One of the enduring mysteries of the literary world is how such poorly written books can be so thrilling. Dan Brown is at the centre of this conundrum, and his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code (in this article, I’m assuming that the reader has a passing familiarity with the book) is the best known of his (best-selling!) works.
W.H. Auden once said that, “One does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.” This helps a little in alleviating any sense of shame on the part of the reader – after all, why read The Divine Comedy when you could just read Dan Brown’s Inferno? It doesn’t, however, quite work as an explanation; the popularity of these kinds of books has to be down to more than sheer laziness. Although Brown’s work can, and does, satisfy a yearning for cheap thrills, there is more to it than this.
I believe that the notion of the conspiracy theory underlies the success of his books, which are full to the brim with secret organisations, contentious religious revelations and intriguing and unexpected historical ‘facts’. The books enter the world of symbology, the Priory of Sion, the Illuminati, Freemasonry and Da Vinci (with his talent for depicting a knowing smile). This is music to the ears of the portion of the population which is always on the lookout for rumours of Jewish Cabals, New World Orders and UFO landings.
The danger of re-reading
Vladimir Nabokov once said that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” This is bad news for Brown. Rereading allows the reader to slow down and savour individual phrases, whereas the recommended practise with Brown’s work is to speed up, try to ignore the actual words, and just get the general gist. I reread The Da Vinci Code before writing this article, and can confirm that the novel can only have its desired effect once. Once you’ve taken out the secrets and the suspense, the rest is comedy. Edmund Wilson, in a critical review of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, once singled out the sentence, “Still the clouds gathered and did not break.” I do not mean to be glib when I say that such singling out of awful sentences in The Da Vinci Code would result in a review almost as long as the book itself. Page 1, sentence 1: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery”. He can at least be praised for packing a lot in.
For a book that clearly prides itself on being elaborately plotted, there are a lot of plotting issues. Imagine, if you will: you are a university lecturer called Robert Langdon who is probably unaccustomed to your heart rate going much above one hundred beats per minute. You have been dragged out of bed at 1am and taken to a grisly murder scene at the Louvre, and the dead man is somebody you’ve long admired. For reasons I won’t go into, you have suddenly become a suspect in the murder, the Louvre is on lockdown and the Parisian police are searching for you. You are trying to escape the gallery along with a crytologist called Sophie who instead wants to go and look at the Mona Lisa:
’Go. Now.’ Sophie gave him a grateful smile. ‘I’ll see you at the embassy, Mr Langdon.’
Langdon looked displeased. ‘I’ll meet you there on one condition,’ he replied, his voice stern.
She paused, startled. ‘What’s that?’
‘That you stop calling me Mr Langdon.’
Sophie detected the faint hint of a lopsided grin growing across Langdon’s face, and she felt herself smile back.
‘Good luck, Robert.’
James Bond would be proud of such nonchalance.
Brown has been quoted as having said that he has ideas for ten more Robert Langdon books. This would mean another five thousand pages of this kind of writing, and yet I just know that I would end up reading them all. Because Robert Langdon is the Sherlock Holmes of symbology, and they’re full of puzzles, historical mysteries and fast-paced tours of Florence or Paris. And maybe because I’m not always in the mood to read The Divine Comedy.
The books appeal to several different groups of readers. Conspiracy theorists lap them up, of course, as do ordinary thriller readers – the lovers of cheap thrills. And finally, those who love “good” literature but would call Brown an extremely guilty pleasure. Whatever your reason for reading, each book purchased puts money into Brown’s pocket; I bet he’s laughing all the way to the (Jewish-owned, top secret, world-dominating) bank.