May 21, 2009

Umberto Eco Versus Dan Brown

In this corner, writing out of the University of Bologna and the University of Oxford, Umberto Eco! Born on the 5th of January 1932.
His titles include: literary critic, “medievalist,” philosopher, semiotician, and writer of novels; best known for his bestseller, Il Nome della Rosa, (The Name of the Rose 1980.)

…The Challenger, Dan Brown born on the 22nd of July, 1964, his accomplishments include songwriting and writing bestselling novels.
Brown is best known for the novels Angels & Demons and the Da Vinci Code and of course his self-titled 1993 album, “Dan Brown,” which included masterpieces such as "976-Love" and "If You Believe in Love". He decided to become a novelist while vacationing in Tahiti after reading Sidney Sheldon's novel, The Doomsday Conspiracy. Brown’s books have been translated into over 50 languages!

Let’s get it on! (BELL RINGS…)

All right, all right.
I‘ve only read three of Eco’s novels, and recently finished (yesterday) one of Dan Brown’s: The Da Vinci Code. I’ll give a little background before explaining that I will never bother to read anything Dan Brown writes ever again. Anyway:

Ecos’ novel, Foucault’s Pendulum was handed to me by a close friend Jay Park, back in my college days in the late 1980s. I tore through it fairly quickly because despite all the noise about it being post-structuralist, intertextual, and blah, blah –“Oh my God you haven’t read this yet?”-blah, blah… at the heart of it all, the novel was a story about friends who pulled a dim, thoughtless prank and then suddenly found themselves in over their heads. In this significantly pre-internet*, fake conspiracy novel three friends invent an underground scheme they call "The Plan." With references to the Telluric currents and even fabled and biblical weapons of the imagination like the Ark of the Covenant, their rumored age-old fake-ass plot takes on a very dangerous life of its own. Various cult groups and homicidal religious zealots look to kill them for more information about “The Plan” and the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. No one believes they made it all up; their well-played prank grows out of control to a horrifying tragic end. As you’ll see in my bare bones profile here on blogspot, it is one of my favorite novels. To me it is a deeply moving story about the ineffable qualities of those ties of friendship forged in early academic life. It illustrates the wonderfully secret and sometimes toxic life of booklovers who forgo the real world outside their imagination. This novel is also an eloquent and entertaining warning about the dangers of faith and belief.

Since about 2003 or so, several people (mostly folks I know only through jobs that I really hated doing) have recommended The Da Vinci Code to me as “something you’d like…”
-Nothing pisses me off more than when someone I barely know assumes that l’d like something I already suspect is a piece of shit lying in wait. I saw a TV interview with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks on Charlie Rose a few nights back about their new film Angels and Demons, their second adaptation of a Dan Brown book (Although it’s actually his first Langdon mystery/thriller). While I had never put down or disparaged Dan Brown’s work before (I really try to reserve judgment until reading something, but it gets tougher every year.) I have to admit I’d been going out of my way to avoid these books. People who are into Dan Brown's books, are really into them. Like, way too into them. When I worked at A.I.S. in the post dot com days on a graveyard shift, I worked with a guy who believed that The Da Vinci Code was a double-MacGuffin, or a fake story that was actually real. “Read it” he said, “It’ll change your life.”
Let me be clear on my feelings after now having read this asinine book:
If The Da Vinci Code changes your life, then I can’t imagine the colorless, vacuous existence you had before. The History channel is much more likely to legitimately blow a person’s mind, and even they frequently lift and glom from Dan Brown’s cosmology, such as it is.

I guess that what bothers me most about The Da Vinci Code is that, far from being a plagiarized work as is frequently held by its detractors (the conspiracy theories in it like accounts of the Prieuré de Sion among others, have been the central subject or subplot of many, many works of fiction, including comic books like Garth Ennis’s The Preacher) it is an example of what we can call grandiose mediocrity: shitty, unimaginative writing that tries to hide itself under the scale of the Byzantine plots it is describing, and legitimizing itself with claims of a basis in factuality. This is a not-so-new approach to an old formula used for many years by writers of political thrillers or spy novels.

