Monday, April 10, 2006

Et In Arcadia Ego

It does the heart good to see that justice has prevailed in the copyright-infringement lawsuit brought against Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and his publisher by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. The suit was, without doubt, an audaciously barefaced attempt at publicity-leeching in anticipation of the upcoming Ron Howard movie.

As this silly imbroglio fades into the rearview mirror, I'd like to announce that I am contemplating a lawsuit of my own, for pain and suffering incurred when trying to read Brown's cackhanded prose. I approached the book several years ago without much prejudice. I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail somewhere in the mid-Eighties and found it an engrossing, if academically highly suspect, read. I went on to steep myself in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, a far more rewarding wallow in paranoia, and that, I thought, was that. When I read that Brown, of whom I had never heard, had written a novel that appeared to recapitulate Baigent and Leigh's basic premise -- that a historical conspiracy had suppressed hidden knowledge of a royal bloodline that began with Jesus and Mary Magdalene -- I made a note to see what the fuss was about.

I suppose reviewers of contemporary trash fiction have hardened themselves beyond any trace of sensitivity to dreadful prose. I edited quite a large swath of the stuff myself decades ago, and I know at first hand the pressures that bear on editorial workers at mass-market houses to pump out product. If I'd kicked up some high-minded fuss about the fundamental oafishness of some of the authors I was expected to "clean up" -- Clive Cussler, Clive Barker, and John Gray among them -- I'd have found myself on the street, replaced instantly by someone plucked from the bottomless fund of idealistic recent college grads eager to toil for slave wages.

Reviewers of The Da Vinci Code said nothing that led me to expect writing as dismal as what awaited me. Blurbs on the jacket might have tipped me off. My old migraine Clive Cussler calls it "one of the finest mysteries I have ever read"; given a genre that encompasses Poe, Conan Doyle, Du Maurier, Sayers, P. D. James, and Hammett, it's impossible not to impute such an assertion to either spectacular incuriosity or profound dishonesty.

I was thus unprepared for the dull throbbing at my temples that was set off by Brown's opening sentence:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.
"Renowned curator"?

OK, fine. Start your novel with a breathless action sequence that sets the pace for an international chase across Europe. No problems there. But why in the name of shrieking Peter Wimsey do you begin your first sentence with a detail as mindbendingly dull as the fact that the subject is a "renowned curator"? What the hell does this add? Surely the expository fact that he is a curator at the Louvre can be saved and inserted a few sentences later when the action has been fully established? And the fact that he is "renowned" in his field is hilariously irrelevant in an action sequence.
He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
Joining the two clauses "it tore from the wall" and "Saunière collapsed" with the conjunction "and" is simply a schoolboy's error, a classic run-on sentence. The fact that Saunière's name is repeated rather than the pronoun "he" suggests criminally sloppy editing: No other characters have yet been introduced -- "he" could only possibly refer to Saunière! "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams Gregor Samsa found Gregor Samsa transformed in Gregor Samsa's bed into a gigantic insect." There: Perfect! Print that sucker!

All this in the first paragraph in the book -- three sentences that a less blithering stylist and more diligent editor would have sweated over until they were perfect.

A few lines down:
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
Again Saunière's a curator! Nice to get that relentlessly established! I forget: How renowned is he? Another solecism: you can't simultaneously freeze and turn your head. You just can't. Try it: Stop all movement (freeze) and now slowly turn your head. Hah! Caught you! You're moving!

So while Saunière is defying the laws of physics, the narrative voice continues on its clodhopping way. From Saunière's point of view, a silhouette appears. We'll leave aside the fact that a silhouette can't "stare"; instead, let's observe that Brown's narrator jumps in the space of two sentences from the subjective (what Saunière sees -- a black outline) to the omniscient (a detailed description of the very person Saunière can only make out as a sihouette).

This, my friends, is a master class in Awful Writing. This stuff just goes on and on and on, pages and pages of clangorously dull plod. These fundamental editorial mistakes are analogous to a piece of music in which the instruments are out of tune and playing in different keys, a film where the actors can't remember their lines and the cameraman trips over small objects on the floor, a ballet performed by stevedores. Its wretchedness may entertain for short periods, but eventually the sheer, blistering clumsiness of it makes one pine for a horde of lawyers at one's disposal.

I'll probably see the movie, though. It can't possibly be worse.


Anonymous said...

I read Brown's book before, somewhere, and not by Brown. But damnation if I can remember where. "Knights of the Order?" I dunno. Maybe even Umberto. It wasn't "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" because the crap I read was fiction. I'll hafta check.

harmfulguy said...

Are you sure it wasn't by Brown? He's written the same book four different times and published it under different titles.

