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Sunday, July 31, 2011

No Louvre Lost: THE DAVINCI CODE, by Dan Brown (Chapters 1-4)

Look, I don’t want to be a snob. I want to grant the possibility that a book that enthralls millions and millions of readers can’t be all bad, that generally people are good readers who respond favorably to accomplished storytelling, and that, even if intellectualism is the kiss of death, there is at least a place for ideas in popular fiction. 

Chapter 1 of The DaVinci Code casts into doubt all of these possibilities.

You want to know where it lost me? Page 1 of chapter 1, when Robert Langdon rolls over after midnight and reads a flyer next to his bed: “The American University of Paris proudly presents,” it reads, “an evening with Robert Langdon, Professor of Religious Symbology, Harvard University.”  Are you kidding me?  You’re delivering exposition by having the main character blearily read his own press clippings? 

On page 2 of chapter 1: “His usually sharp blue eyes looked hazy and drawn tonight. A dark stubble was shrouding his strong jaw and dimpled chin. Around his temples, the gray highlights were advancing, making their way deeper into his thicket of course black hair. Although his female colleagues insisted the gray only accentuated his bookish appeal, Langdon knew better.”

On page 3, Brown mercifully forgoes the adjectives and just skips right to it, describing Langdon as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” the repetition of “Harris” almost clever but too self-conscious to be entirely so, and Brown's attempt to separate himself from the description by couching the line in an embarrassing profile in Boston Magazine not quite working.

Here’s the thing…I actually don’t think that authors need to pander to readers so brazenly. The first chapter is all of four and a half pages, and, though I appreciate Brown’s desire to get the action started, I do think most audiences will wait until later in the book to learn that Langon is a Harvard professor. The monogram on the bathrobe says “Hotel Ritz Paris,” for Pets’ sake, so the “American University of Paris” is wholly unnecessary, and the investigator knocking on his door at this ungodly hour—you know, before Letterman is over on the east coast—says “considering your knowledge in symbology,” so that info isn't exactly a mystery for long.

As a reader, I do not need everything up front. Authors, I will roll with you until you withhold so much information that I get frustrated. It is your job to figure out when that is. Chances are, it's not page 1.
Not only does Brown give us a painstaking description, but he thinks we need this as well.
*****

The bad guys are introduced in chapter 2.  This is how they talk (descriptions are cut out in favor of pure dialogue; note especially the Mr. Burns-like “excellent”):
    
“I assume you have the information?”
“All four concurred. Independently.”
“And you believed them?”
“Their agreement was too great for coincidence.”
“Excellent. I had feared the brotherhood’s reputation for secrecy might prevail.”
“The prospect of death is strong motivation.”
“So, my pupil, tell me what I must know.”
“Teacher, all four confirmed the existence of a clef de voute…the legendary keystone.”
“The keystone. Exactly as we suspected.”
“When we possess the keystone we will be only one step away.”
“We are closer than you think. The keystone is here in Paris.”
“Paris? Incredible. It is almost too easy.”

And...scene.

Typically, when books are adapted to screenplays, the screenwriters have to select only the pieces of dialogue that capture the essence of the story that the movie tries to tell. I recently read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and then followed up the reading with a viewing of the four-hour HBO movie, and, though the movie is excellent, it can best be described as a kind of outline for the much more excellent book. “Dumb down” is harsh, but a typical movie (120 minutes) can only hope to reduce the complexity of a novel to a narrative that has its moments.

There’s book-speak and then there’s movie-speak: Books develop; movies advance.

I haven’t seen the film version of The DaVinci Code, in large part because I’m still pissed at Ron Howard for stealing either David Lynch’s or Robert Altman’s Best Director Oscar that year, back when I gave a shit about that kind of thing (look it up). I thought about watching the movie, but then I realized that Brown has wasted enough of my time, so why would I want to give him more? 

In any case, as I was reading the bad guys’ exchange above, I thought, “They’re actually going to have to make this dialogue less transparent for the screenplay.”

People don’t talk this way. Not even in movies.

Even this cartoon is richer than Brown's villains.
*****

In chapter 3, Langdon is in a car, racing to the Louvre to help solve a crime. His trip takes him past the Eiffel Tower, which Langdon looks at admiringly. The Tower reminds him of a parting kiss with a previous love.

At this moment, the agent who is along for the ride says, “Did you mount her?”

