The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown

The less his talent, the more amazing his achievement
July 11, 2013

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Clash of the titans: Dan versus Dante (© Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. Nevertheless it is still almost worth reading. In the publishing world they have a term, “pull line,” which means the few words of apparent praise that you can sometimes pull out of a review however hostile. Let me supply that pull line straight away, ready furnished with quotation marks: “The author of The Da Vinci Code has done it again.”

Once again, that is, he makes you want to turn the pages even though every page you turn demonstrates abundantly his complete lack of talent as a writer. The narrative might be a bit less compulsive this time but you still want to follow it, if only to find out whether the hero and the heroine will ever get together. But to do that, they will first have to stop running to escape the heavies.

Discussing Dante even as they run, they are a handsome couple, the hero and the heroine, rather like Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. The hero we already know. He is Robert Langdon, fresh from his activities as the “symbologist” who cracked the code associated with the famous painter whose surname was Da Vinci. (If Dan Brown’s all-time bestseller had been about the Duke of Edinburgh, it would have been called The Of Edinburgh Code.)

Langdon, though an American, still favours English tailoring. It must be easier to run in. Running beside him is Dr Sienna Brown, described as a “pretty, young woman”, in keeping with Dan Brown’s gift for inserting the fatal extra comma that he or one of his editors believes to be a sign of literacy. And indeed I should perhaps have written “the fatal, extra comma”, but something stopped me: an ear for prose, I hope.

Dan Brown has no ear for prose at all, a handicap which paradoxically gives pathos, and even tenderness, to his attempts at evoking Sienna’s charm. He has no trouble evoking her brains. She has an IQ of 208 and at the age of four she was reading in three languages. You can picture the author at his desk, meticulously revising his original sentence in which, at the age of three, she was reading in four languages. Best to keep it credible. But how to register her beauty as an adult? Here goes: “Tall and lissom, Dr Brooks moved with the assertive gait of an athlete.”

Would that be the assertive gait of a Russian female weightlifter? Probably more like the assertive gait of the British pentathlete Jessica Ennis. Anyway, as usual with a bad writer, the reader has to do most of the imagining. A canny bad writer keeps out of the way so that the reader’s mind can get to work with its own stock of clichés, but Dan Brown shows deadly signs of an ambition to add poetry to his prose. Take, from quite early in the book, his chilling portrait of the beautiful female assassin who is stalking the heroic couple as they flee from one famous location in Florence to another. Later on they will flee from one famous location to another in other famous cities, notably Venice and Istanbul, but early on they are stuck in the famous city of Florence, being hunted down by the beautiful female assassin whose name is Vayentha. How can she be described, in view of the fact that all the “tall and lissom” adjectives have already been lavished on Sienna? Langdon looks out of the window, and there she is:

“Outside his window, hidden in the shadows of the Via Torregalli, a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BMW motorcycle and advanced with the intensity of a panther stalking its prey. Her gaze was sharp. Her close-cropped hair—styled into spikes—stood out against the upturned collar of her black leather riding suit. She checked her silenced weapon, and stared up at the window where Robert Langdon’s light had just gone out.”

That counts as a long paragraph for Dan Brown. Generally he believes that a short paragraph will add pace, just as he believes that an ellipsis will add thoughtfulness. Groups of three dots appear in innumerable places, giving the impression that the narrative … has measles. This impression is appropriate, because the famous symbologist and the pretty, young woman are actually impelled by their mission to save the world from plague. It isn’t just because the heavies are after them that they are always in such a hurry.

In fact the heavies turn out not to be so heavy after all. They, too, are out to save the world, which must surely soon die unless its population is drastically reduced. How this can be done is the central question raised by the book, unless you think that the central question raised by the book is how it ever got published. Dan Brown and all his characters take it for granted that a Malthusian interpretation of earthly existence must be correct. The fact that Malthus turned out to be wrong doesn’t slow them down for a moment. They just keep running, always one step ahead of whichever panther-like assassin is unstraddling herself from her BMW just behind them.