Dan Brown has ruined the paranoid-mystical-history-conspiracy thriller genre for me, and I can't decide whether to curse him or thank him for that.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Also, what is this with the heaving of things *towards* oneself?

I read this book not that long ago mostly as part of a quest for common ground with a fifteen-year old. I remember experiencing a disquietude regarding the read that I couldn't quite put my finger on. This is that to which it done came down.

And what about the whole "nothing ever happening" thing? I mean, I suppose that could be construed as innovation.

As for the fifteen-year old I have wisely reverted to fart jokes and a complicit silence as regards the odd missing Victoria's Secret catalog.

So off to work I gotzmle

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Jeezis, that was so bourgEoise.


and, um, fuck injustice. sorry.

XTCfan said...

I'll probably see the movie, though. It can't possibly be worse.

Wanna bet? I've got a quarter-ounce of fine hydroponically grown weed that we can wager...

KCB said...

Another solecism: you can't simultaneously freeze and turn your head. You just can't.

Brown is not the first writer to be guilty of this, but he is apparently the least funny.

From Raising Arizona, Old man in the bank: Now, what's it gonna be young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? 'Cause if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm gonna be in motion.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ol' By Neddie:

Not to be a pest, but Clive Clusterfk? YOU edited Clive? I hate to say it, manno, but it doesn't show.

And they paid you?

My Siciliano coat (tattered) of arms reads: Lucri bonus est odor ex re qualibet. To the Latinny unlettered, this means, the smell of money is good whatever the source.

fgfdsg said...

Um, Neddie, promise me you'll never read my blog!

I never read 'Da Vinci Code', purely because I know by now, if everyone says something is good, it never is. It's just bound to be easy to read and the God Factor would make people think it's their Christian Duty to love it rather than honestly critique it.

Though I must admit when I found out what it was about the first thing that jumped into my head was 'isn't that just that Holy Blood Holy Grail' book?

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks? I know I can safely skip the film.

fgfdsg said...

Forgot to mention, you'd be surprised at how often detailed descriptions of 'silhouettes' appear in novels.

You want bad writing? There's a novel by Steve Alten called 'Meg' about a killer Sharkasaurus which is truly the worst thing even written by man. He burns through the thesaurus alternatives for 'big' within the first two pages, sometimes even running two descriptions right after one another. I guess a 'big huge large' shark is scarier than just a 'big' one.

Not to mention my personal favourite - 'i've done all this damn research so you're going to hear it' exposition awkwardly inserted into the middle of passages.

How bad was it? He's since rewritten it! Find the original, you'll slap your forehead within the first few pages, I guarantee it.

The sad part is, he has some kind of 'inspirational outreach' thing going with high school kids, where he'll come and talk and the class will read the book, leading to equally bad future writers.

I suppose he's inspirational - if he can do it, anyone can.

I'll admit his writing is so bad, it's turned into a guilty pleasure for me, much like the films of Uwe Boll.

Neddie said...

Ronzo: copyedited Clive Cussler, for the paperback edition of Deep Six, 1984. A copy editor, a pretty junior position, doesn't get to influence the ebb and flow of paragraph structure or story -- particularly in a paperback edition, where you're largely concerned with whether the typesetters introduced any new typos -- but yeah. I had his galleys in my hand and I didn't burn them or manipulate line breaks to make filthy acrostics, which was always a temptation.

Anonymous said...

Bless you, Neddy. That book was recommended to me by so many people that I thought I had lost my mind when the prose made me gag. And the cliffhanger endings of every chapter! What a pile of crap.

Reminds me of Johnny Rotten on MTV back in my youth. They asked him what he thought about 2 Live Crew and he said, "I'm glad we've determined they're not guilty of obscenity. Now can we talk about how they have no talent?"

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with Simon! Don't ever read my blog, Jeddie! Because if you do, no matter when I am, I'll know it -- cuz suddenly I'll just freeze, raise my hand to my forehead and say, "Oh crap!"

Just kidding. Please read my blog. And all you other dumbass yuppies are welcome to come on over, too. You all can critique me any dang time you want.

Everyone recommended this book to me, too. But I couldn't even get through the first chapter. Maybe you've explained why.

helmut said...

Absolutely no one recommended the book to me. I have, however, read and greatly enjoyed Foucault's Pendulum.


Helmut, Exchequer of the Royal Society of Norwegian Grammarians

Linkmeister said...

What the heck? Was this the weekend for reading/reviewing that waste of perfectly good forest? 'Cause I did the same here, and made some of the same points, although not nearly as well.

zvbsyv: Klingon for "copyright infringement."

Anonymous said...

Thank you Neddie. I just started reading your blog a few days ago. This piece about the Duh Vinci Crud will bring me back.

