Okay, you’re kidding, right? This is the most popular fiction book for months and months? Once again I find my enduring faith in the American public severely tested by this fact. Dan Brown’s thriller about a search for the Holy Grail succeeds in being a page-turner, but little else. His two lead characters, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbolism; and Sophie Neveu, a French detective specializing in cryptologist, exist to lead the reader through the web of Grail facts, but appear to have little else. I can’t tell you anything about Langdon except his field of study. Neveu’s character is sketched in more, because it’s the murder of her grandfather that sets the story on its way.
Halfway through, I realised why this book is so popular. Brown treats his audience not exactly as idiots, but as blank slates who know nothing of art, of Europe, of history, of even the most rudimentary conspiracy theories (quite amazing post X-Files). The non-divinity of Jesus, the resuscitation of Mary Magdalene from whore to feminine equal, and the question of a J+M bloodline, may curl the hair of the fundies and intrigue the pop-Christians in the general public (who freely mix their Bible, “angel cards”, and astrology charts), but for any half-serious biblical scholar or, really, anyone whose been around the block a few times, it’s nothing that new. And to then have to read it all in Brown’s pedantic style is a bit much.
Here’s a typical Brown passage:
The agent signaled to an insulated wire that ran out of the back of the computer, up the wall, through a hole in the barn roof. “Simple radio wave. Small antenna on the roof.”
Collet knew these recording systems were generally placed in offices, were voice-activated to save hard disk space, and recorded snippets of conversation during the day, transmitting compressed audio files at night to avoid detection. After transmitting, the hard drive erased itself and prepared to do it all over again the next day.
All he really has to tell us is that some offices are bugged and that this is where the info is collected. Brown backs up to fill us in on details such as these all the time, with awkward dalliances into art history, architecture, theology, and more. They aren’t exactly woven into the narrative as much as they’re pasted in. Brown’s authorial voice is like a trivia buff at a cocktail party, telling you the history of the martini you’re drinking, or when pimento olives became popular.
On top of that, there’s the inner thoughts of the characters that sum up the action and major plot points for those who haven’t read many books before and/or who suffer from short-term memory loss. “I’m about to dash out of the Louvre…a fugitive.” (after about 50 pages that demonstrates this.) And my favorite: “Accompanying the gravity of being a hunted man, Langdon was starting to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility, the prospect that he and Sophie might actually be holding an encrypted set of directions to one of the most enduing mysteries of all time.” Yes, yes, yes. We know!
I am interested in seeing how this is all going to play out when the film adaptation comes out. With mainer-than-mainstream director Ron Howard handling it, will they water down the crux of the plot, that Jesus was mortal and fathered a child? Will the fundies go and picket? Will they issue a jihad against Brown? Should anyone who lives in a secular nation and has an ounce of common sense care?
Meanwhile, I wrote about TDVC for my book column (I was shorter and nicer than above), and included a parody. Enjoy.
THE DELI CODE
Robert Langdon entered the delicatessen on the corner of Rose and Crucian Streets. Langdon knew the deli had been at the downtown location for over three years. Before that it had been Willie’s, a mid-level bistro for eight years. Before that it had been Ella’s Haberdashery and Lightbulb Emporium.
“What kind of sandwich would you like, sir?” asked the girl at the register.
Robert Langdon knew about sandwiches. It was known by scholars that the food item was named after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In 1762, the earl had asked for some meat to be served between two slices of bread in order to avoid interrupting his gambling game.
Yet the question still remained of the meat and the type of bread that Langdon, over 200 years later, would be asking the deli to assemble.
“What do you recommend?” Langdon asked, tactically.
“Pastrami on rye is popular,” said the girl, as her dark brown eyes sized him up.
Pastrami had long been a staple meat of the Italians. Before the advent of refrigeration in the 20th century, large amounts of beef were soaked in brine, then smoked, in a process known as “curing.”
Bread, on the other hand, had been around since the time of the Egyptians, and was commonly made from a dough of ground or milled cereal grain, usually wheat flour, and leavened by chemical or microbiological action. Rye bread was a combination of wheat and rye flours, giving a loaf a lighter texture than the pure rye bread known as pumpernickel.
“That sounds fine,” said Langdon.
“One pastrami on rye!” the girl suddenly shouted to an unseen person in the back.
I’m about to eat a pastrami on rye sandwich, thought Robert Langdon.
[That’s quite enough. – Ed.]