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Sunday, August 28, 2011

July 17, 1980: "For Your Eyes Only!"

I bought my hardcover copy of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code for fifty cents at a church book sale on the corner of 181st and Ft. Washington in Washington Heights. At that same sale, I also bought Luc Sante's Low Life and John Stadler's Hooray for Snail!, in which a snail hits a homerun and then takes a really, really long time to circle the bases. The Sante book might ultimately warrant an entry on this site. The Stadler book, probably not, though Jonah and I have certainly earned our quarter's worth.

The DaVinci Code had no dust jacket. There was not a single note on any page anywhere in the book. No "If lost call" plea. No address written on the inside of the back cover. There was nothing anywhere to indicate anything about the previous owner. 

Except a card that was postmarked "Berne, New York, July 17, 1980."  I'll keep specific names confidential in the wildly unlikely possibility that somehow this gets back to them, but I will say that the recipient was "c/o Camp Fowler" and that Camp Fowler is located in the ridiculously appropriate name of "Speculator, New York."

Despite the name, I'll resist the temptation to do just that and instead relate as objectively as possible the contents of the letter. You can draw your own conclusions about the relationship, as I have. I should say that my conclusions have shifted. Yours might, too.

The card looks to be a stock card that one might have on hand in case a "thank you" is needed. The image on the front is decidedly Southwestern, a Native American riding a white horse with those cliffs that Wile E. Coyote falls from  in the background. The quote on the front of the card says, "Wishing for you the fullness of life, / I go forth upon the trails of our Earth Mother. - Adapted from Zuni Fetiches." The back of the card says, "American Indian Quote Cards." There is no bar code or price on the card, which supports the notion that it was purchased en masse.

The card is over 30 years old. What it is doing in a book published in 2003 is a mystery. How strange that it was important enough to keep for all of those years, yet not important enough to retrieve before being left on the charity pile.

OK. Enough.

The first line is in the top-left corner. The second line is one line down, flush right. After that, it follows standard letter format, in legible cursive of blue ink. The first line is the only one that is not cursive. The card is landscape, the text taking up the top and bottom of the opened card, as if it is a continuous sheet. The last five lines and the closing are on the back. The paragraphs are indented.

It reads:

"For your eyes only!

"July 17, 1980

"Dear B.,

"There's one person at Camp Fowler who doesn't get enough recognition, and that is you! You have done a marvelous job at building up the camp, the staff and the volunteers. You do a great job with the kids, too.

"I want to be personal for a minute. Each year I have come to camp, I always have a fun time and I always go home with something extra. The 'extra' is always something you have shown me. I wish we could have had more time for one of our 'talks' this year as we have had in the past years. You are so caring and so sensitive, both to campers and staff people. I am in awe of that and I want to be more that way myself. Each year you show me by your example that it is possible to 'see' people and not just look at them. You see so many things that I miss when I look at others. God had truly blessed you with this gift and you have used it well. May God continue to bless you, your family, and your ministry.

"We will be camping at Fowler from August 7-11. If you aren't too tired and would like company, we'd love to talk and share with you, K. + kids.

"With love and admiration,


Put that in your Kindle and smoke it.

If you're ever in Speculator....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Louvre Lost: THE DAVINCI CODE, by Dan Brown (A Hasty Conclusion)

Picking on the poor little ol' DaVinci Code hasn't been nearly as illuminating as I had anticipated, and, yes, all snark aside, I did expect the exercise to illuminate. I honestly believed that a book that achieved such unprecedented popularity--if not exactly critical acclaim--could teach me a lot about storytelling. I realize that it's the A Billion Chinese Can't Be Wrong argument from The Lost Boys, but, in general, I trust the masses. I do not equate "popular" with "least common denominator," and I appreciate when I see the same cover over and over and over again on my morning commute that it represents the zeitgeist, and that's not nothing. Rather than resist, I would much rather understand.