Anonymous said...

"Foucault's Pendulum" was wonderful, and the old conceit that Jeebus didn't really die etc. has been around for ever.

Of course, for the greatest fun, you need to read in The Illuminatus Trilogy. Now THAT is some fun conspiracy theory!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the warning. I'd probably have read the Code if I'd ever come across a used paperback copy, and then wondered Is It Crap, or Is It Just Me?

I'm really drawn to the paranoid-mystical-history-conspiracy thriller genre, and usually I'm disappointed. Foucault's Pendulum infuriated me. It was such a beautiful path he led me down for soooooo many chapters, and such a fizzle at the end. I felt used, cheap. I much preferred An Instance of the Fingerpost, or The Quincunx.

But the whole post would have been worthwhile if only to learn a new word: "cackhanded" is so delightful I can scarce contain myself.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I love the Kafka rewrite.

treepeony said...

Here's my favorite line: "Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall...." I love the awkward exposition, but the best part is renowned curator Jacques Saunière's heaving "the masterpiece toward himself" while it's still attached to the wall. My MFA writing students write funnier stuff every day, but Brown is pretty good.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Doesn't he score any points for presenting the church as God's own mafia?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I enjoyed the book in spite of the bad writing. I'm not a great writer, so I don't always notice the glaring grammatical errors.

With you Ned, it is like you have perfect pitch and you are listening to one of the Beatle's records where they weren't tuned to A440. They were in tune with each other, but they might have been off a few cents. If you notice that, what are you going to do when Anthony Keidis comes along and "sings" "Under The Bridge?"

For me, (and lots of other readers I suspect) after reading tech guides and computer code all day at work, "The DaVinci Code" was a pleasant diversion where I didn't have to think too much - I could just relax and enjoy the ride. It was sort of like eating a Whopper with Cheese. Can't eat 'em all the time, but every now and then I just gotta have one!

Anonymous said...

Whew! COPYeditor for Clive. Glad you explained that. I was about to change my homepage back to Wolcott LOL.

Neddie said...

Simon, GlueBirl: You got to know that when I read your blogs (and I do, regularly) these kinds of thoughts are *not* going through my head. I don't approach anyone's writing with this kind of critical eye, except to appreciate the good stuff. Wolcott gets off a zinger, I'm the first to applaud with polite salon pitter-pats. Now -- you foist fraudulent plop on 400 bajillion unsuspecting punters while critics fawn -- then we'll talk.

Linkmeister: The end of the lawsuit just in time for the paperback release and just as buzz is building for the movie -- how conveeeeeenient for everyone! -- brought this one on for me. What prompted you to write about it?

Libster: Thanks! Glad to see you around. Keep Britain tidy!

Madman: Illuminatus Trilogy. Isn't RAW a hoot? I go from wanting to hug him to wanting to smack him, frequently in the space of a sentence.

DecDem: The Quicunx: Man, I loved that book the first time through! All that super-creepy Dickensian early Victoriana, the sewers, the coded doohickeys over the fireplace, the villain (played to the hilt by C. Montgomery Burns). Then I made the mistake of rereading it a few years later. Boy, did I hate the mother. Man a-live did I hate her. Passivity, thy name is the mother in The Quincunx! And the spunky kid -- not much more likable. Pity. I'd still recommend it, though.

Treepeony: I had a riff on the "seventy-six-year-old man" bit, but cut it for space. Man, is that clumsy or what? Guy just trips on his willy every two lines. You'd almost thinks he's doing it on purpose... (Paranoia!)

Viscount: Doesn't he score any points for presenting the church as God's own mafia?

What, this is news? Have you read Holy Blood, Holy Grail? I'd highly recommend it -- as long as you come at it with the knowledge that what you're about to read is complete buncombe -- medieval scholars laugh until they puke. But while Da Vinci is stuck inside the conventions of a trashy novel -- cliffhanger endings, short, punchy chapters, hilariously unlikely coincidences -- HBHG is nonfiction, and thus (ironically, I suppose) can tell the story in a much more coherent fashion. And yeah, it's the same story. I might have considered a lawsuit myself, except that the law is possessed of wisdom in these matters, and declares that a fiction writer is perfectly free to lift plots from anywhere he damned well pleases.

Goodness listen at me prosing on! Time for a rest and a brimming tankard of lyiqdamv

Anonymous said...

It's not just the cliffhanger endings to every chapter, it's the artificial cliffhanger endings: "And then Langdon saw something that made his jaw drop... and in three chapters I'll tell you what it was."

My brother mentioned something I'd forgotten, an early scene in which Langdon's publisher is chewing him out. Something along the lines of "You don't really expect me to publish a book asserting that -- I can't even bring myself to say it." But only because, if the publisher did say it, Dan Brown'd have nothing to spring on the reader forty pages hence.

