Friday, April 28, 2006

The Da Vinci Code is to great literature what Indiana Jones is to great cinema. The book is a relentless plot machine – with only one real pause right up until the final 15 pages – utterly unconcerned with any details that fall outside of its pursuit of the next clue.

In case you have not noticed, we are about to be deluged with hype – the ads have already started – for Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster. With a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautoo, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina & Jean Reno, a script by Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man, I, Robot, A Beautiful Mind), & locations that include the Louvre & Westminster Abbey, Sony Pictures is really hoping that it has its ducks all in a row, ready for a monster hit to trigger the summer film season a little early this year, coming to every damn screen at your local multiplex on May 19th.

So I thought I ought to take the vaccine as early as I could & read the book, not the sort of fare I would normally pick up.

The Da Vinci Code is to great literature what Chinese take-out is to great cuisine. Easy but involving & it’ll leave you hungry again in a few hours. And beware the MSG.

I enjoyed the book, though frankly much of it is so clunky that it’s likeable just for how cobbled together the whole project is. To begin with, protagonist Robert Langdon is a Harvard symbologist. The best I can make out about this imaginary discipline is that it must be one part art history, one part religion, one part debased semiotics – somebody forgot to tell them that semiotics is debased linguistics as it is.

Then, save for Sophie and her grandfather (and, in a eensy bit of back story, the albino monk Silas) none of the characters has any family. It’s not that they’re single, it’s that they’re utterly devoid of context outside of the narrative machine. This is particularly odd in that much of the story’s meaning comes from Sophie’s quest to find the truth out about her family, but the whole idea is something that has been so devalued by the rest of the novel that it feels like an afterthought when it finally shows up in Scotland, a bit of wrap-up needed at the end to get the whole shebang under a shiny bow.

What’s true of the characters’ families is true of their personalities – only the eccentric millionaire historian/knight, Leigh Teabing, has any hint of one (and it’s so sketchy here that you know Ian McKellan has free reign to chew on all the scenic curtains in this role). You don’t need a personality if you have a puzzle to solve. As an author, Brown is an architect rather than a writer, so consumed with getting his clues all lined-up that he can commit a howler like the comment about the left-brain in the following:

Not even the feminine association with the left-hand side could escape the Church's defamation. In France and Italy, the words for "left"—gauche and sinistra—came to have deeply negative overtones, while their right-hand counterparts rang of righteousness, dexterity, and correctness. To this day, radical thought was considered left wing, irrational thought was left brain, and anything evil, sinister. (bold face added)

In fact, it is the right brain that is alleged to be creative, associative, improvisational; the left is said to be analytical & logical, the antithesis of irrational. But it doesn’t fit Brown’s thesis, so he simply reverses the facts.

This book is an easy target for any game of Gotcha, precisely because it has to weave so many details together in what it’s author hopes will be a credible net of connections. The material here on the Fibonacci series, in particular, made me cringe. So did this passage on iambic pentameter:

Before Langdon could even ponder what ancient password the verse was trying to reveal, he felt something far more fundamental resonate within him—the meter of the poem. Iambic pentameter.

Langdon had come across this meter often over the years while researching secret societies across Europe, including just last year in the Vatican Secret Archives. For centuries, iambic pentameter had been a preferred poetic meter of outspoken literati across the globe, from the ancient Greek writer Archilochus to Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Voltaire—bold souls who chose to write their social commentaries in a meter that many of the day believed had mystical properties. The roots of iambic pentameter were deeply pagan.

Iambs. Two syllables with opposite emphasis. Stressed and unstressed. Yin yang. A balanced pair. Arranged in strings of five. Pentameter. Five for the pentacle of Venus and the sacred feminine.

"It's pentameter!" Teabing blurted, turning to Langdon. "And the verse is in English! La lingua pura!"

This is a level of subtlety that one associates maybe with My Name is Earl. But if it did show on American TV, you could almost count on it being lampooned within the week on Talk Soup. This actually is a critical juncture in the plot.

