June 24, 2004

The DaVinci Code

This past weekend, I became, to the best of my knowledge, the last American in the world to read mega-hyper-bestselling blockbuster The DaVinci Code.

It wasn't entirely an act of my own free will. For unknowable reasons, our book club back in San Jose (which usually has better taste) chose TDC as next month's book; even though we're in Europe, we still try to keep up with each month's pick and send in our comments via E-mail.

When I finally put the book down, the one persistent question that it left ringing through my mind was what was the big deal about that?

For all the hype (and its assuming a seemingly-permanent position on the best-seller list), I was expecting a book head-and-shoulders above the usual in the "thriller" genre; maybe not an enduring classic of literature, but perhaps something that, say, Tom Clancy might have written on his best day ever. What I got was one of the clunkiest books I've read in recent memory. I don't know what annoyed me more:

(SPOILERS AHEAD: Read on, and some of Dan Brown's intricately handcrafted mysteries may be spoiled forever if you haven't read the book yet!)

  • Brown's extensive use of tell-not-show 'infodumps'. Everything seems to be an introit for a lecture or a travelogue (or both!), full of extraneous facts. "[Curator dude] had been murdered in the Grand Gallery ... The Grand Gallery??!? Langdon thought back to the last time he had been in the vast hall, longer than 15.65 football fields and wide enough to hold four railway trains side-by-side, its floor trusses able to support ten thousand pounds per square inch, enough for even the largest pre-Mesopotamian granite sculptures ..." Okay, it's not that bad, but it's close.
  • The every-chapter-a-cliffhanger structure. Reading this book felt like watching a made-for-TV movie with a lot of commercial breaks: each chapter ending with a "what was that?" da-da-DUM moment of suspense, the next chapter beginning with a micro-recap of what happened on the page before. The structure and flow of the book was completely butchered (look at all of the chapters that are just a few pages in length) due to the desire to keep those with low attention spans in manufactured suspense.

    [On the other hand, there were moments of "suspense" that he drew out far longer than he needed to: look at the whole Sophie-saw-a-sex-ritual situation. "I know why my grandfather was the head of a major secret cult ... but ... I just can't talk about it right now." Repeat, ad infinitum. You have to feel for her: she's only had, what, ten years to process what she saw that night ...]

  • Lame puzzles: My mind boggled at the scene where the two supposed superbrains of the book, the eminent historian and the Harvard symbologist, are stumped at the puzzle hidden within the lid of the rosewood box. What is this mysterious writing? Could it be Minoan Linear B, transliterated into a pre-Contact Aztec cipher? Any grade-school kid who's seen a page from one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks could have instantly recognized the puzzle as an attempt to ape Leonardo's backwards writing; however, the two men who are able to describe all of the secret Pagan symbology contained in The Last Supper and Madonna of the Rocks at the drop of a hat are powerless to solve the BIG MYSTERY.

    And I'm far from steeped in English letters, but I knew immediately that the "pope" in that knight-and-a-pope puzzle would turn out to be Alexander Pope. (I didn't guess the Isaac Newton part, though -- but that might be okay; if you search on the Web, you can find people claiming that one of Brown's many errors is that Pope didn't officiate at Newton's funeral; he just contributed a valedictory to a memorial book assembled some time after the fact.)

  • Wooden characters: I mean, c'mon -- one of the primary characters discovers that she's a direct descendant of Jesus Christ, and she doesn't seem to need anything more than a few brief pauses of reflection to deal with that.

    Also, we have the crazy albino monk and the crazy rich OBE with polio and leg braces, two main characters who seem to be primarily defined by their physical abnormalities with a few other random traits thrown in. If we're at a loss as to what to do next with Silas, we can always go back to talking about his alabaster skin ...

Like the Harry Potter books before it, The DaVinci Code is a case of a hack taking us on another trip down an already-well-travelled road -- and thanks to savvy marketing whipping people who don't typically read books into a frenzy, we're led to believe that the author is doing something new and brilliant that we've never seen before.

Posted by Kevin at June 24, 2004 08:37 AM

I finished the book a month or so ago and while I found the premise very intriguing (which is probably why the book is hyped so much), I found it lacking in the same ways. Although I didn't really think about them so much. I found the backward writing puzzle extremely easy - I knew what it was right away!

However, reading the book a month before visiting Paris for the first time really prepared me for what to expect at the Louvre. Although I couldn't see where the big clanging gates came down to block the galleries off....I looked.

Posted by: Anna at June 30, 2004 12:09 AM
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