Langdon replies, “I bet your pardon?”

The agent motions to the Tower: “She is lovely, no? Have you mounted her?”

I’m not making this up.

*****

For the record, at the end of chapter 3 (page 20), I wrote, “He needs a cohort,” which can be interpreted to mean either a partner or a romantic interest. Of course, in this book, she’s going to end up being both, but there’s certainly no need to wait any longer to introduce her.

*****

We watched The Adjustment Bureau last night, which was wildly disappointing, in part because the rules they established were both necessary and arbitrary. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that the mysterious figures in this movie should suffer from the same phobia as the Wicked Witch of the West, who is also undone by a pretty silly weakness, if you ask me. (In fairness, I’ve not read either the Frank L. Baum series or the Philip K. Dick story on which The Adjustment Bureau is based, which might explain these limitations more satisfactorily than the movies do.)

The best thing I can say about The Adjustment Bureau is that it got Leu and me talking about the necessity of weaknesses in characters and the degree to which they either work or don’t. Personally, I rather like the notion of an “Achilles heel,” for example, because there’s a kind of logic that guides dipping someone in the River Styx. You have to hold him somewhere, which means that something ain’t getting dipped. (By the way, is the Green Lantern really bothered by the color yellow? Please tell me this isn’t true.)

Thinking about it now, I would say that Hitchcock handled Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo about as well as you can, which is to say that his weakness, which prevented him from acting earlier, had to be overcome in order for him to behave heroically in the end.

I'm not breaking any news here. This is a guiding tenet of stories for all time: You get a second chance, and this time you'd better not fuck it up.

Brown introduces Robert Langdon’s weakness in chapter 4: He’s claustrophobic. Once he arrives at the museum, he has to take an elevator. Brown writes, “Langdon exhaled, turning a longing glance back up the open-air escalator. Nothing’s wrong at all, he lied to himself, trudging back toward the elevator. As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces—elevators, subways, squash courts. The elevator is a perfectly safe machine, Langdon continually told himself, never believing it. It’s a tiny metal box hanging in an enclosed shaft! Holding his breath, he stepped into the lift, feeling the familiar tingle of adrenaline as the door slid shut.”

I mean, obviously, so much is made of this moment that the climax of the book must feature Langdon mastering this fear in order to win the girl and save the world, right?

Right?

P.S. “Squash courts” is supposed to be funny, isn’t it?

Any hero's greatest fear.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

DaInterlude: More Introductions

I had so much fun sifting through introductory paragraphs for the first post on The DaVinci Code that I thought I would list some that didn't crack the top two.

I know this blog hasn't been the most interactive endeavor--that one shot at a poll died a merciful death--but I would be curious to see what kinds of opening paragraphs you, dear readers, find compelling, so do feel free to share in the comments section below and I'll post.

I'm refraining from commentary, as I think the introductions speak for themselves, but you do not need to demonstrate such restraint.

So, some more of my faves:


“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”


“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”


“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.”


“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.  Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run.”


“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend. He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was ‘The Secret Goldfish.’ It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”


Monday, July 25, 2011

No Louvre Lost: THE DAVINCI CODE, by Dan Brown (Introduction and Opening Paragraph)

Quick note:  Regular readers will know that I am more longwinded than this upcoming series of shorter entries indicates.  Truth is, life is busy enough right now that if I wait to finish my essay on Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, I won't post for another month, so I'm just going to post in a series of shorter entries.  This introduction to why I'm reading and writing about this book in the first place will be the longest of the bunch.


The DaVinci Code is exactly the kind of book that I have been trained to hate: plot-driven, contemporary, and—horror of horrors!—popular. Actually, though, it’s even worse than that. The DaVinci Code is the kind of book that I have been trained to disregard completely, which means that I wasn’t even allowed to hate it myself. I had to hate it from afar, casting judgment on those who held it in their common little hands, without actually reading a single word of it myself, which, I believe, shows up in Webster’s as the first entry for the word “scoff.”

I hold multiple degrees in the various English language arts, a few of them are even of the graduate variety, which means that I have read Tristram Shandy, Clarissa, and The Waves, but not a word by John Grisham, Mitch Albom, Stephanie Meyer, Wally Lamb, or Patricia Cornwall. Until recently, I didn’t consider this much of a loss. I held the standard academic view that any text worthy of my time was a text that rewarded multiple reads, and, judging by the pace at which people flew through the titles by these authors, these were single-serving books, to borrow a phrase from Chuck Palahniuk, another bestselling author whom I’ve never read. If I’m going to devote the time it takes to read a book—even a bad book—then I want to devote it to something that is ultimately worthwhile, and there’s something to be said for the vetting process of time.  

