather than "Your Grace" or the like? And if the Catholic Church feels entitled to get huffy about TDVC, Andorra should be able to declare war on the United States. "Barren and forsaken suzerainty..." I've been there. It's quite nice.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Chapter 9

I've just noticed that the copy of TDVC from which I've been working is missing pages 311 to 324. I don't know who the original owner was (several people have come to stay and left their copies behind) but I can only guess at the use to which the dead leaves were put.

Anyway, in Chapter 9, we finally get to meet the female lead, who strides into the Louvre, "a haunting certainty to her gait", whatever that might mean. To be fair, Brown pulls a neat stunt here. Sophie Neveu arrives to solve the code, but brings with her a new, enigmatic puzzle, one that leaves Langdon just as befuddled as he was by the dead curator. And Brown wasn't to know that the warning she offers to Langdon - "Follow my directions very closely." - sounds, to British ears at least, dangerously similar to the repeated messages in 'Allo, 'Allo. Gorden Kaye as Langdon, maybe?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chapter 8

It must have been quite an adventure to have read The Da Vinci Code as soon as it came out. By the time I encountered it, everyone was talking about the word puzzles that Brown had dotted all over the place. The reader could only embark on this journey with preconceptions, just as people watching Citizen Kane or Psycho for the first time will inevitably begin with sledges or dead mothers in their heads.

At Cultural Snow, I recently mentioned the way that some names and phrases just look like anagrams, even if you don't know what they mean. As soon as Brown shows us the daublings on the floor, out come the pencil and paper. Actually, no it doesn't; anyone who's played Scrabble, or attempted a crossword that doesn't have the word "QUICK" appended to it, should have twigged this one. What's the book called? What's his most famous painting? Sorted.

"Langdon knew Saunière spoke impeccable English, and yet the reason he had chosen English as the language in which to write his final words escaped Langdon." Uh... because Brown's readers wouldn't be able to cope with an anagram in French? Incidentally, has anyone read any translations of TDVC? How do they cope with the linguistic juggling? Does the joke about the Papal Bull work in French, for example?

As Mangonel rightly pointed out, it's here, not in Chapter 6, that Brown starts pushing us towards seeing Fache as the villain. Between his desire to entrap our hero ("cajoler" - good word), and his blinkered devotion to the Church (cf the homicidal antics of the Opus Dei fanatics - does the Taureau wear a cilice on his fetlock, we wonder), he's clearly being set up as the nemesis. Under normal circumstances, the technique is so blatant that the reader would see it as a case of misdirection on the part of the author. But in this universe, words such as "blatant", "obvious" and "duh" are no longer pejoratives.

Zadie Smith's latest ruminations on the art of fiction may be of interest. This is particularly appropriate:

"Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Chapter 7

My favourite fiction writer, for all his faults, is Evelyn Waugh. His greatest gift was for dialogue, and he was one of the first novelists to exploit the phenomenon of the telephone; with a page of speech, often without speech tags or even any explicit indication of who was talking, he could express the deepest weaknesses of his characters. (David Lodge discusses this technique in depth in his brilliant collection of essays The Art of Fiction, which should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in how novels work.)

Waugh, I think it's fair to say, would not have included the following sentence in one of his phone conversations: "I'm sorry, you say this visiting Opus Dei numerary cannot wait until morning?" It's like one of those heavy-handed Hollywood epics that include explanatory lines like "But Your Majesty, if you execute your cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, won't you be just as bad as your father, Henry VIII, when he beheaded your mother, Anne Boleyn?" And, before anyone says it, yes, I know Shakespeare sometimes does the same thing, and it's horrible when he does it as well.

That aside, I'm quite impressed by the illusion of breathless pace that Brown creates. It's partly the short chapters, partly the hopping between locations. When you stop and consider, he's given over three pages to an old lady getting out of bed, although he did pack it out with a little detour into the murky world of Vatican politics.

Was he being paid by the word, I wonder?

I'm taking a bit more time off for good behaviour. Back Thursday, if I'm not kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge. In the meantime, RIP Robert Anton Wilson. There was someone who knew the secret of apeshit conspiracy theories: make them really, really silly. I think Brown's sort of nudging in that direction, but he doesn't seem to be aware of it. Wilson could sneeze out 23 fresh conspiracies a day, and never lose his knowing wink.

