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April 13, 2004

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code

One of my favourite Bloom County cartoons has Opus reviewing a film. "Bad acting," he complains. "Bad effects. Bad everything. This bad film simply oozed rottenness from every bad scene. Simply bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness." Long pause. "Well, maybe not that bad, but Lord, it wasn't good."

The Da Vinci Code is like that. Bad plotting. Bad writing. Bad "brainy" bits. Somehow, it manages to be not as bad as that -- after all, I did manage to finish it -- but Lord, it isn't good.

Let's start with the brainy bits, as these are what supposedly lift this out of the ordinary. The book is crammed with excursus on art, architecture, cryptography, mathematics, Christian mysticism and secret societies. Most of these are lifted directly from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, though this is forgivable as most people won't have read this. The purpose of these excursus appears to be threefold: (a) pad out the book; (b) prove that Brown has done lots of research; and (c) break up any tension or pace that Brown manages to establish. For example, in the middle of our heroes' escape from the Louvre, Brown breaks off for 5 (five!) pages to deliver a lecture on the golden ratio. Not only is this a completely inappropriate time and a completely excessive length, the concept and the examples that Brown trots out are completely irrelevant to the story as a whole.

Most annoyingly, the "brainy bits" exhibit galloping Foucault's Pendulum syndrome. In Eco's book, "Everything is connected to the Templars" was a self-adopted challenge to the main characters as well as a satire on conspiracy thinking; Brown seems to have missed the joke. His characters are all to eager to take anything and everything he foists upon them and reveal that -- wow -- it is connected to the sacred feminine. Or the Templars. Or the number five. Or Leonardo da Vinci. Or-- well, you get the point. Once Brown's heroes have achieved "connnection critical mass" they can link any old cod to something on the list of "things connected to the sacred feminine," and thereby to everything on the list.

Then there's the fact that the plot is founded on a nonsense. And I'm not talking about any dispute as to the plausibility of the underlying mystery of the novel: on the contrary, I've been at home that that particular theory for twenty years. And that familiarity is exactly why the plot falls fundamentally apart. The crux of the story is that there is a secret which, if revealed, would precipitate the greatest crisis in the history of the Christian church. The problem is that when this secret was revealed some twenty years ago, the church remained conspicuously unrocked. Brown even cites the book and TV show which publicised the secret, and admits that the controversy was a nine days' wonder. But if the revelation of the secret was a non-issue then, why would it be a big deal now?

Finally, there's the writing. Normally I wouldn't worry about the quality of writing in a thriller. After all, what we look for in a thriller is to be efficiently transported out of our drab little lives for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, Brown's writing is so bad that the imagination continually stalls as it tries to take flight. One is the predilection for inopportune product placement: our heroine actually stops during their escape from the Louvre to tell our hero what mileage she gets from her SmartCar (tm). Another is character naming. I can forgive "Bishop Aringarosa" as merely infelicitous (the playground rhyme "a-ring-a-ring-a-roses" makes the name distracting and silly to British readers, but this is just a local quirk). But naming a major character "Leigh Teabing" was a fatal mistake. As a tribute to Leigh and Baigent, two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, it would have been a nice touch for a minor character. Assigned to a major character, the clearly artificial moniker becomes a continual irritating reminder of the author's presence.

But the worst part of the writing, by far, is the dialogue. Oh God, the dialogue. Even I could write better dialogue while having my nadgers sanded down with a box jellyfish, though this is not intended as a boast: anyone could write better dialogue by copying their video recorder manual inside a pair of quotation marks. Here's a sample of our hero's conversational style: "The documents had long since been entrusted to the Templars' shadowy architects, whose veil of secrecy had kept them safely out of range of the Vatican's onslaught." Acceptable, if a little purple, as populist historical exposition, but this is meant to be dialogue. Try prefixing it with "As I was saying to Brian in the pub the other day," and tell me this is anything less than ludicrous. Every other time a character opened their mouth I had to put the book down in disbelief and go for a walk.

And this is the fundamental problem with The Da Vinci Code. Nobody should expect great writing from an airport thriller, but we are entitled to expect that the writing shouldn't break our suspension of disbelief. That, not literary quality, is the sole benchmark of escapist literature. But the writing and plotting in The Da Vinci Code are so obviously broken -- so intrusive, so distracting and so cringeworthy -- that it is impossible to relax into it and get carried away.

So there is really no reason to read The Da Vinci Code rather than Foucault's Pendulum or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Even if all you want is a page-turner tastily spiced with art, history and mysticism, the originals are far more absorbing as well as more convincing. This is a bad book, and it oozes rottenness from every bad page. Please, please do not buy this book. Even at airports.

April 13, 2004 in Books | Permalink


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Perhaps "The Da Vinci Code" was not inspired so much by "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" as by "Monty Python And the Holy Grail"?

I mean, the same bizarre expositional dialogues and outrageous speech appear in that movie!

A mud-caked peasant breaks into "Supreme authority derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!"

See -- if you read "The Da Vinci Code" as a spoof, it suddenly makes sense! Perhaps Dan Brown is snickering under his breath right now: "I'm kidding them all, hee-hee!"

But then again, maybe he thinks he's a literary genius who's uncovered a sinister Papist Plot...

-A.R. Yngve

Posted by: A.R. Yngve at May 4, 2004 8:12:41 PM


I read this book not so long ago, but it all went by in a sort of blur. This is largely because I seem to have developed the ability to switch my literary critical faculties on or off, which is necessary as I read an awful lot of books of varying quality - I can't bear not to have a book on the go.

However, I do come across books that I cannot bring myself to finish because they are so bad. This was not one of them, and now I'm wondering why. I recognise everything you say about the quality of the writing, dialogue, plot etc., but I still finished it.

The overall impression I got was of a fairly interesting story that was poorly implemented and simply not thought through. I did flick through "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" a while back, and I now think perhaps I should do so again, just for a laugh.

I also got the impression Brown was writing the book almost as a method of pitching a movie idea. I wouldn't be surprised to see this on the big screen in a year or two.

Posted by: John Kearney at May 27, 2004 8:34:01 PM

Although the book sets it's standards right down at the front as if it was a huge thesis, it does have some parts that let you drift away.

But then there is parts and pieces in the book that are more of a History Lesson. But it's not bad if it's a history lesson. It's where you place it.

As how you said, "For example, in the middle of our heroes' escape from the Louvre, Brown breaks off for 5 (five!) pages to deliver a lecture on the golden ratio. Not only is this a completely inappropriate time and a completely excessive length, the concept and the examples that Brown trots out are completely irrelevant to the story as a whole."

To me, it's like setting up a trap. He sets you in a state of wondering of what will happen to these characters, and then he cuts off the story as if you where hanging of your last thread.

That then there forces you to read those pages just enough and barely to get back to where you where reading. I do enjoy it though, but sometimes he's just doing it to tick you off.

Posted by: Alex at Jan 11, 2006 2:28:54 PM

do you think that there's another product placement in the movie???
like a mobile phone or something??

Posted by: jean at Apr 12, 2006 1:01:40 AM

I just want to let everyone that the Divinci Code has 'Catholic" written all over it. Jesus Christ was and is the son of God. Mary was never married to Jesus and was never pregnant during Jesus' crucifixion. Mary and Joseph were the parents of Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit was how Mary became pregnant of Jesus. Read the Holy Bible and you shall know the truth.

Posted by: Lisa at May 24, 2006 2:09:15 AM

I just read it...it's awful writing. Really, really awful.

Posted by: Eric at Jun 4, 2006 7:10:55 PM