July 14, 2005

Learning the ropes in the trenches with Dan Brown

A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?

We're in a Dan Brown novel. If you could view film clips of the last minutes of Deception Point and Angels and Demons you would not be able to tell the difference. The adventures Brown relates are formulaic to the point of being robotic. But... what can I tell you? It's summer again, I took another long plane flight with Barbara again, and... amazingly, I read another one.

I guess by now a watching anthropologist or psychologist would claim to have overwhelming behavioral evidence that Dan Brown is my favorite novelist for summer reading. And indeed, my latest Dan Brown adventure, Deception Point, really rips along (spying, robots, sex, scandal, exobiology, secrets, science, politics, rocket planes, sharks, volcanos, news conferences interrupted by dramatic helicopter arrivals, brilliant deductions telegraphed two chapters earlier — if this plot doesn't grip you, check with your doctor, you may be dead). But as a Language Log staffer, I had a duty to take a few notes, so I spent my time not only reeling and rocking with the surprises of the plot but also observing the grossly incompetent use of language.

Dan Brown's writing is so clumsy and inept that I am definitely (God help me) beginning to enjoy the experience of poring over it.

The thing is, it's all the same unmistakable features. Utterly mysterious attempts to describe people's eyes, for example (my article on Angels and Demons in the book Secrets of Angels and Demons had a whole bunch of these). A soldier on an Arctic glacier has "eyes as desolate as the topography on which he was stationed" (would that mean totally white?); an intelligence director has eyes "which despite having gazed upon the country's deepest secrets, appeared as two shallow pools" (do some people's eyes change depth after viewing a few classified memos?); and the president has eyes which "mirrored sincerity and dignity at all times." Dan doesn't mean mirrored in that last one, not in either of its two senses — look it up. He might have meant displayed, or perhaps even reflected, but he didn't mean "mirrored"; once again he has picked a word out of his thesaurus that he doesn't know how to use.

There's also another ghastly misuse of one of Dan's favorite words, precarious, and it's combined with another eye description. Dan has no idea what precarious means (in Angels and Demons he used it to describe a tone of voice). On page 72 of Deception Point we get this (thanks to Ben Zimmer for helping me to find it again — I really must remember that Amazon's search-inside feature can be used for things like this):

Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.

The only two meanings of precarious that are at all common today are the senses that Webster calls 4a, "dependent on chance circumstances, unknown conditions, uncertain developments", and 4b, "characterized by a lack of security or stability that threatens with danger". The other senses are rare or archaic ("dependent on the will of another" is certainly archaic; "dependent on uncertain premises" is not far from it; and according to Webster, the word can also mean "importunate"). I simply have no idea what Dan is trying to say in the quoted passage about Marjorie Tench's body.

Fans of Dan Brown syntax would be disappointed without any instances of the familiar disiplinary descriptors used without articles as if they were titles, and we do get those: "Geologist Charles Brophy", p. xi; "Prize-winning astrophysicist Corky Marlinson", p. 93.

We also get stock phrases repeated almost verbatim. I got tired of attempts to manipulate me into vicarious shocks through cataphoric pronouns referring to Rachel's sensory experiences that were about to be described in the next paragraph: "It was then that Rachel saw it" (p. 69); "Then Rachel heard it" (p. 71); "Then Rachel saw it" (p. 127)...

Sometimes he uses phrases so creakingly strange that you remember them vividly from a single occurrence five hundred pages earlier. Notice "His voice had a lucid rawness to it" (p. 15). Describing the same person on p. 507 Dan writes again: "The man's voice had a lucid rawness to it." The connection between being lucid (suffused with light) and being raw (not cooked) does not make for an effective description. One searches for metaphorical uses that can be matched with each other and with voice timbre (lucid can mean "readily intelligible"; raw can mean "unpleasantly cold and damp"; neither applies very well to vocal quality).

As Lady Bracknell might have said, to use such an odd phrase once may be regarded as a misfortune; to use it twice looks like carelessness.

But the acme of inexpertly crunched metaphors in Deception Point is on page 27 (and I swear I'm not making this up): he uses the expression "learning the ropes in the trenches". Think about that for a while. Learning the ropes is a naval metaphor; it's about rigging and sails and mooring. Being in the trenches is an army metaphor. You can hardly be in both services simultaneously — hauling up sails on a naval frigate while dug in with the infantry on the western front. Dan has to make his military metaphor mind up.

I'm sorry, but this man is simply not competent to write prose for public consumption. He should be dictating his wild, action-filled plots to a literate ghostwriter who knows how to string description and dialog together. Deception Point, by Dan Brown as told to Henning Mankell.

I have another long plane flight at the end of August, and I'll be reading Digital Fortress. Watch this space.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 14, 2005 12:29 PM