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amner 11th Mar 2005 17:10

Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

There is a point in The Da Vinci Code, just after the half way mark, where the reader is so far ahead of the game and has worked out one of the final revelations that the author, Dan Brown, is forced to put in a don't-you-even-think-that diversion to draw attention away from the predictable plot 'twist'. We have already worked out that 'gifted French cryptologist' Sophie Neveu is related to Jesus, you see. Yes, you read that right. Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been boyfriend/girlfriend and had lots of little babies who became the original French Royal family and founded Paris...and, oh let me start at the beginning.

What we have here is a pretty standard (make that sub-standard) airport departure lounge housebrick-size thriller for people not bored enough to watch an in-flight movie they'd avoid if they were on the ground. At least, that's what it should have been. Due to a plop of good fortune, a dollop of smart advertising and a whopping great fat splat of deception, what you actually get is a worldwide bestseller that's just about to hit the 20,000,000 units sold mark.

The plot goes like this: the Chief Curator of the Louvre, Jacques Saunière, is murdered in the museum's main gallery. He's starkers and his corpse is positioned within a circle just like that of the famous drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci; known to art experts as the Man of Vitruvius, and to the rest of us - well, those of a certain age - as the icon from ITV's World in Action:
Anyway, next to him there's some coded lines and a sequence of numbers (the Fibonacci sequence, in fact, just slightly mixed up). Informed of the murder while on a lecture visit to Paris, the 'renowned symbologist', Robert Langdon from Harvard, is asked to attend the scene of the crime by France's big-time top policeman, the unlikely-named Bezu Fache. Langdon swiftly becomes No. 1 suspect and is forced to flee (with the 'gifted' Sophie, already mentioned, granddaughter of the victim). Pursued not only by the enigmatic and moody (please God, is there any other kind) policeman and a murderous albino monk, the couple are forced to solve any number of puzzles to uncover the truth. The truth, it seems is the wherabouts of the Holy Grail, not - as Dan tells us rather pompously - the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, but rather the whole package of Christ's descendants and the documents proving this. The Church, it seems doesn't want this uncovered because it would deny blah blah blah, something or other. Really, it's just too much.

Oh yeah, and I did say 'murderous albino monk'. I did. He comes back later.

This is a crazy package of material that needs to be either sent up mercilessly (the French cops do say 'allo, so it's possible); treated with pyrotechnic overblown literary abandon; or just plain ditched as a daft idea. But no. Dan Brown's style is woefully inadequate and it's as tiresome as barely reheated old leftovers (which is what it is, essentially). There are simply too many problems with the text, not least his determination to bombard you with italics every other sentence. It's infuriating. Well, it would be if it weren't also bloody funny. I especially liked the moment where one double-crosser finally gets his comeuppance and is poisoned:


The swelling in Rémy's throat came on like an earthquake, and he lurched against the steering column, grabbing his throat and tasting vomit in his narrowing trachea. He let out a muted croak of a scream, not even loud enough to be heard outside the car. The saltiness in the cognac now registered.

I'm being murdered!

There are many, many instances like this. Brown's inability with dialogue, internal or external, is highlighted almost constantly. This, for instance (OK, bear in mind that we're on the run from the police, with the gifted Sophie - having an hour before seen her own grandfather lying cruelly slain [not to mention naked] before her, don't forget - and Langdon speeding through the Paris night):


Sophie looked uneasy.

'For a thousand years,' Langdon continued, 'legends of this secret have been passed on. The entire collection of documents, its power, and the secret it reveals have become known by a single name - Sangreal. Hundreds of books have been written about it, and few mysteries have caused as much interest among historians as the Sangreal.'

'The Sangreal? Does the word have anything to do with the French word sang or Spanish sangre - meaning 'blood'?'
Oh, give me a break. Unfortunately, breaks are a big problem, too. Apparently, this is 'breathless' and 'heart-racing' according to the inside blurbs. We're on a roller-coaster blockbuster ride. Hmmm. 576 pages broken into 106 chapters will create a bit of impetus, I guess. Split anything into 1500 word chunks and you'll work your way through it speedily enough. If you're not looking for much, that is. Frankly, I found it turgid and indigestible. Brown's grandest literary conceit would be to tell us stuff we simply didn''t realise we didn't know. To illustrate, taken at random:


Langdon often wondered how many modern card players had any clue...


Langdon looked as if he wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but he refrained. 'You've heard her story before, Sophie. Everyone has. We just don't realize it when we hear it.'


Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he first told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex.
There are dozens of these. Dozens. Mr Brown has clearly Read A Book. And he means to let us know all about it, whether we find it tiresome or not. There's also a slew of google-ified place descriptions (Westminster Abbey, St James's Park, etc) plucked from tourist websites, with a blob of embellishment. Why bother setting a scene when you can get all that tedious wordy shit from the web. King's College London? No problem, just paste in some perfunctory munge off the 'net, no-one will notice, it's action people want, not atmosphere. And...oh there's loads of this, the damn thing is just a mess. Back to the gifted Sophie and her predicament. You'll remember that she might be related to Jesus. Well, after Brown conveniently sidesteps the oh-no-she-isn't moment he was forced into earlier, he does a speedy 180° and we go back to what we knew all along. Poor love, it's not every day you find out you genuinely are one of Christ's flock, but she takes it pretty well. Despite, that is, now being a marked woman by that pesky-black-hat-wearing Catholic Church. And a psychotic albino monk.

Albino monk...pah! What sort of lazy character shorthand is that exactly? In Brown's mind albino equals monster, simple as. No need for reams of character motivation and picture building when you can chuck in the albino tag, and away you go. The guy's a freak, therefore he's a baddie! Everybody else is defined by stereotype too (oh lawdy, you just have to read the English upper-class guy to believe him!).