And that sort of leads to today's homework. The various obits of RAW reminded me that the wonderful Ken Campbell (the best Dr Who we never had?) who adapted and staged the Illuminatus! trilogy in the 1970s, and I started to think that TDVC would have been considerably more entertaining if Langdon had been modelled on Campbell rather than any uneasy fusion of Indiana Jones, Brown himself and Sister Wendy Beckett. So that's your task - create your fantasy Da Vinci adaptation - stage, movie, opera, whatever - and give details of dream cast, director, writer, music, special effects and so on.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Chapter 6

Does Paris need to be recalibrated in terms that Iowans can comprehend? We've already had the Tuileries explained in the context of Central Park, and the DCPJ defined as "the rough equivalent of the US FBI". Now the corridor of the Louvre's Grand Gallery is said to be "the length of three Washington Monuments laid end to end". What next? Is Leonardo (sorry, Da Vinci) to be explained as the Italian Norman Rockwell? Incidentally, this made me laugh: "The exact length, if Langdon recalled correctly, was around fifteen hundred feet..." And this is approximately exactly slightly precisely almost badly written.

Flashback to Langdon's lost love, and for once the phrase "lifelong affinity for bachelorhood" doesn't mean that our hero is gay. And then we're into the supposedly "clever" bits, the pagans and the pentacles, the gobbets of trivia about the US military and the Olympic Games, not to mention curatorial uses for invisible ink. Maybe this deluge of info is supposed to blot out the glaringly obvious fact that the renowned curator has got himself into the pose of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, but those of us who grew up in the glory days of World In Action can spot it a mile off. But it's this illusion/delusion of cleverness that provides the book with its USP. I've tried to shut my eyes and wallow in it, honestly I have, but my intelligence can only take so much insulting.

The mundane process of plucking out bits of bad writing and exposing them to ridicule is rapidly becoming tiresome. It wearies me; you say it wearies you. I feel like an 18th-century fop, taking a stroll round an asylum and laughing at the drooling loonies. But this is particularly, um, Bedlamite: "As Langdon stared at the shimmering text, he felt the fog that had surrounded this entire night growing thicker."

Oh, and we discover that Bezu Fache is a two-faced bastard, but you knew that already.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ooh, thank God, I thought he was about to say 'Zeitgeist' in a non-ironic manner

Mangonel makes a sound point re yesterday's post, but it applies to the whole blog:

"But is DB noticeably worse than anyone else? I'm not in a position to say. Airport fiction is truly not a genre I've explored much. At all, actually. Maybe I'm being an intellectual fascist here, but I've been assuming he writes no worse than any other of his kidney. I was hoping to explore why his book is the runaway best seller, and not any of the other readily available crap."

Maybe this is an inherent flaw in this blog. Lots of people who wouldn't normally read airport fiction have read The Da Vinci Code simply because it's such a massive phenomenon, and they feel they ought to be able to discuss the phenomenon from a position of knowlege. Similarly, many people watched Dallas or Big Brother or bought the second Oasis album, even if they wouldn't normally watch populist TV, or listen to pop music, simply because they needed to be able to say something at dinner parties (even if that something was "it's not very good".)

The problem with this is that no art exists in a vacuum. Context is all. Or, if not all, then quite a lot. You can hold an opinion about the second Oasis album, but without a passing acquaintance with, say, the Stone Roses, the Smiths, the Jam, the Sex Pistols, Slade and the Beatles, your opinion could be considered a tad under-informed.

So, as Mangonel suggests, is it pretty much pointless to consider The Da Vinci Code unless one is at least vaguely familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum and the like? If so, this probably disqualifies me from carrying on. (I've never considered my tastes particularly highbrow, but I'm going away next week and I'm wondering whether to pack a Ballard or a DeLillo, or both. Where does that pitch me? Middle? Middle/high? I dunno.)

I'd hoped that by starting this blog, I'd come to some blinding revelation of what makes Dan Brown so successful. I've only just started (five chapters out of 105) but I'm already finding it much harder work than I was expecting. It's easy to flip through each chapter, pick out a couple of choice nuggets of "bad writing" (maybe I should have put that between a few more layers of quote marks), much more difficult to spot some kind of magic formula that marks DB out as the special one. And practically impossible to make a decision on the thing that was really occupying my mind at the beginning: do people like this book because of the bad writing; in spite of it; or is it an irrelevance?

