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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Put Down the DaVinci

posted by Mike Coffey
As promised, I finished reading The DaVinci Code last night. After my early disappointment that Timmy Kovach was not featured, I managed to get through the last page with my sanity and faith still intact. Don't all sigh with relief at once.

I'd like to address what I believe are the three main parts of the work: The Story (the method of telling and overall plot lines), The Codes (the cryptographical aspects of the plot), and The Stuff (1 guess).


Lots has been said elsewhere about the shortcomings of the story from a literary standpoint -- transitions, paragraphing, formulaic style, etc. I believe his main problem (which almost led me to put the book down multiple times in the first 30 pages) is he's a horrible expositionist.

All stories need exposition, with backstory and supporting details introduced in such a way that the story still flows naturally but the reader can appreciate and understand the depth of the story and characters. Sometimes this is done within the character diologue and sometimes without it, but if it's awkward, it detracts from the reader's enjoyment.

Dan Brown exposits like a Mack truck through a puppy farm. Irrelevant details are introduced in jarring ways. Did they have to take 10 reading minutes to get to the Louvre so I could get his opinion about French architecture and the introduction of completely minor details that would be blown up into exaggeration later? What's the purpose of a quarter-page paragraph concerning the main character's claustrophobia to support a two-sentence uneventful trip in an elevator that had no bearing on the story? How many times can you reference your previous book in the first two chapters? If we didn't find out, it certainly wasn't due to Brown's lack of trying.

Conversational exposition fares no better because it's seeded with sudden bursts of details expressed in unreported diologue. In between one character's comments in the conversation, we get a paragraph describing what the other participant replied and why with no direct quotes. Don't tell me what the character was concerned about, tell me what she said to express that concern. It's like listening to half of a phone conversation but twice as annoying because you don't expect that dynamic while reading a book.

A second enjoyment-detraction for me was an excess of plot twists. Clive Cussler (whose early work I very much enjoy) was known for these, usually about three quarters of the way through a story. The difference here is Brown's twists are harepin and in some cases border on deus-ex-machina, my second-least favorite plot device. You can also see them from more than a couple pages away, and he sometimes has to rely on vague earlier paragraphs for the logical underpinnings. The French inspector who chases them throughout the book suddenly becoming the protagonists' champion in a "knew it all along" way? The name change at the end and living sibling? Like me at every high school dance I attended, lame and awkward.


This is the aspect of the book that kept me reading after those attempted put-downs in the first 30 pages, because Brown does an excellent job weaving it into the story.

Cryptography has always been an interest of mine, ever since my great-aunt used to give us little "code quizzes" at family parties. Brown's use is very deft, introducing possibly complicated constructs in an easy-to-read manner. I found myself trying to figure out the clues as I progressed through the story, sometimes stopping for five or so minutes to consider the meanings or going back to read previous paragraphs or holding the book up to a mirror.

Given the mathematical and lingustic aspects of cryptography, it's an easy subject in which to bog down your reader. Brown avoided this pitfall by making the puzzles engaging, and he gets a big thumbs-up from me for the effort.


Ah, here we are at the heart of the crux of the gist of things: Dan Brown borrowing plot points from a Kevin Smith movie. Apparently Linda Fiorentino wasn't available this time around, or she can't speak French.

There's all kinds of things I could say here, but I'll do it this way:

Do I believe there are some "inconvenient truths" that the Catholic Church doesn't emphasize or downright hides? Yes, but I don't feel that way due to antipathy towards the Church. Rather, I feel that way because organizations both secular and not have been doing things like that since long before the Miracle of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church is, IMO, neither the only nor the biggest violator in that regard.

Do I believe the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church has a vested interest in reducing the role of women? Yes. Sorry, but there are too many old white guys sitting in the seats of influence, and they've made enough dumb mistakes to lead me to believe this is probably another one of them.

Based on those two things, do I find Brown's story plausible? Nope. Because he took those minor concerns out of my cranium and went skipping merrily off to Crazytown. Mary Magdelene's bones? You're off the map there, Flower Power. I suspect the book contract stipulated vaginal/pentagramical reference quotas, but (as with so much else in the work) can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found DVC to be too agenda-driven to resonate with me theologically. Similar to when I read Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" and was put off by all the gratuitous "Dan Rather sucks" interjections, Brown's repeated demonizing of Opus Dei (an organization I still consider wacky) and the Vatican hierarchy (ditto) seemed petty. Regardless of who ended up being the bad guy, I'm not sure Brown's portrayal of either of those organizations was fair, although I think both helped Brown out by overreacting to the work.

I guess my final analysis will depend on how much of the story dovetails with actual events. I know there are pro and con sites, articles and books out there, and I plan to do at least a cursory investigation of them to make that determination for myself. Further bulletins as events warrant.


Having read the book, I doubt I'll see the movie. I know all the possible twists, and the thought of a long-haired Tom Hanks trying to pull this off gives me the heebie jeebies. And as I noted, I've already seen "Dogma".

The book is a mixed bag. Once you get through the slow beginning, it's a relatively engaging read if you enjoy cryptography and can keep from drowning in the "goddess" talk. It's probably worth getting from the library if you're going on a trip.

It's the "Last Temptation of Christ" of the 2000's -- conservative angst over something that really isn't all that earth-shattering.

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