Make no mistake, this may sell books, but it’s killing the very fucking idea of literature.

Every book Dan Brown sells forces another publisher to force another editor to force another writer to do something like this book. Worst of all, Eco’s glib remarks that he “created” Dan Brown don’t sit well with me. It lets the publishing houses off the hook for this drivel. While it’s funny to some readers to point out that Dan Brown could have easily stepped out of the pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, I’ve never thought that charlatans who exploit the superstitions of the “faithful” are harmless, especially when they are making so much money. In this way, after reading The Davinci Code with its extensive notes about how everything is stringently researched (Opus Dei, a real religious order not invented by Dan Brown but featured as the chief antagonist in his book, feels very differently by the way) is no different than the lie a “psychic” tells the world about his purported contact with the dead. As the “Mentalist” the Amazing Maxwell once said to me and my friend Michael Mejias over many, many drinks, “I’m a bullshit artist, I do tricks, and the trick is that I’m fooling you into thinking I’m actually reading your mind, -and not that I’m actually reading your mind.” He went on to remark that while he felt the actors in Hamlet had no responsibility to return after the curtain fell to assure the audience that they weren’t really dead, -people like John Edward really pissed him off. Telling the bereaved that you can talk to their dearly departed is criminal, it's fraud not entertainment or art. Telling readers that making their way through your bad writing is ultimately a process of discovery and illumination of mysteries is also fraud, no matter how many footnotes you plunk down at the end.

The Da Vinci Code is a "Scooby Doo" story for adults who can’t stop ordering shit off late night TV infomercials. It promises novelty, bigness, revelations, profundity but doesn’t even thrill because the actual writing is so damned bad. When I take into account the way Brown tries to distract readers from his juvenile plots and general weakness as an author with allegations of basis in fact, The Da Vinci Code goes from someone’s excusable guilty pleasure to a pretty indefensible read.

And now I will risk your ire by making a recommendation of this bad, bad, bad, book, albeit with a strong qualifier that should keep us both out of trouble… or maybe not:

If you think other badly written books like let’s say, The Fountainhead have something serious going on in them, (in this case other than rationalizing self interest and making it sound okay to be an asshole) then The Da Vinci Code is just for you.

For my part, I’m moving on to the remaining Umberto Eco novels I haven’t read yet to cleanse my palette. I feel I owe the man an apology for straying somehow.


*but it should be noted that this novel opens with a friend trying to figure out the password of a deceased friend’s computer, so for 1988 or so, it still feels so very relevant and contemporary.
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  1. Whew! WAT a review! LOL I really did get captured, I read it to the bloody end. I haven't read Umberto for a long while, you gave me back the gist. Have you ever dove into Tom Robbins... bet you have...wondering what kind of review lingers there.... I stopped by because you left a comment on my blog. And, TA! I appreciated it.... skinny-ed outa a review... hopefully. :=) Well made points, above. Did you ever read "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" (u know, those BBC-er's who sued Brown?) I got it the moment (it seems) it came out. I planned this farce surrounding that too... can't fault the MA doc. But Robbins stole it from my consciousness stream... "Another Roadside Attraction" proving again that the ideas are loose on the astral plane for any to pluck? But GOOD writing... that's another story. ghb

  2. Thanks ghb,
    this little essay was more impassioned than probably necessary on my part, but I was pretty annoyed after finally giving in and reading The Da Vinci code. I dig your blog and got to it through Jack Jodell's blog.
    I also write on politics under the same handle on Random Thoughts with Mycue23 at

    thanks for checking us out,

  3. Thanks, this saves me the trouble of reading Brown in order to dismiss it.

  4. @daWitchDocteh,
    --yeah this isn't one of those bad books you should read anyway to see for yourself etc. It really is just a bad piece of writing overall. There are far better books, before and since on this modern conspiracy/legend.
    Thanks for stopping by.