In the case of The DaVinci Code, the best that I can gather is that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are drawn to controversy and/or the Catholic church. The crux of the novel is that Jesus hooked up with Mary Magdalene and that their coupling created a child. Oh, sure, Brown enjoys dropping the phrase "sacred feminine," and he calls out the church for scrubbing the records of powerful women throughout history, but make no mistake, there are really only three questions at play here: One, did Jesus do it? Two, if so, did he create offspring? And, three, does a vestige of that line still exist today?

I suppose I understand how this could excite a certain audience and rankle another, but I just don't care. Blame it on my feelings toward Jesus, but Langdon and Sophie were running around and hollering about how their discoveries--if discovered--were going to rock the very foundation of the Western world, and my reaction was, Yeah. So?

One of these figures is supposed to be a woman. You can rule out the people with beards. Or can you...?
So, in the case of The DaVinci Code, allow me to borrow a phrase from Ian MacKaye and simply say that I was out of step, with the w-o-o-r-r-l-d. There was a disconnect between me and the material, and no matter how deftly Brown pulled it off, he was only going to achieve a certain amount of success with me as his audience. It's kind of like the best U2 album. It's still a U2 album, to betray another of my biases.

Yet, even as it became clear that I was not an audience member that was naturally drawn to the material, I left open the possibility that there was something to learn from the way the story was put together. Turns out, there wasn't. Previous entries have cataloged a number of ways in which I find Brown's narrative lacking. There's no point rehashing them here. The short version is that The DaVinci Code feels more like a 450-page screenplay than a novel, which is to say that it feels like the thing before the thing that it really wants to be. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my novels to feel like novels.

Even so, the book does not deserve to be mocked. The initial idea was that a serious examination of a flawed text is a worthy endeavor. Problem was that I opted to be obnoxious rather than serious, which is less about the relative merits of the book and more about Look at me! Dan Brown made some choices. He made a whole bunch of choices. I don't agree with many of them, but a lot of people apparently did, and who am I to ridicule that which so many people enjoyed?

I'm reminded of the Beastie lyric, "It takes a second to wreck it / It takes time to build." I'd rather build.

So I'm stopping this strand of the blog now. Honestly, the worst part, it's not even fun to write. Just too negative. Depending on how this entry went, I was also thinking of applying a similar technique to other popular fare such as Twilight and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have no plans to do so now.

I still intend to read them--the Billion Chinese argument again--but I'll be keeping all of the mean-spirited quips to myself.

Currently #10,992 on Amazon's list of top-selling books, though it has sold over 80 million copies worldwide.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

No Louvre Lost: THE DAVINCI CODE, by Dan Brown (Chapters 13-20)

You thought Joey Buttafuoco was bad, check out the deepest, darkest crevices of Dan Brown’s mind:  “She [Sophie] pictured her grandfather’s body, naked and spread-eagle on the floor.”

Then, later:  “It was an image she could barely believe to this day.”

Believe me, Sophie, you're not the only one having a difficult time shaking that one.


Few authors handle flashbacks as inexpertly as Dan Brown. Whether it is Langdon remembering a key piece of information from a lecture he delivered (and in which he was utterly charming and beloved by his students) or Silas (the bad guy by virtue of being an albino) recalling the upbringing that turned him into an all-too-willing goon for the Catholic church, Brown’s transitions are reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live sketches in which the actors would put their arms above their heads and sway back and forth to indicate that they are now going back in time, only the Saturday Night Live sketches were funny on purpose.

I’m reminded too of Donald Bartheleme’s Snow White, in which he just drops a resume into the middle of the book when a new character appears, which is about as subtle as Brown and all the better on account of its transparency.

