The Da Vinci Code has been making headlines ever since it inexplicably1 crept up the best-seller list. It’s a controversial book, which does nothing to harm the author and everything to help his bottom line. Knowing it was likely utter pabulum, I wanted to read it so to better understand the author’s ineptitude, but hadn’t been able to force myself to read it. No more; after a long delay, I finally read the book that Stephen Fry so aptly describes as “arse gravy of the worst kind.”
How exactly does one begin a review of The Da Vinci Code? At almost 500 pages, it’s far too long, and its mistakes, errors, and weak points are too dense to list. It begins with the death of a prominent art curator by a hulking, monosyllabic killer taken straight from a hackneyed B-movie. Enter an “expert” on “religious symbology” and a young, attractive French cryptologist, and continue to bluster for the rest of the book about expertise in various fields.
Here’s the rub: everybody in the book is an “expert,” but from the way Dan Brown writes it, it seems as though he spent maybe a couple of minutes skimming Wikipedia articles (and misunderstanding them) and decided that was good enough.
I knew even before I started reading the book that it would contain a lot of nonsense. I had girded my loins, so to speak, by constantly reminding myself that the work was fiction, based on an alternate history—here I give Dan Brown the benefit of the doubt, since he hasn’t exactly said this, but the alternative would make the bullshit:accuracy ratio too high to contemplate. It’s a play on the conspiracy theories involving alternate histories of Jesus: that he married Mary Magadalene, and had a family, and that the entire 2000-year history of the Church is a big cover up. Add to that a secret society and hidden messages in famous artwork, and you make for a ripping good plot—that is, if it weren’t so excruciating. If I had to come up with a ballpark figure, I’d say that 95% of Brown’s content is utter nonsense.
But wait! There’s more! Even if you manage to suspend your disbelief and accept wholeheartedly that either Brown was knowingly writing an alternate history (you’re an optimist) or that he’s correct in his conspiratorial assertions (you’re a twit), you still have to deal with one incontrovertible truth: Dan Brown is an awful, atrocious, abominable writer.
Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives[… h]e writes like the kind of freshman student who makes you want to give up the whole idea of teaching. Never mind the ridiculous plot and the stupid anagrams and puzzle clues as the book proceeds, this is a terrible, terrible example of the thriller-writer’s craft.
There are two levels to Brown’s bad writing. The first is mechanical, approaching stylistic:
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
Just count the infelicities here. A voice doesn’t speak—a person speaks; a voice is what a person speaks with. “Chillingly close” would be right in your ear, whereas this voice is fifteen feet away behind the thundering gate. The curator (do we really need to be told his profession a third time?) cannot slowly turn his head if he has frozen; freezing (as a voluntary human action) means temporarily ceasing all muscular movements. And crucially, a silhouette does not stare! A silhouette is a shadow. If Saunière can see the man’s pale skin, thinning hair, iris color, and red pupils (all at fifteen feet), the man cannot possibly be in silhouette.
While a book full of this would be enough to fell any sane person, the torment doesn’t stop there. There’s also the fact that Brown has perhaps the most irritating narrative style in the history of written language. He narrates in a semi-omnipotent third-person, but this changes whenever it becomes inconvenient for Brown. The really irritating part is the constant use of “thoughts,” which tend to punctuate just about every block of narration. Brown qua Narrator tells the reader something, and then the character will chime in with something totally extraneous or dumb, phrases that would have been better left narrated—occasionally phrases so academic or complex that they would sound awkward spoken2, much less thought.
Brown careens from cliché to malapropism to ridiculous dialog, a drunk behind the wheel of this jalopy of a book. I find myself at a loss of words to describe how utterly dreadful this book is. I think perhaps Stephen Fry has it right: “arse gravy of the worst kind.”