So, should I stop the blog? Put it on hold, go off and read some different crap by different crap authors, and come back when I understand the genre? Or just plough on, like Robert Langdon himself, striving for meaning in a world of albino anagrams and spiky thighs, with Small Boo acting as my faithful Sophie? (She read three pages of TDVC before deciding that life's too short. "But you like Paul Auster," I said. "He writes mysteries. Sorta." She gave me one of her looks.)

Let me know what you think. Back with Chapter 6 tomorrow, unless critical consensus demands otherwise. And critical consensus is where this all started, really, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chapter 5

Whoooosh.... we're in New York. Or are we?

Chapter 5 opens with a description of the Opus Dei headquarters on Lexington Avenue. But once we've got the interrelated messages about the money ($47 million to you, guv) and the weirdness (separate entrances for men and women) out of the way, the reason for us being here, Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, has left the building. Then he's most of the way across the Atlantic, and he's talking to the mysterious Teacher back in Paris. So what the hell was the point of that?

The meat of the chapter is to give an overview of Opus Dei. We get the history, we get the accusations, we get the defence, the conspiracy theories, the kinky spy. Brown seems so keen to highlight the veracity of his claims, that he even gives us the web address for one of the anti-OD organisations. It's as if Scott Fitzgerald had entrusted us with Gatsby's phone number. But without the good writing, of course.

Incidentally, am I the only one who can spot a parallel between Brown's characterisation of Opus Dei, and the wackier manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism (gender separation, dark robes, homicide)? If anyone's interested, I'm spinning out a Bush/Osama comparison over at Comment is Free, but with reference to a different kind of potboiler.

Aringarosa himself comes across as a fairly sympathetic guy, until he takes a phone call, which tells us two things: 1) he has no concern for air safety regulations; and 2) a mass murderer has him on speed dial.

Oh, and Dan - the plural of millennium is millennia. Not millennium. Although, as Mangonel suggests in yesterday's comments, there's a limit to how many times we can flag up Brown's stylistic infelicities. Fair point: but part of the rationale for this blog was to decide how important style is to the airport fiction genre. I can well understand that DB's readers don't care about style, and might even be put off by 'good' writing. But does that mean that they have to be served bad writing per se? Surely Brown's publishers have the editorial resources to turn his prose into something neutral, that doesn't scare off the mainstream, but at the same time doesn't feel like a balloon rubbing on a cat to people with slightly more advanced tastes? Or is it not a case of people not caring about the style: do fans of this sort of thing actively seek out bad writing, even if they don't know that's what they're doing?

And if you're still feeling a tad guilty about reading this shite in public, there's a thoughtful article on literary guilty pleasures from The Independent.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Chapter 4

If you really want a paragraph that epitomises bad writing, here it is.

"Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest." Well, the ox thing we've already gathered (his underlings call him "le Taureau", remember), but you can sort of work out where he's going with this, although I don't think oxen have chins, and surely if you throw your wide shoulders too far back, they start going narrow again. But then things start getting really silly. "His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship." Apart from the messy double simile (is it like an arrow or like a prow?), Brown seems to have forgotten the previous sentence as soon as he's written it. Fache's chin's tucked in, remember? And if his widow's peak is prominent enough to divide his brow, surely that would mean it would point downwards, wouldn't it?

And then: "As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters." Well, for a start, he's not walking on earth; he's walking on marble. It's as if Brown has a sort of instinctive hunch that "scorch" and "earth" kinda go together. His eyes aren't just dark, by the way, they're ebony; it said so in the last paragraph of the previous chapter. Which means they can do a lot of things, but radiating isn't one of them. Also, how can you forecast a reputation? A reputation is something that relates to the past; a forecast is about the future.

Yeah, yeah, I'm being over-literal, as well as over-literary. But similes and metaphors need care. They need to be precise, focused, consistent. Brown's are none of these things. They're vague, flabby first attempts, that should at least have been queried by a halfway alert editor. At best, they add nothing. At worst, they're ludicrous.

Brown is keen to highlight Fache's ostentatious piety, as expressed by his crucifix tie clip. This neatly splices the forces of law and authority with those of orthodox Catholicism, setting up the potential for the captain to be identified by the over-eager reader as a (or the) villain of the piece. But then we get this: "Then again, this was France; Christianity was not a religion here so much as a birthright." What exactly does this mean? Yes, lots of French people are Catholic. But the Republic is avowedly, constitutionally secular, and this situation has been maintained rather more successfully than, say the separation of Church and State in the USA.

