Sunday, December 26, 2004

Book Review: The Da Vinci Code—by Dan Brown

It always pays to be skeptical about indulging in the latest pop-culture sensation, from the most recent Hollywood hype job to whichever tripe is being passed off as music and dutifully propelled into the top spot by the obedient masses. It may be somewhat harder to create a successful book where the actual quality of the volume does not back up that popularity, though inevitably it does happen. Within all the flotsam, it takes only a modicum of common sense to determine which segment of the population a particular book may be directed towards. Occasionally a book will transcend classes—including social, gender, genre preference and entertainment (i.e. the format which a person normally patronizes) and appeal to a wide and varied audience.

The Da Vinci Code is such a book. Released in 2003, it has steadily gained in appeal, exposure and overall sales.

After reading the book I can understand its success. The strongest things going for it are a compelling story idea backed up with loads of interesting, supposed facts, as well as a plot that, while cliched, keeps things ticking along quite nicely.

The protagonist is a yank academic expert specializing in religious symbols. A clever opening has the yank symbologist, Robert Langdon, drawn into the murder investigation of a top curator at the Louvre while he is in Paris to give a lecture. He is brought together with the other lead character, Sophie Neveu, who happens to be the grand-daughter of the slain Louvre sentinel. The last remaining elite member of a brotherhood that protects the Holy Grail from being discovered, he leaves a series of clues at the location of his death in hopes of leading Langdon and Neveu to the hiding spot.

A grizzled, merciless French police chief is after Langdon and Neveu once a contrived series of events ensure made-for drama confusion and an incorrect accusation against Langdon regarding the murder. In any such drama based on the race to find something, there are normally at least 3 interested parties in the hunt, and Brown employs the same tactic here. The 3rd seeker of the Grail is a bishop from the powerful catholic church group known as Opus Dei. With his freakish charge, a brain-washed albino giant, and help from an unknown "Teacher" who provides inside information and keeps the reader guessing as to who he is, the different parties are after Langdon and Neveu as they follow the series of clues left by the dead Loevre curator.

The parts of this novel that kept me reading were the instances when the main character had the opportunity to demonstrate his (the author's research) theories regarding the history of the church and their use of symbols in creating a story-line to be lapped up by the masses. The destruction of the feminine mystique as perpetrated by the church, is a running theme throughout the book, as well as how famous artists railed against the church through the slew of hidden messages and symbols in their work as a means to give voice to what they believed was the real story of christ without tipping off those for whom they were often commissioned to do work...i.e. the church. Another theory woven into the story is that it is a lie that Mary Magdalene was a whore when in fact she was (apparently) from a well-to-do family and thus was a perfect match for christ and also that she and christ had a child.

Behind the heretical (to the church) variations of history are the secret societies known as the Knights Templar, and the offshoot organization that is even more select and ethereal, the Priory of Sion, with supposed famous members through the ages including the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Victor Hugo. The existence of the Priory of Sion is highly doubtful, but its claimed raison d'etre as laid out in The Da Vinci Code (and numerous other books, essays etc.) is keeping the Holy Grail hidden and protected and deciding upon its eventual unveiling at an historical appropriate time to do the most damage to the church.

Though I mentioned that the author, Dan Brown, seems to understand the use of plot, the twists themselves are absolutely fraught with cliches, as is the use of language. That he was obsessive about research and truly intrigued by the story idea is evidenced by the fact that the most compelling passages are when part of the theory that drives the story forward is being doled out by Langdon, when he is regaling another character with his knowledge. Handled in a less deft fashion, this book would be roundly dismissed as an awkward vehicle for a conspiracy theory. Because of the attention it has gained, many are of course doing just that, but it is also sparking countless others to casually accept the claims outlined in the Da Vinci code.

Brown employs a technique not uncommon in thrillers and mysteries, and that is leading the reader down a false path so as to set up various plot twists and unexpected eventualities. The problem here is that when the resolution plays out, the cryptic build-ups in earlier chapters in no way jibes with the benign reality that the reader is then asked to accept. Sinister organizations and insidious heartless characters are suddenly harmless as if it were all imagined. If the touches had been subtler, it would have been more acceptable with the framework established. As it is, it comes off as somewhat lacking in imagination.

With regards to the plot, it appears Brown makes a concerted effort to be formulaic. In fact, comparisons to an earlier novel with the same character show enough similarities to demonstrate that Brown makes no bones about his lack of innovation and instead seems intent on polishing his own tried formula. A quick check on the fog index* and other readability factors indicates that the prose style is certainly intended to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (a few samples show a fog index from 6.5-10, with most in the 7-8 range--exactly what is considered a level most palatable to the masses.)

While plot-driven, there is still an expectation of at least some character development but here they remain flat and undeveloped. In fact, I can't recall any tendencies or personality traits specific to the characters nor did I have a visual image of them in my mind's eye as I was reading--something that I normally find with most books.

The Da Vinci Code is simple to read, with a story idea that almost anyone from a western country will find intriguing. Whether you are a raging atheist or a gullible bible-beater, the society you have grown up in is part of Christendom. The influences of christianity on your own life and world view are almost impossible to deny. If you reject all that the church stands for, that denial and the opposite beliefs you hold are proof of the overarching effects of the dominant religion of any society. The allure of a hidden, secret trove of documents that could somehow bring down such a powerful organization or contain some never before fathomed truth that could alter the political and religious power structure of the world is also a concept that contains mystery.

Written in such a way as to appeal to as many as possible, Brown likely had visions of seeing the book adapted to the big screen and probably constructed it with that in mind. True to the puritanical mind-set of the US as a whole, the sexual tension in the novel is kept to a puerile level and only a few cutesy comments hint at any developing relationship between the 2 main characters, perfect for a cinematic rendition most acceptable to the masses---soaked with violence but free from any abhorrent sexuality. The movie is already in the works with big names from Hollywood certain to keep The Da Vinci Code a phenomenon for some years to come.

*Here is a site I found that allows you to upload any document or type in any URL and quickly obtain numerous indicators such as the fog index.