Mr Brown Fried My Brain
He does have his own style, though, and it’s hilarious.
There are authors you avoid because you just know you’re not going to get along with them. EL James, the well known erotic typist, is one. Joan Collins fought (and won) in court to prove that her delivered book was not ‘unreadable’, on which she’s technically correct in that it consists of readable words placed in front of each other – check out the full story in the rather splendid latest series of ‘Urban Myths’. ‘The Girl On The Train’ nearly put me off crime novels for life, and ‘The Woman in the Window’ was an outrageously lazy reworking of ‘Rear Window’ minus the suspense, but these are not ‘unreadable’, merely serviceable and rudimentary.
The trouble is, authors think they’re so smart. They talk about deep meanings in interviews and think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. We are the heroes fighting the enemy of ignorance. In fact, when I step outside myself I see a neurasthenic over-sensitive liberal weed who’s a cross between Aubrey Beardsley and Ronald Firbank. Not exactly Conan the Barbarian. Therefore I have no right to prejudge anyone or anything until I’ve come to terms with it/them.
And trashy novelists are not ‘bad’ novelists. Faced with describing a nuclear holocaust a bad writer can make it sound as interesting as peeling a potato. But a good trash novelist will put every moment of the action into exclamation points. Who could resist Harold Robbins’ ‘The Carpetbaggers’ or Sidney Sheldon’s ‘The Other Side of Midnight’? The salacious pulps have been consigned to history by Netflix-generation shockers.
Mr Dan Brown has been the Mount Kilimanjaro of books the critics hate, but before I could pronounce judgement I thought I should give him a fair hearing. I tackled ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Origin’ (skimming a hell of a lot) and here’s what I found.
Mr Brown’s books are like those very long Hollywood films where you can nip out for a pee or an ice cream and come back to find that nothing has really happened. Oh, a lot happens in the sense that people move from A to B, but mostly it’s just Crystal Maze acrostics, running about unlocking doors. Plentiful action doesn’t necessarily mean story advancement.
He does have his own style, though, and it’s hilarious. By giving every development and every character equal weight and no internal life he creates a sort of two dimensional version of a book. People and places pass by as if printed on wallpaper, and none stays in the retina longer than the time it takes to look at it.
His stylistic tics have been much discussed; are they accidental or deliberate? It’s hard to find so many adjectives and adverbs on a single page anywhere else. Clearly he has never met a modifier he didn’t like, and this makes his style easy to mimic. Every single thing in the books is described as if nobody has any knowledge of it. I’m amazed he doesn’t write, ‘the Harvard professor of symbology picked up a spoon, a dining tool with a metal handle and a hollowed oval end frequently used for drinking soup.’
And he literally uses ‘literally’ on every page.
It doesn’t help that I’ve been to most of the places his goggle-eyed hero, Robert Langdon, visits in mouth-dropped wonder, so I have to jump reams of what-I-did-on-my-holidays research on churches and art galleries, because Mr Brown is simply regurgitating the capsule knowledge printed beneath each tourist sight.
His hero Langdon is a fascinating character, possessing only rudimentary academic knowledge, deeply conservative, aghast at anything modern – you can imagine his moué when presented with avant-garde art – and is I suppose Mr Brown’s attempt to align himself with his readers. Robert is an odd hero, perpetually lectured to but only tentatively leading. This technique not only reduces him to a student but us too, so that we’re all getting lectures from experts until we reach the point where Langdon has to take over the narrative just to remind us he’s still there. He’s the opposite of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who is definitely a Man Who Enjoys Being In Charge. Robert is a Man Who Doesn’t Much Like What’s Going On.
The Brown style has evolved between the novels, the former being more like Donald Trump’s texts, transparent and short on syllables. The latter is peppered – literally in the sense that one feels as though he has shaken them over a page – with terminology, the problem being that these (‘docent’ is a uniquely American term for a museum guide, it transpires) stick out in the dead text like unflattened nails. And he literally uses ‘literally’ on every page.
The plots are template; a big secret has been hidden for millennia by churches, artists and scientists in order to outrage Catholics in the late 20th century. Still, ‘Code’ got up the Vatican’s nose enough for them to issue a rebuttal of its founding thesis, the old chestnut about Christ’s bloodline, and Brown won his case against the writers of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ because it was argued that technically speaking he only lifted historical facts (although I personally think he was very close to the boundary between research and theft).
He repeats himself with ‘Origin’ because we’re ahead of his game now and can see the punchline coming down the track. As one reviewer pointed out, it’s a TED talk with a plot. Readers briefly believed his pulp fiction raised important points (the Vatican’s misjudged involvement raised the ‘Da Vinci’ game) but now we can go back to leaving them on hotel bookshelves, covered in sun cream. And there’s nothing wrong with that.