Brown does seem to be trying a bit of subtle foreshadowing here: the security grille is compared to "something used by medieval castles", and later to a guillotine. We're dealing with something deeper, weirder, older than the straightforward murder of a renowned curator. The reference to the 666 panes in the Louvre pyramid is part of the effect. Once again, you're being encouraged to read more; the future looks good, but this only works if you don't pause to think how ludicrous the present is. In fact, progress through the book is rather similar to the "Louvre lite" at which Langdon sneers: pace is all, to the exclusion of style, content, sense.

Oh, and would Langdon really describe the contents of the Grand Gallery as "large-format oils"?

Saturday, January 06, 2007


One of our more assiduous students has requested a break, and who am I to deny that?

In the meantime, perhaps you can turn your minds to the JPod conundrum over at Cultural Snow; or, if you really can't get enough DVC, try to track down a copy of the 1966 movie How To Steal A Million and wonder how much better the movie might have been with a cast like that.

Back Monday, maybe Tuesday. And the bell is a signal for me, not for you.

Chapter 3

"My French stinks," thinks Langdon, which I find somewhat hard to believe about someone with such a profound knowledge of Western art. This unlikely state of affairs does, however, allow the dialogue to proceed in English, although the chances of finding a French policemen who converses in a foreign tongue without at least one cutting remark about monoglot Anglos seem pretty slim. Still, at least we get an amusing linguistic misunderstanding/knob gag from the situation. Clouseau lives, it seems.

We get an American-in-Paris guide to the city, with special attention paid to the museums, although one suspects that the crack about "Louvre Lite" might be a case of Brown biting the hand that feeds him. To be fair, the author isn't too heavy-handed with the didacticism here, although he makes some peculiar assumptions about what his readers will or won't know: Mitterand and I.M. Pei require job descriptions; Goethe and Art Buchwald, it seems, have sufficient name recognition without.

Since the whole situation's been set up to enable Brown to conduct his action and dialogue in English, it seems a pity that he has only a passing grasp of the language. In precisely what manner is the Louvre "monolithic", especially when Brown then explains that it's shaped like a horseshoe? But he excels himself with the sentence about Monet, announcing that the artist-for-people-who-prefer-teatowels-to-art "literally inspired the birth of the Impressionist movement". Apart from the dodgy art history (Monet indirectly gave the movement its name, when one of his paintings was namechecked by Leroy, but surely Turner and Manet inspired it as much as anyone), that "literally" really does mark Brown out as an illiterate bumpkin. What did Monet do? Breathe in the concentrated essence of Degas and Renoir?

And then we meet Bezu Fache. Your homework for this evening is to come up with a decent anagram of that, in a language of your choice.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chapter 2

In the Prologue, Brown breaks the "show don't tell" rule when he names the curator. The assassin, however, retains a sense of mystery...

...until now. He's called Silas. There you are. No subtlety, no chance for the reader to infer anything; Brown just leaps in and tells you. Ba-boom. On his thigh, the monk wears a spiked cilice belt, a fact that we're told a couple of times, as we discover what the "pain is good" mantra really means. "His skin tingled with anticipation." Very Rocky Horror. Mortification. Kinda kinky, in fact the closest thing we'll get to a sex scene, I reckon. Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, gets a namecheck, but the prelature itself doesn't. Are we supposed to recognise his name?

A few oddities that might have been picked up in editorial: Silas's residence is described as "luxurious", while his room is "spartan". I can understand why the clef de voûte is italicised (it's a foreign phrase), but why the keystone? The Teacher pauses "as if for prayer". Was it for prayer, or wasn't it? The knots on Silas's whip are said to "slap", then to "slash". Aren't those verbs precise opposites? (Think the flat of a hand, then a karate chop.)

But is this editorial noodling missing the point, like the apocryphal reviewer who wrote about Lady Chatterley's Lover as if it were a treatise on pig farming? In Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, which was broadcast on Radio 4 last weekend, a professional dramatist dismisses a play written by an untutored Scottish arsonist and political acitivist. There's a sense that the two men are operating from such wildly differing perspectives that they'll never even agree to disagree. As another character says: "To you, he can't write; to him, write is all you can do."