Eventually they get to where they would never have thought of running to if it had not been for Robert Langdon’s skills as a symbologist. I had better not reveal how it all comes out: there might be a few readers of this review who have not already read the book. But just in case you haven’t, let me suggest that it ends the way it began, as a fizzer. Your enjoyment will eventually depend on how much you, in your role as a symbologist, can revel in the task of decoding the text to lay bare the full extent to which the author can’t write.

The less he can write, of course, the more admirable his achievement. As well as the heroism of Robert Langdon, we must think of the heroism of Dan Brown. This is a man who started out with such a shaky grasp of the English language that he still thinks “foreboding” is an adjective meaning “ominous.” I also relished “Sienna changed tacks.” Read aloud, these three words would suggest that the pretty, young woman had altered her arrangement with the Internal Revenue Service. But Dan Brown has never read one of his own sentences aloud in all his life; and why, now, would he need to? He can buy and sell all the pedants in the world.

On top of the shaky language are piled the solecisms. “Pandora is out of her box.” (Dan, she was never in it.) Piled on top of the solecisms there are the outright mistakes. The C-130 in which the World Health Authority task force travels is called a “transport jet.” It should be a turboprop. In Istanbul, “the Bentley roared away from the curb.” The last Bentley that ever roared was racing at Brooklands before World War Two. But at least he tried to tart up his text with the occasional everyday fact.

More questionable is when the fact is from a higher realm of experience and comes accompanied by a judgement. Brown has put prodigies of effort into mugging up the scholarly background of his story, but the laborious deployment of learned lore is too often undermined by signs that he can’t tell one painting or piece of sculpture from another, even though he knows all the names and has seen every masterpiece from close up. (Some of them are probably hanging in his house by now; he must have the purchasing power of the Metropolitan Museum.) He uses the word “masterpiece” when referring to Vasari, who never painted a masterpiece in his entire career: even at the time, it was well known that Vasari’s gigantic pictures were mainly of use in order to cover walls.

On the subject of Michelangelo, who really did create masterpieces, Dan Brown has admirably taught himself every name and date, but can still refer to “the sombre phalanx of Michelangelo’s crude Prigioni.” Actually the term “sombre phalanx” is quite good, but the word “crude” won’t do at all, because the unfinished look of those sculptures is the sculptor’s dearest effect. Throughout the book, the reader will find evidence that the writer’s learning has been hard won. It must have been hard won because it is so heavily worn. Langdon will engage in private speculations about Dante while he is running flat out, the pretty, young woman matching him stride for stride.

Do they get together in the end? Alas, or perhaps hooray, he realises that he is too old for her. But hooray, or perhaps alas, she offers herself anyway. There is something … irresistible about the tall symbologist. He is a bit like a wildly successful American author of brain-teasing thrillers, but he has taken another course.

As for the author himself, he will probably go on taking every course there is, in his heroically studious search for a new subject. Dante was a bad choice, I think. Most of Brown’s huge audience won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. If they want to find out, I recommend my new translation of The Divine Comedy, which Brown was mischievously shown by the American newspaper USA Today. The author of Inferno said of my translation that it was “kind of clever.” I want you to know this because if even a tiny percentage of the audience of Inferno chooses my translation to find out more about Dante, I might come closer to being rewarded for years of labour.

So I have no reason to begrudge Dan Brown his universal success. But I wouldn’t begrudge it anyway. I am an old man: old enough to find pretentious absurdity a diverting spectacle. There is not enough of it in this book, but its author will return, undaunted. Meanwhile he leaves us with a scene in which Robert Langdon puts on Sienna’s wig—she’s bald, I forgot to say—and she helps him to secure it into place with his tie. The scene comes about half way into the book and it proves beyond question that Brown can’t picture what he himself is describing.

Unfortunately, however, he also shows evidence that he is learning from his mistakes. We don’t want him to. We want him to give us everything he’s got, and in his case a kind of exalted stupidity is an essential part of it. Should you read this book? Of course you shouldn’t. Will you read this book? Of course you will. As Sienna puts it: “The mathematics is indisputable.”

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