The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2003, 454 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50420-9

I would love to review The Da Vinci Code as, simply, a work of fiction. But that’s not possible any more. Not after selling seven million hardcover copies in less than 18 months. Not after spawning a mini-flood of a dozen companion titles (Cracking the Da Vinci Code, etc.) in as little time. Not after it’s been praised or lambasted by a variety of literary and religious authorities. Not after seeing it banned from Lebanon. Certainly not after it has become a pop-culture object in its own right, earning movie-blockbuster attention before even becoming a blockbuster movie.

Reviewing such a book on its own terms is impossible: Any well-informed reviewer comes to the text with expectations, and half of the exercise becomes a validation (or disproof) of external opinions. Quickly followed by an irresistible urge to find out what, exactly, made The Da Vinci Code so successful. Is it due to something in the book’s style, is it the “explosive secret” of the premise, or simply the author’s gift for self-promotion? (Much was made, at the book’s release, of Brown’s aggressive push for on-line reviews).

It doesn’t take many pages to see that there is, indeed, something in The Da Vinci Code to make it so popular. Not the writing, certainly: Brown is earnest, but his style can best be qualified as “clumsy”. Time and time again, experienced readers will trip over a sentence and wonder if there wasn’t a more elegant way of phrasing things. No, the novel’s initial claim to fame is its pacing. The book begins with that sure-fire draw: A murder, as the curator of Le Louvre is shot within the halls of his own museum. Then Brown follows with a macabre mystery: The police, summoned to the scene, discover a cryptic set of notes written by the victim, using his own blood. As our protagonists (Cryptology expert Sohpie Neveu and “symbology” authority Robert Langdon) start pulling at the fine thread of secrets, more and more revelations are made, characters are forced on the run and the novel is off to a fast start. The Da Vinci Code starts like a sprinter and quickly accumulates the forward momentum of a freight train. Try stopping after just a hundred pages: This is pure literary fast food.

But the pacing is just a gateway to the book’s biggest strength: a series of “everything you know is wrong” revelations about historical religious conspiracies and hidden symbolic meaning in everyday life. Like many thriller writers, Brown cleverly plays around with commonly-accepted history and juices up a compelling blend of age-old secret societies, early Christianity trivia and what-if scenarios. Unlike most thriller writers, he obviously hits a nerve. Everyone loves to know a secret, and so The Da Vinci Code serves The Big Ones: The real life of Jesus. The true meaning of the Holy Grail. The source of patriarchy. Whew! Well-done!

Once past the secrets and the pacing of the first half of the book, though, not a lot remains. Perhaps the best thing about Brown’s writing is how he manages to keep up our interest in protagonists constantly lecturing one another. The minimal thriller mechanics (police chases, cracking codes, decoding clues) act as a skeleton for exposition scene after exposition scene. It wears thins midway through, soon after the book’s intellectual climax and biggest revelation. After that, the second half becomes a lot more conventional and settles into a comfortable chase routine. The conclusion eases to a stop with a final revelation that doesn’t seem all that important after all that came before it.

We haven’t mentioned the characters because there isn’t much to say: Protagonist Robert Langdon is curiously passive, content to spout whatever timely exposition is required for Sophie Neveu (and readers) to make sense of what is happening. There’s a limp attempt at character-building (Oooh, look: a Mickey Mouse watch), but otherwise they all act their role in the plot without too much fuss.

In light of this, reviewing “the controversy about The Da Vinci Code” ends up being more interesting than The Da Vinci Code itself. Here, a comparison with movies may be useful: We can’t deny that The Da Vinci Code has received an unprecedented amount of popular attention, which is seldom the case with books. Movies are widely released and burn out their welcome in weeks; novels are more likely to build upon a period of months and, if it’s a classic, acquire a good reputation very slowly. Dan Brown’s novel has defied those traditional patterns and reaped both the benefits and downsides of such attention.

Anyone who reads a lot knows that written fiction can get away with much more controversial material than motion pictures. Horrid horror stories, realistic terrorist plans and subversive ideas are commonplace in genre fiction with nary a peep from the media or religious groups. But when even relatively innocuous films are released, the standards are completely different. Let’s face it; Most mass-market fiction, if rated like movies, would earn a big solid R-rating. But reading is a (comparatively) difficult and unpopular activity; why bother raising a stink when it’s easier to get media attention by criticizing a multi-million-dollar movies starring “real” celebrities?

But when a book breaks the million-copies-sold barrier in such a short time, all bets are off. The book becomes worthy of media stories. Morons who haven’t picked up a book in years are tempted by what everyone is talking about. Everyone starts paying attention, and that includes crackpots, religious groups, would-be censors… and journalists.

There isn’t anything startlingly new or innovative in the ideas kicked around by The Da Vinci Code. Any serious student of religious history already knows about the dodgy history of early Christianity. Any amateur historian knows that Jesus-as-a-historical-figure wasn’t, er, all the Bible hyped him up to be. Heck, any mature reader can see where the reality bleeds into fiction and play along with Brown. But when that much popular attention is concentrated on a book, silly strange things start happening. The book finds its way in hands unaccustomed to the heft of a good thriller. Attentive readers ask questions. Credulous cretins take everything at face value. Cash-grab books purporting to tell “the real story” appear on the market. Religious authorities make pre-emptive strikes against even the slightest whiff of doubt. (Heck, if a silly little thriller can rock any Church, I say that it deserves to be rocked.)

Looking at the amount of media attention still surrounding the book (As of October 1st 2004, news.google.com featured over 450 stories about The Da Vinci Code), I’m tempted to ask how many other books Da Vinci Code readers have read in their lives. Looking online at the massive amount of pseudo-controversy surrounding the novel, I’m surprised anew at the capacity of some people to get worked up over meaningless stuff. Yes, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Pieces of it are true, and pieces of it are not; as a mature reader, I understand this and am not about to froth at the mouth at the
revelation that Brown may have been a bit fanciful in his telling. But here are web sites seriously arguing the validity of the book’s premise and others gleefully shooting down even minor details. I ask once more; how many books do these people read per year? What would happen if we gave them a copy of Tim Powers’ Declare? Are they so insecure as to spend all of their time dealing with someone else’s imagined universe?

Meanwhile, Dan Brown is making tons of money –and good for him! He may be forever destroyed as a serious thriller author (his next thriller could be a thinly veiled excuse to show his grocery lists to the world, and it would still sell five million copies), but at least he’ll be able to retire on the profits generated by his thin back-list alone. Isn’t that the sweetest thing about this entire phenomenon?

Now just wait until the movie comes out.

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