Maybe this is the mistake I'm making here. Does consciously 'good' writing get in the way of plot and excitement? Should I just wallow in the weird and wonderful world that Brown constructs for his unlikely characters? Into a single chapter, he crams theology, intrigue and masochism, enough meat for half a novel by anyone else.

It's a reverse whodunnit. We've got the culprit, now we need to work backwards to get the motivation, bad writing or not. Only 103 chapters to go...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Chapter 1

Oh well, at least Robert Langdon isn't "renowned".

It's an old, but effective trick that Brown uses to introduce his hero: he's jolted awake, and we are able to piece together his reality at the same pace that he does. We don't need to be told that he's a symbologist; we are shown it. OK, the process of showing is a bit heavy-handed: the flyer with his name on is a bit like a spiralling newspaper headline coming into view to push along the plot of a film. But it works well enough. As does the hotel bathrobe with his location monogrammed on. (Although, strictly speaking, doesn't a monogram usually consist of initials, rather than full words?)

Brown hasn't quite got the hang of this point-of-view business: "Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed." Hold it right there. If Langdon's asleep, presumably he's in bed. And if he's in bed, to what extent can he really see the bed? Sure, he'll note the mahogany posts and so on, but he can't really take the whole thing in, can he? It's Brown who can see the bed. Not for the last time, the author identifies with Langdon, and takes it too far.

To be fair, Brown has to play the introduction of Langdon carefully. After all, this is his second outing, having been presented to the world in Angels and Demons, a tale of Vatican shenanigans, secret societies and horrid deaths.* So, rather than offering a dull, authorial-voice recap, we have a flashback to the intro he received at the lecture the previous night, which neatly fills in his professional qualifications, as well as the human stuff (eg, women fancy him, but in a Harrison Ford way rather than a Leonardo DiCaprio way, which seems to suggest that the casting of Tom Hanks in the movie was a case of close-but-no-cigar). Again, this is handled efficiently enough, and means that any sexual frisson to come will be believable. He's Simon Schama, not David Starkey.

Although, come to think of it, Starkey would surely make for a far more entertaining (albeit brief) read. For a start, upon discovering that the "important man" whose presence stirs Langdon from his sleep is a mere police lieutenant, Starkey would have told the man to piss off. But plot is paramount here, not character, and the hero needs to take the bait in order to get things rolling along nicely. He's provoked first by revulsion and anger ("...his entire body went rigid..." Well, I hope the Ritz dressing gown disguised that.) and then, one presumes, by professional curiosity. He's hooked, and so are we. Job done.

*Don't worry, I haven't read it. The Corgi edition of DVC includes the first couple of chapters of A&D as a taster, although the similarities (sadistic murder of a wonk; Langdon awoken with the news; shadowy conspiracies) might suggest that if you've read one, there's very little point in reading the other. As Brown himself suggests when Langdon receives the picture of the renowned curator, there is " unsettling sense of déjà vu... something about the scenario felt disquietingly familiar". The Status Quo of pulp fiction? Discuss.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Over at this blog's mothership, Cultural Snow, I've discussed a persistent problem that writers face, in a post-canonical universe: how high or low should they pitch their work? Take too much for granted, and readers will feel out of their depth; go in the opposite direction, and they'll feel as if you're insulting their intelligence. Essentially, everyone has their own safety zone, where they feel that they understand what's going on, but they're not being spoon-fed. And, even before the action gets going, The Da Vinci Code falls below my bottom line.

"Louvre Museum, Paris". As distinct from the Louvre in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, you mean? This is the "brain-teasing adventure" that we've been promised, is it? The "blockbuster with brains", as heralded by the Ottawa Citizen? Still, at least he didn't put "Paris, France".

Anyway, we're here now, after 16 pages of background and backslapping. And, like Steve Harmison, Dan Brown screws up with his very first delivery.

"Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery."

There's a pretty good rule of thumb for writers of fiction: where possible, don't tell us, show us. Unless you want to be an omnipresent narrator, hovering over the action like a metafictional Santa, dividing the characters into naughty and nice, just show us what happens, and leave us to infer the value judgements for ourselves. But, no, if we can't be expected to know that the Louvre is in Paris, how can we be trusted to work out that a character is renowned? Or, indeed, a curator? Incidentally, at least two more of Brown's novels introduce a character with the job-name formula, although physicist Leonardo Vetra (Angels and Demons) and geologist Charles Brophy (Deception Point) have to manage without renown. They are, however, murdered in creative and unpleasant manners. Not that Brown is formulaic in any way?

