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May 22, 2006

Lost Weekend: The Da Vinci Load

Updated: Added an observation that the book is not so much a novel as a prose-form mix-tape designed to seduce college co-eds, and I attack the idea that this is a "fast read." It's a "fast read" only because the reader does a lot of editing himself that Brown should have done, skimming and skipping entire pointless chapters of the book.

So, I read it. I had avoided the book for years but broke down to see what the fuss is about.

1, he's an awful writer. 2, his word-games and anagrams are eh -- some of them are pretty easy; some are decent. 3, it's a gonzo-Wicca bit of sexual-leftist agitprop.

On his writing: It really is too awful too be properly described in all of its awfulosity.

This may be a personal thing, but I usually find it to be a mark of amateur writing when the author resorts to providing italicized transcriptions of a character's thoughts, as if it's a comic book without the drawings, and each character gets a couple of thought-balloons every page. What are you doing, Ace? Why are you posting about this? Everyone who's interested has already read it, and you took yesterday off and are late to start today! Focus, man!

People don't really think in whole sentences. So that right there is a falsity. I just don't understand why someone needs to provide what is falsely represented to be a transcript of someone's thoughts, all in grammatically correct sentences, when one can relate thoughts less specifically but more realistically. "Ace doubted anyone would be interested in his take on a three-plus year old beach-book, but felt oddly compelled to review it nonetheless."

I think maybe bad writers resort to this because it's usually far easier to write dialogue than non-dialogue sentences, and readers like reading dialogue more than prose descriptions. So, basically, it's a cheat; it's easy to write and read like dialogue is, although it's not actually dialogue. Still, especially for thoughts, it's a simple enough matter to write a non-transcritipion version of a character's basic thoughts.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Another thing I don't like is the failure to choose one, and only one, viewpoint character, the character through which the story is seen. It feels movie-of-the-week and amateurish to follow multiple characters, especially when the author allows us to inhabit the head-space of each. Wow, Robert thought. Sophie sure has a nice rack.

Robert's looking at my rack, Sopie thought. I sure hope he likes "le goods."

I'm probably gay and having nothing at all to say about this rack-looking behavior, Sir Teabing thought. Robert looks like Harrison Ford, though.

Why did they cancel Simon & Simon?, Silas asked himself as he peared in the window of the estate.

Yeah, why did they? Remy wondered. That was a good show. And Robert looks a little like A.J., but with dark hair.

It's a lazy form of writing. But then, I write a blog. The ultimate in lazy writing!

I don't even think I have to go into his "style," which many have described as "pulpy," which is an insult to actual craftsmen who wrote in the pulp genre. Pulp is a genre; it's not a label for crap writing. There are a lot of writers who have a strong style that doesn't feel so first-draft. Their subject matter may be lurid and fantastical, but their mechanics and taste are sound.

"Anyone who henceforth writes that a character 'grinned' his dialogue should be taken out and murdered," Ace grinned, noting that in the mirror he looked a bit like a geeky Steve Buscemi. For this reason, of course, New York Magazine had deemed him "One of the most intriguing internet dorks in NY who looks a bit like Steve Buscemi, at least before he has his make-up on." Ace grinned again to himself, although he wasn't sure why, because he hadn't said anything, and apparently people only grin when they say something.

The plot makes little sense, of course. Why kill all four Masters of the Priory without checking out what each man said of the Grail's hiding place? One guy tells you that it's at a church. So check that church out immediately, Ace grinned to himself. Why torture and kill three more men before checking out the story?, Ace grinned at a bottle of Val-U-Rite discount vodka, wondering how few people realized that "Val-U-Rite" was actually a semiotic signifier for a specific brand of Vodka that didn't cost very much.

The anagrams and word-games are kind of stupid. The first anagram-- "O, Draconian Devil! Oh, lame saint!" -- I realized was an anagram 1, because I heard the book had anagrams in it, but 2, because the writer had used two different forms of the word "O" or "Oh." Why spell it differently, unless you need the "h" for one anagram and not for the other? Oddly, that little tip-off goes unmentioned. Even in Robert's private thoughts, Ace noted.

For geniuses, the heroes sure are slow on the uptake. Sophie is a trained cryptographer, and a brilliant one (With perceptive eyes the color of a good zucchini, Robert thought), and yet it takes her forever to figure out crap that some moron who does the Jumble every day would solve in less than a minute. They all are endlessly talking about Da Vinci and his secrets, but all of them are dumbfounded by the "alien language writing" that seems to look a lot like... well, you know. For crying out loud, I hate puzzles -- Probably because you're no damn good at them, Ace grinned to himself -- and even I got that one.

The plot makes no sense overall. Everyone's always saying the Priory exists to "protect" the secret-- well, protect it what sense? Continue to keep it secret? If so, why would the Catholic Church want to thwart them in this mission, as the Church wants it to remain secret as well?

