Monday, July 12, 2004

Eco's Echo

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, Read by Paul Michael, Books on Tape, Inc, 2003


I blame Umberto Eco.

It took awhile, but the fruit of his seed, The Name of the Rose, has been flowering for some time. There were a number of small versions of Eco bastards like Father Cadfael and the like, but no real blockbuster sensation to parallel that debut novel until now.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the talked about book of last and this year and it features the kind of well-researched esoterica that is the hallmark of Eco’s fiction. Brown is much less playful than Eco, who dollops out jests for his readers as well as his characters while Brown trots things along too brisk for humor. (For a sample of Eco’s literary gamesmanship, compare the descriptions of Sherlock Holmes in the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet with Adso’s description of Brother William at the beginning of Eco’s novel.)

But both books are replete with ancient church history, occult mysteries, secret sects, and hidden documents that could change the course of history. One could read Brown’s novel as a deliberate outgrowth from Eco, a challenge, a throwing down the gauntlet. You think you have a big secret? Brown seems to ask before upping the ante.

Which is not to say that Brown’s work is better than Eco’s. While both books display a dizzying fund of research, Brown’s brainy style comes off less naturally than Eco’s. Brown often interrupts the action and flow of his novel for lengthy flashbacks to lectures, monologues on Grail myth, and texty passages without which some readers would be at sea. Eco’s erudition is woven tighter in his novels’ warp and woof and gives the books a more fleshed out feeling. This is more necessary for Eco, since he rarely tells a story in present day and has to provide you with the day-to-day details of the Middle Ages, but he manages to make the atmosphere part of the mystery.

The Da Vinci Code tells the story of Harvard professor of symbology (that’s a class?), Robert Langdon and the mystery he is sucked into while in Paris. The director of the Louvre has been murdered and Langdon is implicated. The director’s granddaughter and French police cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, helps him escape, and their joint investigation into her grandfather’s death uncovers the secret society he belonged to and the mystery they have guarded for two thousand years.

This is not Brown’s first novel to feature Langdon. Brown’s first book, Angels & Demons, while apparently selling well, did not touch of the kind of firestorm that this book has engendered. A simple look at the recent non-fiction of your local bookstore will demonstrate how many debunkers are out there who wish to disprove a work of fiction. It seems a deliberately untrue story is more frightening than an academic volume that says the same kind of things. One would almost think the publisher had commissioned these slender “scholarly” volumes for the sole purpose of drumming up bigger sales for Brown and guaranteeing his third Langdon book will sell megamillions.

Somehow, though, I doubt it is entirely Brown’s fast-paced clever puzzle writing that can take credit for the book’s phenom status. As I’ve said, Brown’s first book sold tolerably well (and is doing brisk rebound business as a result of The Da Vinci Code’s big numbers), but a thriller about the Vatican isn’t every reader’s cup of communion vino. A book about Jesus hooking up with Mary Magdalene and having a kid has a shock value that great numbers of people will read just to find out what everyone else is talking about.

And that’s the big secret of the book. It’s not like I’m spoiling things by telling you this. You’d have to have had your eyes and ears duct taped closed not to have gleaned about that much of the book’s story. And given that this secret is let out of the bag before you even reach the halfway point, it’s not like the mystery is terribly revelatory.

The furor surrounding this idea is rather curious to me. It’s like what happened when The Last Temptation of Christ was released. Loads of scholarly books make this suggestion and you hardly hear a whisper about them and no cottage debunking industry springs up to besmirch them. But one person decides it’s time to make these theories entertaining and all the furor in the world is whipped up. Hell, even the book of The Last Temptation didn’t cause this much stir.

But the moment a fictional account of Jesus’ life pops up that suggests he might have been playing raise the dead with the Magdalene, and the moment such a book starts climbing the charts, every tinpot, so-called religious leg-humper shows up to kick sand. Which, of course, attracts more attention to the book or film they want people to disregard in the first place. I guess anyone who might take the story of Jonah literally isn’t going to be all that logical a person in the first place. I'm not terribly interested in discussing the merits of this argument or even the validity of Brown's various secret society conspiracy theories. Readers of Foucault's Pendulum will recognize a few names herein.

What Brown lacks in Eco’s scholarly mien, he more than makes up for with killer pacing and an excellent sense of suspense, though. With the exception of the learned sidebar interruptions, Brown knows just when to cut away from the high tension scenes in order to enhance and increase our anxiety, and he knows better than to stay away too long. The CDs of this book sometimes manage that same trick, ending a disc right as our heroes stumble into a trap. It’s a classic trick and one Brown sometimes overplays. Of course, that’s more apparent the more of the book you take in in one go. Broken up and split over a couple sittings, The Da Vinci Code’s repetitious elements are less palpable.