It gets worse. Dear God, does nobody edit anything any more? "A thundering iron gate..." How does a gate thunder, precisely? "A voice spoke..." Voices don't speak, people do. "The mountainous silhouette of his attacker... with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils." If he's a silhouette, you wouldn't be able to see what colour his skin or hair or eyes are, surely? This is dark and stormy night stuff, clunky and inept. And we're still on the first page.

Stylistic and logical quibbles aside, it's a good, arresting start. An old man being pursued through the Louvre by a gun-toting albino monk. Different, to say the least. And we're not handed everything on a plate. What's the lie that Saunière recites? More importantly, what's thr truth it conceals? Who are the sénéchaux that protect it? There's enough to be getting on with, at least until Chapter 1.

But the imbecility of the writing just lumbers on. "The gun roared..." Do pistols really roar? Cannons roar, but pistols? "...his thoughts a swirling tempest of fear and regret." Jesus. "The curator's eyes flew open." Flew? "...smirking calmly..." Is that physically possible? "A collection of the world's most famous paintings seemed to smile down on him like old friends." What the hell does that mean? And, if the poor, stupid reader isn't expected to know where the Louvre is, how is s/he supposed to know what la Guerre d'Algérie might be about? I do like "Pain is good, monsieur", though. Like an albino Gordon Gekko. Intriguing.

Already, a pattern seems to be emerging. Brown has some unusual, interesting ideas. He has the notion of a good story developing. However, he has the writing skills of an enthusiastic twelve-year-old who's read a couple of Harry Potters and thought, "I can do that."

Anyway, let's leave the renowned curator drowning in his own stomach acid with only Caravaggio and that pesky secret to console him. Our hero awaits.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


There's a very interesting point that Spinsterella raised in the Comments box a few days ago. "Fact:" declares Mr Brown. "The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization."

Except, of course, that it isn't. The Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by an intriguing, albeit slightly tragic character called Pierre Plantard who, among other things, claimed to be the rightful heir to the French throne. Plantard eventually admitted the hoax, but not before the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail had used his creation as the basis for their pseudohistorical blockbuster; decades later, of course, they would meet Dan Brown in court, earnestly debating the intellectual ownership of something that had, by that time, become entirely discredited. The whole tussle surely recalled Borges' analysis of the Falklands War: "a fight between two bald men over a comb."

So has Brown shown himself to be an abject klutz even before the story starts? Maybe, maybe not. The Da Vinci Code is, after all, a work of fiction. The 'Fact' heading comes in after the title page (page 13 in my paperback edition) and, as such, the reader has entered into an unspoken covenant. The reality: the fulsome plugs from hacks and fellow scribes; the ISBN and other banausic details of the publishing process; the dutiful acknowledgments; all these appear before. Once you're past the start line, you are no longer in the world of fact. Brown can get away with anything. He doesn't need to be accurate - only plausible.

And if the Priory of Sion is, despite Brown's apparently earnest seal of approval, a load of old bollocks, what about the other stuff? Well, Opus Dei is real enough, although whether it's as sinister as Brown makes out is a matter for you and your deity of choice. And the final paragraph: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Well, they may well be. But, again, this is fiction. Brown isn't bound by the normal rules of historians or scientists. As the heckler said to Brian: "He's making it up as he goes along!"

Two predecessors come to mind. One is the Orson Welles movie F For Fake, in which the Big Guy tells the audience that everything he will say in the next hour will be entirely true; the joke is that we don't register when the hour is up. The other is Pale Fire, in which Nabokov creates so many layers of authorship and 'reality' that we end up losing track of what's real, what's meant to be 'real' in this fictional universe, and what's the raving of a lunatic (who is, in any case, fictional, so it may not matter anyway).

So, already a defence is beginning to form that might wrongfoot Brown's detractors. He's not wrong; he's not lying; he's not misguided; he's not trying to pull a fast one. Instead, he's deploying that all-purpose get-out clause for countless aesthetic sins: he's just being a wee bit postmodernist. Any nitpicking about the layout of the Louvre or the history of the Knights Templar, and the author is entitled to smile gnomically and refer the honourable member to the reply that Derrida made earlier.

