On my recent seaside sojourn I picked up that hardy perennial of holiday apartments, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I usually avoid novels when I am on holiday, as they end up being the object of analysis, deconstruction and fulmination: the opposite of rest and relaxation.
I’m sure I read The Da Vinci Code once and I am familiar with it’s themes, but I can’t really remember it. Anyway, on the one rainy day of my sunny week, I decide to find out why many millions of readers have found Dan Brown’s novel appealing. Perhaps I can learn something.
It’s a very quick read – thanks to a good admixture of short clear sentences, short paragraphs among the long, discursive, explanatory ones, short - sometimes very - short chapters, that all combine to rollick the story through the mental system almost without touching the sides. The energy of action is rammed home with quick changes of location and personnel. The quest theme is flagged up by codes and puzzles slipping out fish hooks of curiosity to land us gasping on to the last page.
A technical formula, indeed, for a very successful, engaging novel.
I think I enjoyed all this, first time round. But now I perceive a lot of sag. For example there are lots of places where one character explains facts at inordinate length to another character - variously: the nature of The Divine Feminine; the Mary Magdalene myth(s); the legends of the Orders of Sion and the Knights Templar; the genius of Leonardo de Vinci; and so on.
I encountered another sag in the plethora of paragraphs describing at length significant buildings from the Louvre downwards. I know, I know! The story wouldn’t work without the reader having this information. Without this they couldn’t join in the quest, could they? (And I also know such informationfiction has wide appeal among people who want to learn stuff from the stories they read.)
Another sag is the contradiction between a central theme of the novel - about how, historically, the male (church) establishment has excised the significance of the feminine core of our culture – and the characterisation. It is noticeable in this novel that the exciting characters – the professor, the aged curator, the obsessive collector, the colourful villains – are all men, whereas the woman cryptologist (beautiful, of course, and occasionally resourceful) is mostly the passive questioner, the receiver of male wisdom. Funny, that.
My favourite character this time round is the lurking, frustrated French detective. And I relish anew the poignant relationship between the duped archbishop and haunted, deluded, masochistic albino assassin. That is original.
But what surprised me most was my new perception that the novel so reduces the well documented and true genius of Leonardo de Vinci to a mere cipher of a puzzle maker. He’s always been a hero, an idol of mine and this is a trivial interpretation of his genius. Yet it is the central puzzle of the novel, the thing that holds it together. As a consequence it will be hard to think of him in the future without the propositions of this novel lurking somewhere in my mind. An idol falls…
I told you! There’s no rest in it. When I pick up a novel on holiday, that’s what I do – analyse, deconstruct, fulminate…
I think I have learned something here - probably about pace and indulging in more colourful, extreme characterisation. But also I’ve learnt things that I would not, could not do myself. And of course, these may be the very things that would make my novels sell by the million.
Next post – Further holiday reading. Lots to learn from Kathleen Jones’ excellent Passionate Sisterhood! But still idols are falling.