Thursday, 15 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 9: Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (2003)

More of this.

And here, with crashing inevitability, is the ninth best-selling book of all time (more than 70 million sales): the only one of the top-ten titles published in the 21st-century, the only one by a living author, and so on, and so forth. You know this score. It's drivel, but drivel of a bafflingly popular sort. I was pleased, in a petty way, to see that my own name crops up on the novel's Wikipedia page; because, yes, I have gotten closer to this novel, in various ways, than most normal people have done, or might want to.

It's tempting simply to lay into this book on account of its egregious shitness. On the other hand, it seems to me (I suppose) that slagging off The Da Vinci Code is, really, the least interesting thing to do with it. So I set myself a challenge: what can I say, by way of praising the novel, perhaps even by way of explaining why it has been such a behemothic success? Well, alright.  For although the prose is bad, the infodumping tiresome and the characterisation so meagre it seems wrong to apply a word as long and complicated as 'characterisation' to it -- let's call it 'Crct-ing' -- yet the plotting is effective. The plotting is not complex, or challenging, or very good, and it causes plausibility to strain and bulge like a condom stuffed with walnuts, but it is effective.  By that I mean: you read on, to find out what's going to happen next, and to find out what's going on. Writing a 450-page book that readers want, actively, to keep reading all the way through is something; and whilst booknerds like me will tend to sneer, many of the 70 million people who bought copies of this book were people who don't read much, or at all. Getting people who don't read novels interested enough in something for them actually to read a novel is something, too.

More, there is a kind of category error in much of the contumely this novel has called forth from its critics. They take the book very seriously, and lambast it accordingly for what are (nobody would deny) a pantechnicon of errors, distortions, factual idiocies and plagarisms. But this criticism mistakes its target. It is not The Da Vinci Code that is notable; it is only The Da Vinci Code's commercial success. On its own terms, and if we put aside the money it has earned, we're looking at a slight, silly but time-passing yarn (Tom Hanks, in an interview, put his finger on it: the book 'is filled with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense'); a yarn that happens to touch on a couple of quite interesting ideas. Those ideas may strike you as trite, or clumsy, or even as so well-worn as not to need stating: but the success of the book implies, I think, that for many people they are none of those things. When I say 'a couple of ideas', by the way, I mean just that: there are two ideas in this book, both of them quite interesting and both, I think, more progressive than people give Brown credit for being. Incidentally, by 'two ideas' I don't mean 'the Priory of Sion' and 'The Knight's Templar.'  Those aren't ideas, they're thriller pretexts, and rather dull ones at that.

No, I'm talking about two broader ideas.  And here's the first: that the world is not as it seems, and that -- particularly where high culture, established religion, wealth and power are concerned -- you need to dig down beneath the surface appearance of things to get at the truth. Now this is an idea both powerful and dangerous, for applied with too much force to a receptive consciousness it can easily lead to conspiracy-theorising, batshittery and all manner of 'lizards secretly rule the world', 'the moon landings never happened' and '9-11 was an inside job' idiocy. But it is an important idea nonetheless; and insofar as a large constituency of people on the planet are in the habit of taking things, particularly Established Things like church and government, precisely at face value, it is a progressive one. Of course, this idea is shrouded around in the book with a great deal of chaff and bollocks; but that matters less, I think, than people think it does. And whilst I'm on the subject -- 'Chaff and Bollocks': are those good names for a duo of crime-solving dudes? Not good names? Ah well. Back to the drawing board for me.

The second idea is a better one, I think.  It is that Christianity, historically, has undervalued female-ness, to the point of (for much of its history) actively stigmatising and oppressing women. This idea gets articulated in the novel both as a corollary to the idea that 'aboriginal' Christian dogma was much more progressive, in gender terms, and also is presented as secret to be uncovered. The fact that you, personally, may consider this a 'no-shit-sherlock' kind of secret may not be the most relevant reaction. A great many of Brown's biggest fans encountered this idea with a shock of revelation. They could of course have come across the idea in many other places, and most of those places it would have been better put, more sanely developed and so on; but the fact remains, they didn't, and they weren't going to. Of course (again) the idea itself is rendered into fiction via a lot of pfiffly running-about nonsense, as well as a quantity of active slandering of the Catholic Church (although at its end the novel pulls back from some of its more offensive anti-Catholicism). But to focus on the pfiffly details rather than the big idea is to miss something important about why so very many people fell for this title, I think.

So, yes; despite some brain strain on my part, I'm thinking myself into imagining why this novel should be the 9th-best-selling book of all time. And there are reasons.  Moreover, bad though it is, it is a least better than the equally-stupid but considerably-more-turgid ('turgider'?) The Lost Symbol, also now being turned into a movie. I reviewed The Lost Symbol on this very site a couple of years ago, and don't want to rehearse my detailed critique of the novel here. But I'll note one further thing.  The motor of the plot was to uncover the secret word that grants supernatural, demonic power -- the villain of the piece puts Robert Langdon in a tank filled with a fluid supersaturated with breathable oxygen, from where Langdon deduces the word, which the villain then tattoos on his head. The word is this:
Later we discover the word is not this, but is in fact the Bible, or something -- I forget the specifics. But for a while you, the reader, are really being told that the ultimate word, the word to which all others are subordinate, is a pictogram of a tit. It demonstrates, perhaps, Brown's dedication to the female principle.   But I don't want to get distracted.


Bill from PA said...

If the comic book Metal Men is to be believed, the original secret word is the symbol for gold, which does, in fact grant supernatural demonic power. Hence the popularity of book number 10 on the list.

Liviu said...

The way I see this book is like the winning lottery ticket, someone has to hold it; here, once publishers started flooding the market with conspiracy thrillers (based on demand of course after early titles like Name of the Rose and The Eight did very well), there was a good chance one will hit the jackpot.

Adam Roberts said...

Bill: irrefutable evidence of a grand cosmic conspiracy!

Liviu: I certainly agree that there is a tipping point where success rolls over into mega-success: when you get to that stage, when you're book is in every airport bookshop and you've been top of the bestseller lists for years, then the success itself becomes a reason people will buy your book: they will want to see 'what all the fuss is about', or else it will finally have penetrated the carapaces of their indifference to books generally.

Gareth Rees said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GJM said...

Adam, the Wikipedia article on the Da Vinci Cod says that you're 'a British Comedian', ha ha. I've never read any of your parodies but Yellow Blue Tibia is most definitely a comic novel - maybe it's not too far off the mark.

Zenek said...

The reason I read the Da Vinci Code was because someone gave me the Da Vinci Cod for Christmas and to read that I felt I had to read the book you were parodying!

Adam Roberts said...

Zenek: I glow with pride!

russeldewey said...

Either you love or hate this book. I am a "religious" person and I love the facts brought out in this book. It gave me a new look on things and is causing me to do my our study. This book had a great story that keeps you turning the page. This author is great! He holds on to you until the last chapter. MUST BUY!

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