Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as social engineering

Today I’m going to talk about why The Da Vinci Code is so brilliant. A book described by Brian Davis as ‘toxically inept’. Yet by 2009 it had been turned into a movie, provoked a lawsuit, and sold over 80 million copies.

This was not, according to the critics, because of any notable literary quality. Davis was not the only one to excoriate author Dan Brown’s technical writing skills. Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, called Brown’s writing ‘syntactic swill’ – adding that his style ‘is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad’.

This was a book filled with cardboard characterisations, clumsy phrasing, and wonderfully egregious research errors. Like these. Or these. Stephen Fry had this to say about Brown’s version of witch-hunting. There was also the title itself – ‘Da Vinci’ is not Leonardo’s surname, it’s the attribution of his birthplace. So Brown’s title is literally ‘The of Vinci code’, which is nonsensical. The book had character names that sounded like they were from Mother Goose rhymes (‘Aringarosa’), or which were anagrams of authors who – later – sued Brown for copyright. (One of them, Michael Baigent, is from New Zealand and a distant relation of mine by marriage).

Well, at least Brown didn’t use the word ‘refulgently’.

None of this stopped The Da Vinci Code selling, of course – over 80 million copies by 2009. That’s extraordinary. You can’t begrudge success. And it means Brown must have done something right. Something very, very right.

It took me a while to figure out. I had to finish the book first, which wasn’t easy. I’d read the reviews. I’d been warned. But I guess i had to find out for myself. So I bought a copy and ploughed into it. And it was, indeed, execrable. Brown did everything I’d been soundly taught not to do. And then there was the whole concept of the plot, which was fundamentally absurd by my standards. After around 50 pages I gave up and put it back on the shelf, rather carelessly in the same pile as Kerouac, Steinbeck and Hobb.

Fast forward six months. I was about to fly to Sydney – so I took the noisome tome with me. After a while I found it had grabbed me. And not just because I had trapped myself with the book in a badly air conditioned flying tube where the alternative was watching a clipped version of some stupid movie I hadn’t bothered with on first release.

I was really, genuinely hooked. I wanted to know what happened next.

I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord in 2004. It’s not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown’s description.

Being the sort of analytical person that I am, I had to figure out why I’d been caught against my better literary judgement. Which, I figured, would also tell me why the book had sold so well. I came up with three things.

1. Brown picked a subject that cuts to the heart of western religious mythology. Not just the quest for the Holy Grail, but the Michael Baigent version of it. Controversial, at the very least. And something that a fair number of western readers can engage with, directly, at some level.

2. Brown is an absolute master of structure and hook, and he’s done it on three distinct levels, which makes the whole mix very powerful. First, every scene structurally claws the reader forward – ultimately, irresistibly. I get the impression he structured the book as a succession of movie scenes, which he then describes. That ‘tell-not-show’ aspect is partly why his writing is so bad, but it doesn’t stop the drama building. Second, a good deal of the hook factor comes from the fact that the plot is actually a mind-puzzle, wrapped up in a conspiracy. Both aspects appeal in deep ways to a wide swathe of humanity, and we’re drawn along as he unrolls the answers, piece by piece. Thirdly, and finally, that same conspiracy involves some of his characters directly. They’re cardboard, but that doesn’t reduce the way that draws in the reader. As readers, we’re hooked on all these levels.

3. The nature of the puzzle/conspiracy speaks to the way some – but not all – people see the world. The idea is that nothing is what it seems. There are hidden secrets, shared by an elite, to which us everyday folk are not privy, but which can be discovered through the many obvious clues which have been deliberately (and paradoxically) left by those charged with keeping their secret safe. Medieval monks used to think that way; to them, everything symbolised something else, and it is a style of thinking often assocated with personal conviction. As mainstream thinking, that view was dislodged by the so-called ‘age of reason’, but a lot of people still seem to hold such ideas today. It’s why conspiracy theories get such traction.

The problem is that this book is viewed as a novel and judged accordingly. Some critics have suggested he even invented a new form of thriller – the ‘intellectual suspense’ story. But as I see it, Brown picked a subject to attract readers – then very skilfully created a structure around it that inexorably dragged those readers in. It wasn’t a novel. It was an exercise in technical structure and social engineering. And it worked brilliantly. Why do I say that? Look at it this way; he broke every rule of writing from good grammar to characterisation, accurate research and all the rest. And still sold eighty million copies.

If we view what he did on this level – well, don’t we all wish we’d thought of it first? I know I do.

What more is there to say? Just a puzzle question. Here’s the name of someone I wrote an honours dissertation about, years ago. Jackie Fisher. The puzzler? What does he have to do with Dan Brown – and ‘OMG’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011