You don't even want to know what "naked spread-eagle grandpa" turned up in Google Images. Consider this an antidote.
Anyhoo, Sophie has a number of flashbacks that are intended to pique the reader’s interest. This one, however, strikes me as being especially loaded: “Sophie could suddenly hear her own heart. My family? Sophie’s parents had died when she was only four. Their car went off a bridge into fast-moving water. Her grandmother and younger brother had also been in the car, and Sophie’s entire family had been erased in an instant. She had the newspaper clippings to confirm it.”
Oh, well, newspaper clippings…. I guess that’s that.

One of my favorite aspects of noir is that it typically include an average guy (and, yes, it’s almost always a guy) who, through a series of escalating events, finds himself in a very un-average situation. Sure, there are babes, money, and guns, but what is noteworthy is that the guy face-to-face with the babes, money, and guns has never encountered them before. He just wants to sell insurance or get his car fixed or, in the case of the Dude, clean his rug. Saving the world is the farthest thing from his mind. What I like about this kind of story is that someone who is decidedly not a hero is asked to behave heroically. If you want to get sappy about it, you could say that noir allows for the possibility that there is a hero in us all, but I don’t want to get sappy about it.

I admire this part of Brown’s story, anyway. Robert Langdon is an academic, and, even though Brown asks us to believe otherwise, he is no Indiana Jones, who, let’s face it, is a professor by day and a superhero by night. Langdon is a lecturer, and that’s about it. I really do like watching him outmaneuver his pursuers, and the way in which Brown leads Langdon farther and farther down that path of no return is, at the very least, identifiable. I never faulted Langdon for any of his choices.

The problem is that it would be a more interesting story if I did, for the other defining characteristic of noir is that the average guy who suddenly finds himself in un-average situations might be average but that doesn’t mean that he’s flawless. Something haunts him, whether that something be drink, a dame, or a bad decision years ago that he’s just never been able to shake and if only he could have that one shot at redemption, if only.

Characters in noir behave selfishly, cravenly. They are driven by greed, by sex. In short, they behave like human beings, which makes them all the more sympathetic because they are relatable.

Robert Langdon displays none of this complexity. To pull for him is to pull for a robot, and not even an interesting robot like Hal from 2001. Rather, a robot that is programmed only to do good.

And that’s no fun. That’s no fun at all.

The DudeVinci Code.  Now that's a book I would like to read.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

No Louvre Lost: THE DAVINCI CODE, by Dan Brown (Chapters 5-12)

Another quote from the I’m-Not-Making-This-Up file: The bad guy is in an airplane, crossing the Atlantic, and he whispers to himself, “They know not the war they have begun,” as he “[stares] out the window at the darkness of the ocean below.”

I know not why I’m reading this book.


OK, so, the detective leads Langdon to the dead body of Jacques Sauniere, the renowned curator of the Louvre who was doing all of that staggering and lunging and heaving in the Prologue. Sauniere’s body is contorted in a mysterious way that will set Langdon on his quest. Brown describes the scene: “Using his [Sauniere’s] own blood as ink, and employing his own naked abdomen as a canvas, Sauniere had drawn a simple symbol on his flesh—five straight lines that intersected to form a five-pointed star.”

Apparently the symbol was so simple that Brown had to make it complicated, which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad summary of the book itself. Why he had to specify that the “five-pointed star” was drawn with “five straight lines” I don’t quite understand. I suppose there are other ways to draw a star—is a non-straight line an option?—but something like “Sauniere had drawn a simple symbol—a five-pointed star” seems to do the trick. Hell, use the word “pentagram” and shave off two more words.

In any case, Brown’s overwriting set me to thinking about other common objects that he could write to death, so I wrote “Olympic symbol” in the margins and had some fun thinking of how he would describe such an image: “The first thing the athletes saw when they entered the arena were two rows of circles of equal size, the top row containing three circles and the bottom row containing two. On the top, from the athlete’s left to  right, the circles were blue, black, and red. On the bottom, also from the left to the right, the circles were yellow and green. The bottom two circles were centered beneath the top three. They both overlapped with the middle circle and also with the circle on their corresponding side. All five circles were set against a white background.”