But what makes the scholarly weaknesses distracting while reading/listening to the book, is that often the clever reader can figure out what the next step will be long before the book’s supposed experts do. When a bit of text is written in a secret place and no one can decipher it, the idea that it’s backwards writing (a Da Vinci specialty) sprang easily to my mind, yet oddly enough, not to the Da Vinci specialists’. And the Pope references were likewise obvious.

Of course, I’m not saying I was always one step ahead of Langdon and Neveu (or Brown for that matter — I spent half the book changing guesses on the identity of the mysterious character of The Teacher, being wrong in my assumption at the time of his exposure), but I like my thrillers and my mysteries impenetrable until we’re shown the trick. On many occasions, Brown plays this neatly, the answers to the riddles becoming devilishly simple once you see how it’s done. But like a good magic trick, you want the element of surprise. If I just shuffle your card back into the deck then pull it out again, big deal. I have to pull it out, and pull it out of your shoe.

And that’s where the book’s strengths lie. However, one of its major weaknesses runs true to form. It’s a weakness among all kinds of genre fiction, whether they are romance, western, sci-fi, horror, or thriller mysteries. So much energy and work is put into the quirks of the genre that character gets lost in the shuffle. Brown’s bad guys are rather one dimensionally drawn. He tries to do better, by giving them two chapters at the end for redemption, so we know that even though they’ve murdered and tortured people, they really just wanted understanding and what they thought was best. But it’s not enough and it doesn’t make the characters suddenly detailed, fully formed human beings.

Likewise our heroes. What motivates them outside of wanting to know the answer to the question? Sophie’s grandfather is murdered but she doesn’t spend much time mourning or vowing to get the real killers (and even her and her grandfather’s lengthy estrangement doesn’t fully account for this). Langdon is (sort of) framed for the crime, and yet he mirrors Sophie in being more interested in answering a clever little riddle than in worrying about spending time in a French prison (which past reading has taught me is essentially hell on earth). And when the police detective changes his mind at the end and realizes who the real killer is, his single-minded pursuit of Langdon is just set aside without any real embarrassment or qualm.

But the real number one flaw in the book is more subtle than all that. For a book that sets forth as one of its central tenets the idea that balance is the natural state of things, men and women on equal footing, the God and the Goddess, Brown gives us precisely one major female character to five males. Sophie Neveu spends most of the book ignorant of the secrets the menfolk discuss around her, she is often rescued by the actions of a man, and she is haunted by her emotional reaction to something she saw in the past. She is, for all her brass in the beginning, a character who quickly slips into weak female archetype.

It’s kind of typical male of Brown to be like this too. For all his exhortations in this book and in interviews and on his website that the female needs more power and more respect, he doesn’t write like he really understands much about women. When at the book’s end, Sophie makes a date with Langdon, the press of her body up against his is promise of things to come. Because that’s how it is, enlightened ones. If you repeatedly save a girl’s life and unveil the secrets of her past for her, she’ll go to bed with you. And all Brown’s talk of the holiness of sex and the power of Woman in coitus as Earth Mother and Goddess and the Sacred Feminine just comes off like a guy I knew in college who claimed to be a sensitive feminist — because it helped him score with chicks. It’s maybe convincing patter at 1:30am in a bar, but in the cold, stark light of day there’s an element of hucksterism in this tack.

As a whole though, you could do worse in a novel. There are literally thousands upon thousands of thrillers whose authors barely read book one (and then it's usually textbooks on weaponry and covert spying devices), and I have to admit a weakness for a novel with a professor as the hero. It's Indiana Jones with real research behind it. If you haven't read this book yet and you're planning a beach vacation or the like, by all means take The Da Vinci Code along.

Paul Michael, the reader, has a pleasantly smooth tenor that makes thirteen discs just glide on by. He displays a truly theatrical quality with the voice of each character and is not apparently thrown by any accent that comes his way. So while many of his French accented voices expose this odd whining quality, as though all the French characters were rather tired and in vague pain, he manages the wide variety of Spanish trills, American barks, Scottish burrs, and English unctuousness beautifully. The bad guy character of Silas is a bit of a hokey husky dark voice, but as he is asked to speak so rarely it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant bit of reading.

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