Oh, sure, the book claims some absurdity about this being "The Age of Aquarius" (kind of an embarrassing tip-off to where this guy's coming from theology-wise), and that the Priory chose to keep the secret through "The Age of Pieces," and only now is set to reveal it. How absurd. These people have been sitting on dangerous documents for two thousand years -- very dangerous documents, apparently; we are informed six thousand times they are "explosive," making me wonder how they managed to keep them from blowing up all this time -- and now they've decided to air their dirty secrets? Why not reveal this stuff in 1400? Granted, the implication that the Knights Templar blackmailed the Church for 400 years is a good reason to keep the secret during the period of blackmail; but once the Church burned most of the Templars at the stake, isn't that a sign the blackmail isn't working anymore? Why not reveal the secret then, if only for payback?

Furthermore, we are told multiple times that all this information is already out there; best-selling "historical" books like Holy Grail, Holy Blood lay out the whole secret, "reputable" historians endorse the theory as real, and even Walt F'n' Disney Studios communicates the secret via cartoons like Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid.

So, the truth is out there. I mean-- really out there. As in, everyone knows it.

So what's the big deal?

The book's politics and theology are especially annoying. It's sophomoric in both the literal and metaphoric meaning of the world. Another double-entendre, Robert grinned. This Ace is a character to be reckoned with. The big "secrets" about the Apocrypha, about the borrowings from pagan rituals used to advance Christianity in its early years, etc., are all widely known. Furthermore, they're especially widely known by college sophomores, who are just so excited to run into the dorm lounge and tell you about their most recent Comparitive Religion class where they learned that the pagan god Mithra just happens to have a birthday on December 25th.

It would be one thing to deny the divinity of Christ; that's kind of par for the course in this day and age, eh? But Dan Brown doesn't just dismiss superstition and religion as hokum; he dismisses Christianity only (particularly Catholicism) as hokum, while writing credulously about goddesses and the "Sacred Feminine." It's one thing to say that Christianity is just a superstition like any other; it's another thing entirely to say Christianity isn't a superstition like any other -- in fact, it's the only superstition that's evil, corrupt, and wrong. While the secularist heroes are busy undermining Christianity as a delusion, they are nevertheless quite open-minded -- true believers, almost -- in an expressly anti-Christian religion which fuses paganism and feminism, a sort of distaff Satanism.

Brown credulously reports the completely crank figure that five million women were burned at the stake during the 1500's for witchcraft, or even simply midwifery, which is of course absurd. How many people were even alive in Europe during this time? It couldn't be far more than 50 million; and yet we are to believe that over a three generations one-fifth or so of all women were murdered by the Church's inquisitors. (Wiccans always need that "midwife" thing, by the way, because they need to find some link between Druids and pagans and the present day; as there weren't many Druids and pagans in Europe through the Middle Ages, they seize upon "midwives" as proto-witches or transitional goddess-worshippers who kept "the old ways alive" through this dark time. Otherwise, they'd have to admit that Wicca was just invented out of whole cloth around 1983 or so, and has about the same historical pedigree as the D&D book Dieties & Demigods.)

It seems to me that if religion is to be debunked, all religion should be debunked. Dan Brown seems to think religion is okay, so long as you're worshipping pentacles and ram's heads, preferably while naked and chanting "Boobies, boobies, vaginas, vaginas." It's just a New Agey form of Satanism/Wiccanism.

The most annoying bit of that comes when the hero -- you know, the one who looks like Harrison Ford and has a voice that's "chocolate to the ears" -- expressly defends sex-cults as an ancient and perfectly proper way of glimpsing the divine. Through orgasms, one can see god. Sex cults have a long and illustrious pedigree, he informs us; so who are we to question? The trouble is, Christianity and various forms of self-punishment and self-denial also have long and illustrious pedigrees, but that cuts no ice with Dan Brown or his stand-in hero Robert Langdon. See, whipping yourself to humble yourself before God is just weird and strange, but fucking a stranger in front of a room full of people wearing Carnivale masks-- well, that's gen-u-ine spirituality.

When I heard about this book, I thought I'd heard it all before, and wondered what the fuss was about. I did hear it all before, basically. (Although I admit there are a few cute bits, like the cryptex, the f-you message from Job at the Church, the fact (I presume) that the original prime meridian ran through Paris, and the fact (I don't presume, but it would be neat if it were a fact) that Venus traces out a pentagram in the sky every eight years.)

