Never Mind the Symbologists

Welcome back. Hope you had a good summer.Dan Brown The Lost Symbol

You won’t have failed to notice that there is a new Dan Brown novel in the shops, The Lost Symbol. Closely following the formula of The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s hero Robert Langdon uncovers a secret conspiracy that challenges our whole perception of human history, etc.

Dan Brown is often criticised for his prose style. In fact, perhaps ‘style’ is doing him a favour. For some, his prose is like linguistic porridge; bland, colourless, and stodgy. The Telegraph has today listed their 20 worst Dan Brown sentences. It’s a pretty damning evidence sheet:

“The Knights Templar were warriors,” Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.

As Tom Chivers points out, the objectless ‘reminded’ and the silly tautology of ‘echoing’ and ‘reverberated’ make this a howlingly bad sentence, while elsewhere (cf. #11 & #18) he seems not to know the meaning of some fairly simple words. Throughout his books – I’ve only read The Da Vinci Code, I should add – he stodgily inserts undigested slabs of factual research:

He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.

These moments are stylistically inert; they don’t add to the atmosphere, they don’t express any character’s psychology (at least, not in a helpful way); they read like someone cutting and pasting from the Internet – and we know that’s bad, right gang? Elsewhere, Steven Poole uses his blog to shred one particularly glutinous passage from the new novel

The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms. The skull was hollow, like a bowl, filled with bloodred wine. […] The initiate had been told every room in this building held a secret, and yet he knew no room held deeper secrets than the gigantic chamber in which he was currently kneeling with a skull cradled in his palms. […] Steeling himself for the last step of his journey, the initiate shifted his muscular frame and turned his attention back to the skull cradled in his palms.

The repetition of ‘skull cradled in his palms’ can’t fail to suggest a fatally shallow creative repertoire. Further, his credulous fascination with vast transhistorical conspiracies has perhaps found an audience which prefers to believe in simplistic plots that determine the way the world is rather than the messy reality of politics, money and power. To believe the latter would require action; to sink blissfully into the former is to accede to a kind of cyncical fatalism.

The writer this reminds me most of is Irving Wallace, another bestselling novelist, now almost entirely forgotten, whose The Word (1972) is an international thriller about a discovery that challenges the standard view of the Jesus story. Sound familiar? It’s just as hokey, just as racily quick to read, and has, like Brown’s book, some exciting plot twists. Wallace also possesses the same fatal addiction to his own research, the same clumsy way with the English language, the same insistence on irrelevant detail. Here’s – seriously – the conversation between Randall (the American hero) and his Dutch driver Theo, as they enter Amsterdam:

‘Ahead, de Bijenkorf,’ Theo announced. Randall recognized Amsterdam’s largest department store, de Bijenkorf, or Beehive, a six-story [sic] madhouse of customers. This moment [sic], dozens of shoppers were streaming through the chrome-framed swinging and revolving doors.

‘There, on the side next to it, where you go,’ said Theo. ‘The Kras.’

‘The what?’

‘Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, where is your headquarters. No one can speak such a name easily, so to us it is the Kras. A Polish tailor, A. W. Krasnapolsky, he quit his tailor shop and put there in the Warmoesstraat in 1865 a café, with wine and pancakes à la Mathilde made by his sister-in-law. After, he made a billiard room, and after the Wintertuin, the winter garden, then bought houses all around, and put extra floors on top, and made one hundred rooms for a hotel. Today three hundred and twenty-five rooms. The Kras. See, there is Mr. Wheeler. He is waiting for you.’

George L. Wheeler was, indeed, waiting beneath the glass canopy that projected over the sidewalk.

(p. 154)

The inert information, the pointless details, the awkward syntax, the misspelling; could Irving Wallace be the inspiration behind Dan Brown?

However, is this – as some have said – snobbery? Is this the scorn of the literary classes who like books to be exclusive to them and can’t bear the fact that someone has sold millions and millions of copies of something they didn’t generate themselves? After all, is a fine elegant literary style an absolute requirement for a good book? Is narrative energy not just as important? When people describe a book like The Da Vinci Code as a ‘page-turner’, the phrase suggests that the reader is not lingering on the plastic qualities of the language, the grace and balance of each sentence, but, as it were, looking through the language to the story it represents. Such a defence would say that the very artlessness of Dan Brown’s prose is about giving the reader unfettered access to the story: no complicated words to puzzle over, no aesthetic framing that asks the reader to question the account, no structural or formal experiments that might prove difficult to unpick when reading the book on the morning commute. If literary figures like ourselves object to the book they are simply reading it the wrong way, insisting on paying attention to the detail of the language and thereby snagging ourselves on its barbs. It is like searching a photograph for brushstrokes.

Arguing against that asks big questions about literature and reading in general. Why do we read? Is there an ethical imperative in the literary requirement to write well? Do we do ourselves any harm in ignoring inelegant language and just reading for the story? Where does good style come from? Is it a permanent and universal aesthetic quality? Or does it express the particular preference of one social group at a particular historical moment? And what is the secret lurking within the Capitol Building and will Robert Langdon manage to decode the Lost Symbol?

DR

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1 Comment

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One response to “Never Mind the Symbologists

  1. I’ve posted my own take on Dan Brown’s latest tome to my reviews blog. As fate would have it, my review is pretty much a carbon copy of what Dan says here.

    In Clive James’s latest prose collection, The Revolt of the Pendulum, there’s an excellent essay called ‘The Perfectly Bad Sentence’ which may be relevant here. According to James ‘In writing, to reach the depths of badness it isn’t enough to be banal. One must strive for lower depths’ [112]. This is his example of the perfectly bad sentence: from a piece in the Sunday Telegraph [July 8th 2001] written by Neil Harman:

    ‘Now, the onus is on Henman to come out firing at Ivanisevic, the wild card who has torn through this event on a wave of emotion …’

    If you can analyse that sentence say what’s wrong with it, and most of all avoid writing like that in your own stuff, then there’s hope for you as CW students at RHUL.

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