Of course, what “reward[ing] multiple reads” really means is that they must be good fodder for research papers, but never mind about that.

My mood started to change with a piece that appeared in Playboy about a series of books that were being published by Hard Case Crime. The books were exactly what you would expect from a publishing house called “Hard Case Crime”: They were hardboiled tales about money, femme fatales, and ordinary Joes who get sucked into seedy situations. They had titles like Somebody Owes Me Money, Say It with Bullets, and The Corpse Wore Pasties, and their covers were of the throwback variety, with guns doubling as phallic symbols and breasts just, well, doubling. To intellectualize this would be to fall into the very trap I am trying to avoid, so let’s just say that the books provided something for me that I didn’t even know I was missing. I immediately ordered three, flew through them, and then ordered three more.

See what I mean.
Some of them are contemporary potboilers, but the best of them are books that have been long out of print and that are being rescued by Hard Case for a new audience. Many of these authors are the Dean Koontzes of their day. Sadly, I’ve not read Koontz either, but I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt and say that, like Koontz, these authors are good at what they do. I would be proud to have written any of the numerous titles I have read. Sure, they are plot-driven, but to say that a story with a story is somehow inferior to a story that is instead a rich, brooding character piece is to unfairly preference the skill it takes to develop character rather than spin a yarn, when the truth is that both types of books take an inordinate amount of skill, neither one being inherently “better” than the other (whatever that means).

My appreciation of the Hard Case series made me realize what a snob I’ve been. I am absolutely guilty of equating “popular” with “inferior,” which meant that The DaVinci Code’s popularity has worked against it in my mind. However, when I saw a hardback copy at a church book sale on 181st Street, I knew that now was the time to put aside my prejudices and read the book for myself. The book costs five dollars. There is no dust jacket. It is the 15th printing. There are no notes of any kind in the margins of the text, though there was an interesting letter included, which will be the subject of a later post.

My idea is to basically keep a journal of the experience of reading The DaVinci Code and just jot down my thoughts as they emerg from page 1 on through page 454. Believe me, whoever inherits this copy from me is going to have some notes to sift through. You think deciphering The Last Supper is a chore, wait until they see my penmanship.

A final word before I dive in: The spoiler alert is that this whole entry is a spoiler. I am coy about nothing. If you haven’t read it yet and you don’t want anything spoiled for you, stop reading now.

OK, on to the book.

There's really no need to post these anymore, but I just like them so damn much.


The first word of Dan Brown’s crowning achievement: “Fact.” As in, it is a fact that the Priory of Scion and Opus Dei actually exist and are not just products of the author’s imagination. I’ve never understood this. Who cares if a story is true or not? What matters a “based on real events” that precedes a book or a movie? I figure by the time that it makes it to its finished form, so much has been manipulated that the “factual” elements are dubious, at best. The most honest promise of “This is a true story” is the one that appears before Fargo, because the whole damn thing is made up. Well, it’s not entirely made up, but it is cobbled together from multiple sources and then reconfigured to suit the needs of the artists. Now that’s true. But OK, Dan Brown, “fact.” We can start there.

*****

I love first paragraphs. The best first paragraph establish a tone, introduce a character, or pose a question, and hopefully they pull off all three, which is really just to say that the best first paragraphs make you want to read the second. Here are a couple firsts that definitely nudged me on to seconds:

From The Big Sleep(1939), by Raymond Chandler: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaven and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything a well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

And this, from Gilead (2004), by Marilynne Robinson: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.”

Here is the first paragraph of The DaVinci Code: “Louvre Museum, Paris. 10:46 P.M. Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. 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 Sauniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.”

I like the bold gesture of the beginning and that it immediately establishes a character and a place, even if the description of the character settles for demographic information rather something richer. The introduction includes “staggering,” “lunging,” “grabbing,” “heaving,” and “collapsing,” which sets up an action-packed ride.

Still, if I’m browsing in a bookstore, I put this one back down. On our rather exclusive list of introduction here, I rank this one a distant third.

Oh, hell, why not?