The bottom line is this: if Dan Brown had not included the appalling lie in the frontispiece of his book we'd have never heard of him before. But no: we have to endure this kind of tedious self-justification:


The Facts:

The secret society of the Priory of Sion was founded in 1099 after the First Crusade. In 1975 parchments were discovered at the Bibliothèque Nationale under the name of ‘Dossiers secrets’, in which appear the names of certain members of the Priory, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo Da Vinci...
'The Facts' my arse! It's all cobblers, of course, but cobblers from which Brown extrapolates a whole series of crackpot connections, most of them - ahem - 'assimilated' from the debunked 1980s conspiracy blockbuster The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. It's from this book, and a variety of known forged documents that Brown has woven his story and placed the gifted Sophie at the end of the novel on a pedestal as a member of Jesus's family. The scattergun approach to history, mixing in everybody from the Cathar heretics, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Vatican, the Freemasons, Nazis, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Order of the Golden Dawn (conspiracy theory a-go-go with that bunch, eh?!), grates very quickly and you realise not too long in that the guy is just chucking shit at a wall to see what sticks.

A bit like his prose style.

Oh, and it's soon to be a movie directed by the ginger kid from Happy Days. Can't wait.

Maggie 11th Mar 2005 17:20

Ah-h-h-h-h One of the few reviews on this title that I agree with.

Maggie :roll:

John Self 11th Mar 2005 17:22

A fine assessment, amner. Thank God I don't have to read it now.

Do you think the reason for its popularity is its attainability, people thinking, "Hey, I could do better than this!", a sort of literary version of voting George Bush in?

amner 11th Mar 2005 17:36

Unfortunately, no. The fans of this sort of crap soon come out of the woodwork and attack the critics as being 'book snobs'. The fact is, there's a huge market for this sort of bullshit, people love a conspiracy theory and they don't care how well it's written as long as they can make the connections and feel clever.

It's a book for people who don't really like reading.

John Self 11th Mar 2005 17:46

I noticed on scanning some of the recent reviews on Amazon that a typical defence of the book by a five-starrer is "It's fiction guys! Like, get a life!! Don't take it so seriously!" - as though the only objectionable things are the fake claims to veracity, as though a book is only about the information it imparts; they just don't see the bad writing soaked right through the thing.

One one-starrer summed it up thus:


As a thriller it is third rate. As a piece of imaginative literature it doesn't even register on the scale. As a historical document it appears to be riddled with errors and trivialities, but frankly I don't care. Who would seriously turn to a cheap work of fiction for commentary on the Holy Grail? No, the only interesting question is, "What book have the rave reviewers been reading?" Certainly not the one I read.
And still they come!

chillicheese 11th Mar 2005 18:00

Large type, wide margins, small book format, makes lots of pages to be turned.
result : satisfaction in accomplishment for those who can't make it all the way through the 'Mail on Sunday'

Lauding him as a "literary genius" is going a bit far since he only wrote 3 good words and they're on the front cover and one of those is the definite article, one is a proper noun and one is 4 letters and monosyllabic. But what a title, it's got it all.
The - short and snappy and not too challenging, most readers will understand
DaVinci - possibly the most famous cultural icon in human history
Code - ooo, sounds intriguing, can I crack it ?

I really wouldn't care if I didn't have to listen to people telling me how great it and he is when they ain't.

HP 11th Mar 2005 19:03

Amner - now that was what I call a review! :P

John Self 11th Mar 2005 20:08

Wise words, chilli. If people who read it were imbibing from all sides of the great fountain of literature, it would be a different matter, but many of them are not: all the evidence for that is in the sales, 2 million in this country and rising at about 50,000 copies a week. Who the hell is there left who hasn't read it?? We also know they don't read good books because you couldn't sit through The Da Vinci Code painlessly if you did know what good writing was.

It also gives the lie to the nice-but-dim notion that anything that gets people reading is a good thing, that it's better to read anything than to read nothing. In my best Alexei Sayle voice of strident contradiction: No it's not!! To paraphrase Martin Amis, it's more creatively and literaturely (ahum) rewarding to sit in the pub all day with a dog on your lap than to read The Da Vinci Code.

Jerkass 11th Mar 2005 21:21

By the way, I know a highly distinguished and internationally respected scholar of Medieval Literature who suggests that the thing now called 'the Holy Grail' was the ladder used by the person who took Jesus down from the cross.

No, I don't remember the line of reasoning, but I'm almost certain there was some exceptionally complex research into the etymology (I think that's the word I'm looking for) of the word 'Sangreal,' or one of its other early appearances, involved.

amner 12th Mar 2005 0:27

You know something, it's probably as good a theory as any, Jerkass. My beef isn't really with the facts (if that's what you can call them) as paraded in the book - on one level I don't care - but if we're going to talk about facts then let's get things right, you know? And that doesn't include attaching a theory, and riffing on it endlessly, that has been proved in recent years to be totally false. The Priory of Sion (the guardians of the Grail, so-called) don't go back to the Eleventh Century, but to October 1956...when a mischievous French crook and part-time surrealist called Plantard created the concept - and the documents to go with it - to try and gain some credence for himself as a Merovingian King. It's all bullshit, of course, and in fact he recanted it later in life when he (if I remember the story correctly) chickened out of saying he was related to Christ.

Brown seems unaware of this and just ploughs on blithely following the trail of nonsense. If he hadn't put that The Facts bit at the front, we'd all be none the wiser about the bloke.

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