The Da Vinci Code And The Paranoiac Thriller

I finally gave in and drank the Kool-Aid this weekend. After looking at the best seller lists for over a year, I finally sat down and read Dan Brown’s magnum opus, The Da Vinci Code. In fact, I went whole hog and read his earlier work, Angels & Demons this weekend too.

Let me save the trouble. If this sort of stuff interests you, read one or the other. Basically they were the exact same mediocre book. Seriously – the plot of both books contained many of the exact same elements:

  • An elderly scholar murdered with evidence pointing towards a secret society
  • The hero, Robert Langdon, awakened in the dead of night to spend the next day or so uncovering this secret society
  • The murdered scholar’s distraught yet intelligent (and oh so sexy) daughter/grand daughter
  • The obtuse authority figures blundering around making life difficult for the hero
  • A couple decoy bad guys set up and later exonerated
  • The supposed ally who turns out to be the archvillian
  • A menacing, murderous, but misguided, button man duped by the archvillian
  • A malevolent secret society revealed to be smoke and mirrors
  • A series of blindingly obvious leads, unveiled as thunderous revelations
  • Plenty of second rate religious tomfoolery, featuring the Catholic Church
  • Lots of running around to medieval churches at night

So basically it’s a bunch of nonsense, but what amusing nonsense it is. For what it is worth, Angels & Demons was the better novel. Perhaps because I read it first, but it seemed more original and it was definitely more exciting that The Da Vinci Code. Angels & Demons revolves around the rumored Illuminati striking out at the Catholic Church during a particularly vulnerable moment for the church; the Pope has passed away, and the College of Cardinals is locked away in deliberations to elect a new Pope. The Illuminati, a secret society of scientists suppressed by the Church since the Renaissance, have secreted a high tech antimatter bomb somewhere in the Vatican during this crucial point. Robert Langdon must uncover a centuries old trail left by original Illuminati Galileo and Bernini across Rome to find the bomb before the Vatican, the Cardinals, and the vast treasures of the Catholic Church are annihilated in the antimatter explosion. It’s basically a fast paced scavenger hunt, with Langdon and his female sidekick dashing around Rome hoping to stop the mayhem. Brown tosses history, art, science, religion and conspiracy theories into a fun melange of thrilling action.

The Da Vinci Code was also a lot of fun to read, but it seemed more formulaic. Besides the plot similarities I mentioned above, the story lacked the zing that Angels & Demons had. The mass destruction of Christendom’s holiest city is a powerful device to propel the plot. The Da Vinci Code’s main threat is Langdon being falsely accused of murder and dashing around to prove his innocence and the presence of a conspiracy against him, all the while being chased by the French Police Judiciare and its implacable chief inspector. Shades of Inspector Javert, which was probably intentional (Victor Hugo is mentioned several times as a former grandmaster of the book’s secret society). Brown sprinkles in just enough art, history and science to give the story depth without boring casual readers out of their skull. The plot whirls along at a brisk clip, from the Louvre to a Swiss bank, a country chateau, several medieval churches and Westminster Abbey, with a denouement in windswept church in Scotland. But it never seemed to generate the sense of urgency that Angels & Demons did, and it limps along to an unsatisfying the climax.

The main concept this time around is that the Catholic Church is murdering the members of a secret society preserving a secret at the root of Christianity; that Jesus lived as a mortal man, with a wife and child. I don’t think I’m spoiling any plot twists here, I’ve seen several ‘documentaries’ on the Discovery Channel and Michael Baigent’s book Holy Blood, Holy Grail that cover the same territory. The wife of Jesus is none other than Mary Magdalene, and their progeny somehow or other founded the royal line of the French monarchy, a secret longsuppressedd by the church. Brown does a good job of laying out the history behind this theory, from the , the First Council of Nicaea, the Merovingians, and religious iconography. The best part of the book is when he takes Da Vinci’s fresco, The Last Supper, and picks it apart. Everything in this religious masterpiece is evidence of Mary Magdalene’s role as the chalice of Christ, the Holy Grail.

I had higher expectations though. First, Dan Brown seems to backpedal furiously at the end of the book. The church really isn’t out murdering people, they were duped by a madman. Whatever. Take the bull by the horns buddy and just make the Catholic Church the bad guy. Perhaps he was afraid of alienating religious readers, but I doubt the kind of people that frothed at the mouth over The Last Temptation of Christ will bother to read a book like this. So why spend the first half of the book setting up a malevolent, conservative Catholic order as the heavy, only to switch tracks and make them poor deluded souls duped by schemers and disingenuous scholars? It is a nonsequiturr, and the book suffers because of it.

Secondly, Brown is skimming across the top of a vast trove of material, dumbing it down and removing a great deal of the allegorical richness that other works dealing with this subject matter evoke. Umberto Eco is the master of this genre of thriller fiction. The Name of the Rose mines the Catholic symbolism and kinky murders with far more finesse than either of Brown’s works, and Foucault’s Pendulum is the benchmark that any other novel exploring the Illuminati, Rosicrucians, and Knight Templars should be compared against. The incredible web of history and conspiracy Eco’s weaves in Foucault’s Pendulum made me paranoid for a week the first time I read it. I was seeing conspiracies and connections in everything, and it freaked me out. And the crushing conclusion of Eco’s novel, it’s damning revelation about man’s tendency to construct vast conspiracies and alternate histories from a simple shopping list, is a telling evocation of human susceptibility, the many paths to madness and nihilism. And let’s face it, Dan Brown doesn’t compare dig that deep.

Lastly, it takes skill and sleight of hand toreallyy make a vast, hidden conspiracy come to life in the pages of a book. This is the worst flaw in The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown reveals all his secrets too early in the novel and it struggles after that. A writer needs to keep the conspiracy off camera, out of reach, out of touch, mysterious, slowly revealing more and more information as the novel unfolds. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 offers up a perfect example. The story starts with nary a mention of conspiracies. Only slowly are they unveiled through a seemingly innocuous collection of stamps and a collection of coincidences. What is W.A.S.T.E. and who are Tristero? What is their the connection to Yoyodyne? How deep does the conspiracy go? Many of the facts surrounding Pynchon’s conspiracies are vague and undefined. They lurk in the shadows, mysterious, powerful. Oedipa Maas’ growing paranoia becomes the reader’s. He leaves the reader hanging in suspense as deeper layers are unveiled further into the book. In contrast, Brown offers up his secret society, and all their meager secrets, in the first half of the book. The book sputters from location to location after that until it collapses into a showdown at Westminster Abbey.

I stayed up Saturday night reading Angels & Demons, then pulled another all-nighter Sunday night with The Da Vinci Code. And after reading both of them, I was left with a guilty, icky feeling: “I stayed up all night to read this nonsense?” Kind of like when I read a Stephen King novel. It’s enjoyable at the time, but I know I’ll regret it in the morning. The Da Vinci Code troubles me a bit more than Stephen King’s pablum, probably because so many people seem ready to accept the fanciful history Brown spins in the novel without digging deeper into the source material. I guess people want to see vast conspiracies controlling events from the shadows, like Eco illustrates. Look at the furor over the Kennedy assassination and the crackpots that say NASA never landed a man on the moon. People want to believe. My concern is that readers will take Brown’s pseudo-history as fact instead of fiction and that may lead them to the wrong conclusions about the Christianity and church history. I hope the ideas related in the book will propel curious readers to research the early church, art history, or the Renaissance.