More Urban on Dan Brown

MORE ON DAN BROWN

By William Urban

Readers know that I consider Dan Brown is a terrible writer. Terrible, but a crowd pleaser. This opinion was recently shared by Robert Pogue Harrison in the October 24 New York Review of Books, commenting on The Inferno.
Pogue writes about Professor Langdon’s opening lecture on Dante, “Like everything else in this astonishingly bad novel, Langdon’s lectures lacks verisimilitude. Delivered in a great hall to over two thousand people who gasp, sigh, or murmur at every commonplace remark, it serves as a narrative ploy to convey rudimentary information about Dante to the uninformed reader.”
I’ve taught the Inferno often enough to both recognize its incredible richness and my limitations in understanding it. The language isn’t the problem, since there are many very good translations. As for nuances that are difficult to translate, anyone who knows Italian can read a well-footnoted edition that explains the obsolete words and obscure references. The problem in reading the text in any form is the combination of social norms in a medieval society, the Catholic theology of the late 13th century, and the tumultuous politics as described by an intensely partisan poetic genius.
Let it be noted: seldom do poetic geniuses stand back dispassionately and observe the contemporary scene. Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, does. Or thinks he does. However, he is only a pseudo-genius that represents Dan Brown’s view of himself as intellectual superman. Alas, Brown only writes as well as he thinks, and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
As Pogue says, “Brown’s novel has a cast of characters, to be sure, yet it has no interest in tracking the inner motivations of the souls or probing the muddled sources of their motivation. His characters are so thoroughly vapid and cartoonish that one suspects that Brown deliberately refrained from giving them any psychological density for fear that this would merely create friction on the high-speed rails on which his thriller races along.” Then the killer line, “The good news, for readers who go along for the ride, is that the novel reaches its destination quickly.”
None too quickly for me, though I will probably plow through his next novel. There is something about a terrible accident that makes people crowd in to look. The Warren County library aids and abets in this by buying the most popular audio books.
Now, why do I care? Because literature is the heart of a liberal education, and one must read bad literature to know what good literature is. If there were no hell, could we properly appreciate heaven?
Well, Dan Brown has more hell for us. He is now reissuing his earlier novels — the ones that were good enough to print fifteen years ago, but not exciting enough to attract the public. It is easy to see why. His 1998 Digital Fortress begins thus: “It is said that in death, all things become clear; Ensei Tankado now knew it was true. As he clutched his chest and fell to the ground in pain, he realized the horror of his mistake. People appeared, hovering over him, trying to help. But Tankado did not want help – it was too late for that. Trembling, he raised his left hand and held his fingers outward. Look at my hand!”
Where is Mark Twain when we need him? Or even an editor with a blue pencil? I think that Tankado probably clutched his chest in pain and that he realized his mistake with horror. Two awkward statements in only six lines, but pretty typical of Dan Brown’s style.
There were comments about his bad writing back when Digital Fortress first appeared, but he didn’t take them to heart. He filled The Da Vinci Code and The Inferno with crappy sentences, and there is nothing in The Lost Symbol to make anyone care about Masons.
Clearly, Brown doesn’t care what the critics think. As he said a few years ago, “I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else.” Good advice.
Why was Digital Fortress reprinted? First, his publisher knew that Brown’s name would attract buyers. This had its down side. One reader who liked the Da Vinci Code wrote, “I wanted to jump into the book and slap the characters around because they were so annoying. Everything about this book is annoying. The coincidences are just too many; the characters are predictable. I knew exactly how it will end three chapters into the book!”  Another wrote, “This book is painful to read. Most of the facts, much of which are crucial to the plot, are just flat out wrong. Dan Brown does not know very much about computers, cryptography, guns, or intelligence work, and it shows. His research was pathetic. This alone will turn off many technically-savvy folks.” He then added, “The climax was one of the worst I have ever read in any techno-thriller novel, and that is saying a lot considering how crowded this field became after Tom Clancy made it big.”
One reader from 2004 summarized the problems, “Wow, where to begin. This is the second Dan Brown book I’ve read and I’m guessing it’ll likely be the last. To begin, if you plan on reading this book, forget suspending your disbelief, rather tie up your disbelief, take it out back and shoot it lest it resurface while you’re reading the book.”
That prediction, of course, was wide of the mark. It seems that the worse Brown writes, the larger the number of satisfied readers. Many reviewers give Digital Fortress one star (the lowest possible rating), but others give it five-stars.
The second reason for the reprint is the increased public awareness of computer hacking and the NSA’s collecting data on just about everyone. Digital Fortress is suddenly relevant at the same time that Dan Brown’s name is well-known. We can count on huge sales, and more exposure on the History Channel (right up there with UFOs, crop circles and documentaries on Hitler).
Are the positive reader reactions another proof that our public schools have been a failure? Or that people read thrillers so fast that they don’t notice the writing at all?

Review Atlas (Oct 24, 2013), 4.

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