Oh yeah, and how does a novel so ostensibly concerned with the Eternal Feminine screw up the one female character so badly?

Oh oh oh oh AAAAND... Referring to Leonardo da Vinci as "da Vinci" is like referring to Alexander the Great as "the Great."

If you're reading DVC in public, please stifle your urge to curse the author aloud: just say "ysspgn!"

Anonymous said...

If I do see the movie, it'll be because of who was cast in the lead role. Dan Brown obviously wanted Harrison Ford in the role; I know this because he described his protagonist as resembling Ford--you know, the actor whose most famous role (arguably second-most, but it's close) was as a college perfesser and Man of Action who uncovered ancient mysteries while battling sinister international conspiracies, usually with some tasty arm candy close by to admire his manly manliness.

Who did he get instead? Tom Hanks, who despite his dual-Oscar status is only one pop-eyed, Daffy Duckesque exclamation of dismay away from evoking his Bachelor Party days. "Opus Dei? YJUMG!" I can hardly wait.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

What, this is news? Have you read Holy Blood, Holy Grail? I'd highly recommend it -- as long as you come at it with the knowledge that what you're about to read is complete buncombe --

Funny. I'd recommend DVC as long as you know you are getting a breezy trashy novel and not Dickens or Twain.

I agree with your technical criticisms of the book, but what can I say? I still enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion.

Since we've been doing the musical analogies, let me introduce one more. While I appreciate Steely Dan over The Ramones on every level, and while I'm virtually certain that there are musicologists who couldn't fathom what someone might like about The Ramones, I still like "I Wanna Be Sedated." You might counter that at least the Ramones guitars are in tune, and I'll grant you that one, but I don't care.

I found the "DVC" entertaining and that was all I was looking for...

Linkmeister said...

What prompted me to write about it? It finally appeared in paperback so I didn't feel too badly about dropping $7.99 to read it. No way did I want to spend $25 or so for a hardcover I really doubted I'd care to re-read; paperbacks I can give to the local Friends of the Library sale without feeling like I'm throwing money away.

eRobin said...

I like Tom Hanks so I'm eager to see the movie. I also like romance novels so the DVC was familiar territory for me. I didn't expect more than a rollicking good time as I skip read it. But the reason I especially like the book and am looking forward to the movie is because my thirteen-year old son read the novel and loved it. He didn't mind all the trite conventions because they're relatively new to him.

As an antidote, (which I presented to him as a complement to The DaVinci Code) I suggested that he read a collection of Poe, which he's doing now. He's liking that too. He's the best kid in the world.

Anonymous said...

Codswallop! Pure unadulterated codswallop! And some folk actually believe this Grailish stuff!

Anonymous said...

Several years ago, I went to my fifteenth high school reunion. During a free moment, my wife and I wandered into the school bookstore, which was rather small and cramped, in a dusty New England prep school kind of way. We therefore couldn't avoid hearing a very pompous alum going on and on about his new book and the fact that he and his agent were "searching for a director who we feel can really do it justice".

My wife and I had never heard of him before. Nothing he said made me want to do anything more than walk out of the store, which is a shame. A signed first edition of the Da Vinci Code would probably go for mucho dinero on ebay right about now.

Susie said...

It's not exactly a book - more of a yarn, or a movie treatment. I wanted to read it because I liked "Holy Grail." It was the strangest thing. I wanted to keep reading to see what happened but the writing was so bad, I couldn't quite believe it.

I picked up the rest of his "books" at yard sales to see if he'd ever written a good one, and can report without question that he didn't.

Anonymous said...

"Doesn't he score any points for presenting the church as God's own mafia?"

He even pulls that punch at the end. The great Albino silhouette killer is a misguided lamb of the benign organization known as Opus Dei.

I read it to see what had pissed off my fundie-catholic cousin. For me the worst part of this book, worse than a college professor giving an invited lecture being put up at the Georges V, or is it the Crillon (from the I know Paris from Robert Ludlum school), worse than the hero blearily gazing in the mirror at his square jaw covered in blue-black fuzz, for me the worst part of this awful book was the loooong chapter where three of the foremost Da Vinci experts in the world are just stumped--stumped I tell you!!--by mirror-writing. I, with my discovery channel, PBS and Time magazine scholarship in Da Vinci, recognized it right away.

And if somebody offered me twenty million dollars to write and publish a piece of crap like this, would I do it? Ab-so-fucking-lutely.

That said, I may have to see the movie--or at least buy a ticket--just to piss off William Donohue and Peggy Nooner.

Anonymous said...

This first line seems to be a habit of the renowned author: