May 01, 2004

The Dan Brown code

Approximately three people still haven't read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code: Mark Liberman, David Lupher, and reportedly at least one other person (as yet unidentified).*

Regrettably, neither Barbara nor I are able to claim that the third non-reader is one of us. What can I say by way of excuse for this? I found the book was on sale really cheap in CostCo when we were about to leave on a trip to Europe. I bought it for the long, long flights that lay ahead of us, without knowing much about it except that it was supposed to be an intellectual mystery with cryptography and symbology and stuff and the blurbs said it was great. I didn't open it, I just grabbed one off a pallet of about 500 copies. Barbara was between mysteries at the time, so she grabbed it from me and rapidly read it over the next couple of days before we even left for the airport. I asked hopefully what it was like. She scowled and said something about the Hardy Boys. My heart sank; I understood her to mean it was pathetic but possibly of interest to the 11-year-old market. By the time we were on our plane she had made sure that her flight bag contained a new novel by Menking Hannell, and over southern Oregon she told me it was great as usual. Unfortunately I had no better idea of what to do with my time, so I opened The Da Vinci Code.

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically.

The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. Here is the paragraph with which the book opens. The scene (says a dateline under the chapter heading, 'Prologue') is the Louvre, late at night:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don't do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.

But Brown packs such details into the first two words of an action sequence — details of not only his protagonist's profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn't work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre.

The writing goes on in similar vein, committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph (sometimes every line). Look at the phrase "the seventy-six-year-old man". It's a complete let-down: we knew he was a man — the anaphoric pronoun "he" had just been used to refer to him. (This is perhaps where "curator" could have been slipped in for the first time, without "renowned", if the passage were rewritten.) Look at "heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas." We don't need to know it's a masterpiece (it's a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven's sake). Surely "toward him" feels better than "toward himself" (though I guess both are grammatical here). Surely "tore from the wall" should be "tore away from the wall". Surely a single man can't fall into a heap (there's only him, that's not a heap). And why repeat the name "Saunière" here instead of the pronoun "he"? Who else is around? (Caravaggio hasn't been mentioned; "a Caravaggio" uses the name as an attributive modifier with conventionally elided head noun "painting". That isn't a mention of the man.)

Well, actually, there is someone else around, but we only learn that three paragraphs down, after "a thundering iron gate" has fallen (by the way, it's the fall that makes a thundering noise: there's no such thing as a thundering gate). "The curator" (his profession is now named a second time in case you missed it) "...crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide" (the colloquial American "someplace" seems very odd here as compared with standard "somewhere"). Then:

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.

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. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better. Why did I keep reading? Because London Heathrow is a long way from San Francisco International, and airline magazines are thin, and two-month-old Hollywood drivel on a small screen hanging two seats in front of my row did not appeal, that's why. And why did I keep the book instead of dropping it into a Heathrow trash bin? Because it seemed to me to be such a fund of lessons in how not to write.

I don't think I'd want to say these things about a first-time novelist, it would seem a cruel blow to a budding career. But Dan Brown is all over the best-seller lists now. In paperback and hardback, and in many languages, he is a phenomenon. He is up there with the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams and nothing I say can conceivably harm him. He is a huge, blockbuster, worldwide success who can go anywhere he wants and need never work again. And he 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.

Which brings us to the question of the blurbs. "Dan Brown has to be one of the best, smartest, and most accomplished writers in the country," said Nelson DeMille, a bestselling author who has himself hit the #1 spot in the New York Times list. Unbelievable mendacity. And there are four other similar pieces of praise on the back cover. Together those blurbs convinced me to put this piece of garbage on the CostCo cart along with the the 72-pack of toilet rolls. Thriller writers must have a code of honor that requires that they all praise each other's new novels, a kind of omerta that enjoins them to silence about the fact that some fellow member of the guild has given evidence of total stylistic cluelessness. A fraternal code of silence. We could call it... the Da Vinci code; or the Dan Brown code.


*The third non-reader was unknown when this post was first drafted, but it has since been edited, and as of today (May 2, 2004) I can confirm that Bill Poser and Danny Yee are both claiming not to have read The Da Vinci Code. Fair enough. So at least four people have not read it. I just wish one of them was me.

[Update -- Additional Language Log posts about Dan Brown's novels and related topics:

"The sixteen first rules of fiction" (May 15, 2004)
"Dan Brown still moving very briskly about" (November 4, 2004)
"Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence" (November 7, 2004)
"Oxen, sharks, and insects: we need pictures" (November 8, 2004)
"Thank God for film: Dan Brown without the writing" (December 2, 2004)
"Learning the ropes in the trenches with Dan Brown" (July 14, 2005)
"Don't look at their eyes!" (July 19, 2005)
"A five-letter password for a man obsessed with Susan" (September 10, 2005)
"Some striking similarities" (May 15, 2006)
"Is Mark Steyn guilty of plagiarism?" (May 15, 2006)
Cutting in line: what would Of Nazareth do? (May 16, 2006)
A tale of two copiers (May 17, 2006)


Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 1, 2004 03:43 PM