I was expecting a thorough trashing of Christianity, religion, and the Catholic Church in particular. What I did not expect at all was the quite-serious proposal of paganism, Wicca, and sex-cult-ism as a True Church uncorrupted by the sins and evils of man -- and I mean speciacally "man" as in "males." That takes the book from being a rather silly bit of psuedo-historical hokum to a rather mockable bit of amateur, muddle-headed ultrafeminist Satanism. Dan Brown can't manage to say anything nice about Christ or Christianity (well, he does give the old "Jesus was a good man an a nice Jewish boy who had some good moral philosophy, as long as you don't take it too seriously" crap), but his hero's final act -- his final symbolic act -- is of course kneeling before the tomb/altar of Mary Magdalene. To bow before a male God-- never. But before a female one -- of course. They have nice "chalices," which I use as symbolic signifier to mean "pooters."

It seems strange to attack the Catholic Church in particular for destroying the "sacred feminine." One of Protestantism's, and expecial Born-Again-Christianity-ism's, greatest complaints with the Catholic Church is its supposed elevation of Mary (the mother, not the whore) into a co-equal God with Christ. By elevating Mary into the divine pantheon, the critique goes, you lessen worship for the only true Redeemer, Christ. Uber-knowledgable as they are, apparently no one in Dan Brown's fictive world has ever heard the Vatican called "The Whore of Babylon" for its supposedly anti-Christian Mary-veneration.

The real brilliance of the book is that Dan Brown hasn't written a book, so much as he's written the ultimate mix-tape for seducing liberal-left college sophomore girls. Start off with a little Cheap Trick with I Want You To Want Me (not the Live at Budokon live version everyone knows, but the original studio version, just to be different), then maybe Matchbox 20's cover of Big Yellow Taxi to show you're down with environmentalism, etc. The whole "novel" is just a greatest hits of stuff designed to please your average, identity-conflicted, sexually-experimenting college co-ed.

I can't think of another work so geared to stroking the pseudo-intellectual erogenous zones of your typical Wicca-feminist 18 year old Vassar student. Brown claims the book is dedicated (along with his mother) to his wife, which is, I figure, just bonus pick-up points-- hey, he really loves his wife, so getting him into bed would be a real achievement! Plus, he looks like Harrison Ford in Harris tweeds and has a voice like "chocolate for the ears."

He should be dating again in no time, if he's not already doing so.

Bonus: It's Not Really A "Fast Read:" It's a "fast read" only because he includes so much crap that everyone skims over. He types words as promiscuously as a whore picks up johns. Most of his words aren't important. So people can "read it fast" in the sense they're skimming for the few actual words every few chapters that actually matter.

You couldn't really read Chandler like this, as his words were selected with care and all were designed to actually be read.

Now, in any thriller or mystery, you're going to have some skimming, especially at the end. Yes, when people see only forty pages are left, they have a tendency to just skip to the end, find out the big secret, and then come back and read what they skipped at a more leisurely pace. I don't do this usually -- and I definitely didn't do it here, as I could figure most of it out and didn't give a shit about most of it any way-- but I was definitely skimming.

Here's what I skimmed:

Anything involving Silas. He's a one-trick pony. Pain, cilice, God, I'm le spectre, I hated prison, it is sad that I have to murder this nun, why doesn't the Teacher ever just call to say hi? Okay, that's not just one trick, but it's an assortment of boring tricks that grow increasingly tedious with greater repetition.

Anything involving the Bishop. Who gives a shit? He's a pawn anyway.

Anything involving Fache or the other cops, like Collet. They're behind on the quest. Why would I want to read about people who are three or four steps behind the heroes?

Any frigging passage in which Dan Brown tries to describe a building. Fifteen Washington Monuments would fit in the lobby of the Opus Dei New York headquarters, or three Titanics, or five U.S.S. Missouris plus a couple of dozen Ferrari Daytona Spyders. Its remarkable fascade was designed by the architechtural firm of Jagoff & Ballsweat. It's at 423 Lexington Avenue, right beside a sandwich shop where you can get the most kick-ass roast-beef-and-turkey. (Incidentally, one-fifth of a Washington Monument can fit inside the sandwhich shop. Langdon was always suprised to learn how few Christians appreciated the lowly sandwich as a powerful symbol of the sacred feminine; it's got an opening, there's pinkish meat inside, and it's always better with a pickle.)


Quite frankly, I had no idea that Silas had died at all until eyes caught a stray reference to his body being discovered -- off-screen. Smart. We follow this doofus around for the whole book, but he's not around to menace the main characters when he dies. He just collapses somewhere and is, presumably, found by police.

I'm pretty sure that even Akiva Goldsman was smart enough to know this was just stupid. In the movie-- I'll bet a hundred bucks -- Silas does a "pop-up" and confronts Langdon at the inverted pyramid at the Louvre; Langdon tosses him down through the glass, and he lands upon the small pyramid on the floor below, impaled, dead. Killed, ironically enough, by the tomb of Mary Magdalene.

For a book which is so obvious in every way, it's strange that Brown missed the most obvious rule of all -- if you have a half-way decent villain, have the hero, you know, defeat him. Don't just kill him off-screen.

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posted by Ace at 12:12 PM

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