And then, two pages later, in one of a number of passages that exalt the goddess Venus, Brown writes, “Nowadays, few people realized that the four-year schedule of modern Olympic Games still followed the cycles of Venus. Even fewer people knew that the five-pointed star had almost become the official Olympic seal but was modified at the last moment—its five points exchanged for five intersecting rings to better reflect the games’ spirit of inclusion and harmony.”

Holy shit! It’s as if he knew. I wrote “Olympic symbol” in the margins, and then two pages later—poof!—there it is.

Maybe the figure in the painting is me!
I wonder what event Mary Magdalene would have participated in if she were an Olympian?  I'm thinking the one where you cross-country ski and then shoot at targets.

Chapter 6 is also when one of Brown’s favorite and more annoying devices begins to become apparent: A character will see or realize something—usually something shocking—but Brown will not share this revelation with the reader until later. The other end of a phone call, a ritual in a basement, a detail in a painting—these are all of the utmost importance to the characters but apparently not so much for the reader.

So, for example: “His [Langdon’s] heart pounded as he took in the bizarre sight now glowing before him on the parquet floor. Scrawled in luminescent handwriting, the curator’s final words glowed purple beside his corpse. As Langdon stared at the shimmering text, he felt the fog that had surrounded this entire night growing thicker.”

This is near the end of the chapter, and the only reason why it doesn’t conclude here is because Brown has another revelation roughly 50 words later that trumps even this one. This is pretty representative of the pace at which things happen in this book: The reveals come fast and furious. They’re kind of like those scenes in the cartoons when everyone slaps their hands down on top of one another and the stack of hands grows so high that no one realizes that there are far more hands than there are people who belong to the hands. I appreciate that the metaphor is far from perfect, but sometimes The DaVinci Code has too many hands.

That said, I’m of two minds about this technique. On the one hand (no pun intended), I recognize that, as a storyteller, I am not very good at plot, so I’m mindful that any resistance I have toward this dizzy procession of events comes from an honest place rather than feeling of jealousy. Truth is, I admire the hell out of people who can craft an airtight plot in which the events flow naturally one from the next and ultimately culminate in a way that is both inevitable and surprising. I admit that part of my initial interest in reading The DaVinci Code was to learn some of the secrets of the trade so I could apply them to my own work. The guy sold a gazillion copies of this book. He has to be doing something right.  

On the other hand, however, as a reader I like to be led rather than led on, and Brown’s reliance throughout the novel on what amounts to a literary ploy feels more manipulative than respectful. The idea that Brown is counting on is that you, the reader, will want to discover what happens next so badly that you’ll just keep turning the pages until you find out, at which point he will give you another mini-mystery that needs to be solved. It’s a soap opera, I realize, and I also realize that soap operas have their place, but subjecting yourself to this kind of narrative tease is one thing when it’s once a week over the course of three months (hello, Breaking Bad!) and quite another when it’s condensed to an I Know Something You Don’t Know every five minutes.

There’s something to be said for an early hook, and a dead body is always a good start. But the hook isn’t enough to capture the reader. You’ve also got to reel her in, which is where things like, oh, character and style come into play. Brown’s characters are so flat and his prose so unremarkable, I am only reading to learn what happens next, which might work on page 39 but gets a little tedious by page 339.

Eventually I’m like, Fuck it, I don’t care anyway.

If The DaVinci Code is the All Valley Tournament, Brown just scored a point.


And, yet, 30 pages later, when Langdon and Sophie Nuveu, the inevitable love interest who, by the way, was introduced on page 49, begin to crack the first of a series of codes, I could see the secret revealed on the opposite page. I was on page 66, and the answer to the riddle was on page 67, and, damnit, I confess, my eyes impatiently darted across the page to learn the answer. I simply couldn’t wait an additional 100 words.

Of course, I was disappointed with the solution, but, still. 

Point, Brown.