Nothing quite reveals Brown as a clumsy carpenter so much as the way he likes to contextualize the opening of a chapter, giving way too much detail before turning to the character at hand, as in :

The Hawker 731's twin Garrett TFE-731 engines thundered, powering the plane skyward with gut-wrenching force. Outside the window, Le Bourget Airfield dropped away with startling speed.

I'm fleeing the country, Sophie thought, her body forced back into the leather seat.

There is no way for Sophie, for example, to know what model aircraft she is in, nor the name of the field. No matter – it’s a way of showing us that Dan Brown, guy novelist, knows his machines. Or, another example:

The Depository Bank of Zurich was a twenty-four-hour Geldschrank bank offering the full modern array of anonymous services in the tradition of the Swiss numbered account. Maintaining offices in Zurich, Kuala Lumpur, New York, and Paris, the bank had expanded its services in recent years to offer anonymous computer source code escrow services and faceless digitized backup.


The Sprawling 185-acre estate of Château Villette was located twenty-five minutes northwest of Paris in the environs of Versailles. Designed by François Mansart in 1668 for the Count of Aufflay, it was one of Paris's most significant historical châteaux. Complete with two rectangular lakes and gardens designed by Le Nôtre, Château Villette was more of a modest castle than a mansion. The estate fondly had become known as la Petite Versailles.

Langdon brought the armored truck to a shuddering stop at the foot of the mile-long driveway.


The Range Rover was Java Black Pearl, four-wheel drive, standard transmission, with high-strength polypropylene lamps, rear light cluster fittings, and the steering wheel on the right.

Langdon was pleased he was not driving.

This kind of awkward, creative-writing class prose is almost a twitch for Brown. Sometimes the details are plot driven, as when two police officers note that a minor character once skipped out on a hospital bill after having been treated for anaphylactic shock. It sets you up from that point forward to be on the watch for peanuts. And, wouldn’t you know, he doesn’t have his Epipen when he needs it forty chapters later. But in virtually every passage cited above, Brown is just setting the scene in the most wooden way imaginable. We do not need to know about Kuala Lumpur or the nature of the headlights or the architect of the estate. Instead, they offer ersatz credibility.

What gets readers beyond this sort of overly built Rube Goldberg-esque kind of language is the degree to which Brown can build plot upon plot. Virtually everyone in this novel, save for our symbologist protagonist and his cryptologist companion, has an agenda that is not quite what it seems. Even the minor characters – the French cops, for example – have separate plot lines & motives, both in terms of what they tell other characters and how they then do (or don’t) follow through. Between the Swiss banker, the cops, the monk, the Cardinal, the knighted historian & his butler & a malevolent Teacher, always capitalized & never revealed until the final scenes, the plotline of the two protagonists (who relate quite differently to their quest) is situated into at least eight other active narratives, all of which are doled out piecemeal, as tho every tale was a mystery here. Then there is the less active but more powerful quest set up by Sophie’s dead grandfather.

For all the excess detail at the start of chapters, Brown’s favorite word in this novel is actually rather vague: something. As in “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours." Brown’s formal problem, chapter after chapter, is how to advance the narrative without giving away key details – in this sense, the book resembles nothing so much as the old Flash Gordon serials from the movies of the 1930s & ‘40s, with their brief episodes lurching from cliff hanger to cliff hanger. And, indeed, the Indiana Jones movies are a kind of homage to those same movies.

Intellectually, The Da Vinci Code makes the Harry Potter series look like Sartre, real novels of ideas. This poses as intellectual fair in that Robert is a symbologist & Leigh a historian & both are constantly having to explain the history of this or that clue to the wide-eyed cryptologist Sophie. But Robert is a symbologist about as seriously as Harrison Ford’s Jones is an anthropology professor. The result is a great romp through the scenery of ideas, but virtually absent ideas as such. As an author, Dan Brown is closer in spirit to Mike Hammer than to Umberto Eco. Indeed, closer to Mike Hammer than to Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosley. If Robert Parker had an interest in history & weren’t so damn lazy with his plots, The Da Vinci Code could have been a Spencer novel. But Parker’s characters have a lot more depth.