This isn't just an obscure byway of rarefied philosophy, either. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, has shown himself to be adept as juggling notions of reality with Nabokovian elegance. As he declared a few years back:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

What few people know, or indeed know that they know, or don't know, is that the words of Rumsfeld are a direct quotation from an inscription to be found on the table in Leonardo's Last Supper. Look just below St Thomas's right hand. It's there. Or it was, until those pesky agents of Opus Dei deleted it...

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Title

Few books manage to annoy me before I've even opened them, but The Da Vinci Code does it. "Da Vinci" means "from Vinci", the Tuscan town in which he was born. It wasn't his surname. He wasn't the offspring of Mr and Mrs da Vinci. He was known to his contemporaries as Leonardo, just as Michelangelo and Rembrandt were (and are) known by their first names.

I've been here before. A few years ago, I was helping to write an encyclopaedia for children. I was assigned the entry on Leonardo, which was in the 'D' section. I suggested that this was a bit like putting William the Conqueror under 'T'. The editor was very apologetic, and said that she knew how daft the situation was, but that the majority of kids would look under 'D' first, so we may as well go with the tide.

So, as a title, The Da Vinci Code screams either "I have no idea what I'm talking about!" or "I have a pretty low opinion of the intellect of my potential readers" and I'm not sure which is worse. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be an issue. This is a thriller, after all, a beach read, a bit of literary fluff. A McBook. You're not expected to cross-refer every paragraph to Vasari's Lives of the Artists, are you?

Except that The Da Vinci Code isn't being touted as just another thriller. A flick through the review quotes that bespatter the paperback edition supports this: "An exhilaratingly brainy thriller... pure genius... exceedingly clever... smart thrills... brain-teasing... extremely smart... several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation... brain candy... ingenious... intellectually satisfying... a delightful display of erudition... brainy stuff... intellectual depth... manages to both entertain and educate... intelligent and lucid... a blockbuster with brains... challenges our intelligence..." And check out the acknowledgments. The Louvre, Westminster Abbey, the Bibliothèque National... this guy's put in the hours.

This is not schlock fiction, then. This is the clever end of genre fiction, up there with the likes of John Le Carre and maybe even Graham Greene. No need to pretend to be reading Proust by the pool. This is respectable. You can nod sagely as you read it, maybe even make pencil notes in the margin.

Well, that's the idea, at least. Somebody once said that the difference between Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard is that Pinter makes you feel more stupid than you are, and Stoppard makes you feel more clever. The Stoppard effect seems to be more attractive, but there's always the risk that you'll experience a crashing moment of self-awareness, perhaps months after you thought you'd finally got to grips with Hamlet or Dada or Communism or Pink Floyd.

Is this what Brown is doing? Dazzling his readers with his quasi-intellectual concoctions, making them feel as if they understand this weird nexus of art and religion? Certainly, the success of the book has provoked a new boost to the European tourist industry, as people traipse around the Louvre and the Rosslyn Chapel, suddenly becoming symbologists, codebreakers, conspiracy theorists, sleuths. But put them in a room with a real art historian, and what happens? One casual reference to this guy "Da Vinci" and all their delusions are dashed. It's like a Bateman cartoon: "The Man Who Read The Da Vinci Code A Couple Of Times And Pontificated On The More Obscure Byways Of Catholic Theology As If He Had A Vague Idea That He Knew What He Was Talking About".

There may be an explanation in the acknowledgments, though. Brown's wife is identified as an art historian. Could the whole thing be an attempt to identify and stigmatise bumbling amateurs, and keep the upper reaches of the discipline free for people who hear the word "Leonardo" and don't immediately think of the baby-faced actor or the sword-wielding turtle? Could Brown's peculiar choice of title be a conspiracy in itself, an attempt to maintain ideological purity and political supremacy in a world just as internecine and duplicitous as the Roman Catholic Church? Was Ian McKellen's performance really a half-arsed impersonation of the mighty Brian Sewell?

Damn. He's got me started. You see, this is what I mean about Brown's effectiveness as a writer. You can treat his prose with withering scorn but something in there provokes a reaction, a suspicion, a sense of unease. It's the gut feeling that there must be something beneath that clunky, preposterous surface.

And proving or disproving the existence of that something is what this blog's about. Not cracking the code, but cracking The Code. A mystery that, in its own way, is as profound as anything cooked up by the Priory of Sion. But more on them tomorrow.