I recently read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, to learn how to write that kind of pop page-turner novel. It was actually very helpful for this; I learned a lot about stuff like beginning with a bang, ending every chapter with a cliffhanger, starting the book at a crux, making the whole story take place over a few hour period, and so on. It even inspired me to come up with a plot of my own in the alternate-history / find-the-artifact-of-power genre (which I’ll make into a novel, eventually.)
Here’s a quick review, with no serious spoilers, for those few of you who haven’t read it yet.
First, let’s be clear that everything about the plot of this book is ludicrously over-the-top. To put this in perspective, there’s a giant, albino, monk assassin knocking off the world’s expert in his field, in the opening pages of the book. The sheer preposterousness only increases from there. The book is not only absurd; it is daringly absurd – by which I mean it is more cockamamie than I would have thought an audience will accept for this genre of book.
Second, there is a lot in this book which I find almost painfully contrived to read. The kind of artifice, pretension, and gaffes that might lead one to throw a book against the wall in disgust. I’m talking about stuff like describing the main character’s looks as, “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” and describing his job as a “professor of religious symbology” at Harvard. That said, I don’t think these are unintentional faults; I think they’re integral to the kind of book this is supposed to be.
Third, it bothered me that it is full of nonsense about the golden ratio. At this point, some of you who have read it might be thinking, “That’s what bothered you? Not the nonsense about the history of Christianity? Or any of the other nonsense?” Well, OK, the rest bothered me a bit, too, but the hokum about the golden ratio bothered me the most. Perhaps that’s because, as a photographer, I encounter so many golden numberists (i.e., people who believe fantastical notions about the golden ratio) – and some have specifically mentioned that they were influenced by this book. Of course, there are plenty of books in the world that are chock full of balderdash, but most of them don’t start out with a disclaimer to mislead people that they’re true, as this book does.
Fourth, The Da Vinci Code is rife with bland and simple riddles integrated with major plot elements. Admittedly, these riddles are at least better than those in The Hobbit, but they are not good enough to carry the book the way they have to. At least, for me they aren’t. I was able to instantly recognize backward handwriting and anagrams, was able to instantly figure out what orb was missing from Newton’s tomb, etc.
Fifth, there is basically no significance to anything in the book. I know that this book lead a number of readers to reconsider what they believed about Christianity, but that’s beside the point. There is no depth. There are no great themes. No profound statements. No introspections which resonate and stick with me. Nothing that changed the way I see the world. Compare this to a book like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, where you have to put down the book to think about what you just read, every page or two. Even comparing this to picture books for young children, like Ian Falconer’s Olivia, there’s less depth in The Da Vinci Code. It’s probably one of the least deep books I’ve ever read.
All of that might sound pretty harsh, and might make you think that I hated this book. Not so. If you can look past the stuff mentioned above and just read it as a page-turner, then it’s really not a bad book at all, in terms of what kind of book it is supposed to be. The plotting is intricate, very tight, and often very clever. There were several instances where I was quite impressed with how Brown wrote his characters out of difficult situations. And the man knows how to weave an alternate history. The prose is readable, too. Not elegant, but mostly serviceable and unobtrusive.
I wouldn’t’ve read The Da Vinci Code if I wasn’t looking to learn how to write this kind of book – but I’m not unhappy that I did. It was a fun way to pass some hours. I tend to like more substance than this in what I read, but in this case, perhaps some hours of silly fun were enough.
Thanks for reading this.