Saturday, October 10, 2009

Get Your Dan Brown Vaccination: D1B1

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I've taken a vow. In this, I am as self-abnegating as Dan Brown's crazily obsessed villains, flagellating myself (OK, I'll skip the castration) in the name of decent fiction.

Against the most horrendous odds, I have crafted a vaccination for Brownitis. D1B1 comes in two parts: (1) commune with Maureen Dowd's recent review of Brown; (2) list, read, and buy other well-written page-turning thrillers as an alternative—and tell your local bookseller why you are doing so. Let the healing begin.

Part One of D1B1: The Least Painful First Step

When Maureen Dowd is good, she's wickedly good. After reading her review of Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol, I didn't feel quite so depressed that I'll never be a novelist raking in over six figures. These lines alone are worth the price of the New York Times Book Review:
"The author has gotten rich and famous without attaining a speck of subtlety. A character never just stumbles into blackness. It must be inky blackness. A character never just listens in shock. He listens in utter shock.

And consider this fraught interior monologue by the head of the Capitol Police: 'Chief Anderson wondered when this night would end. A severed hand in my Rotunda? A death shrine in my basement? Bizarre engravings on a stone pyramid? Somehow, the Redskins game no longer felt significant.'”
Dowd makes fun of Brown's over-use of italics among many, many other writerly sins. So does Janet Maslin, in an earlier review in the Times. But unlike Dowd, Maslin lauds Brown for his ability to set an unlikely series of events into motion and to keep the pages turning. She ends her review by noting that the reader, almost any reader, likely will be picking up The Lost Symbol at his or her nearest bookstore.

Not this reader. I love plotted fiction, and I'm a big fan of candy-for-the-mind thriller junk, but The Da Vinci Code was more than junk. It made me doubt the sanity of the reading public, just as I doubted the U.S. electorate in November 2004.

Yes, I did read to the end of The Da Vinci Code, although there were many pages I skimmed or skipped because of the awful prose. When I got to the end, I felt gipped. Fortunately, I hadn't shelled out money for the book, but it's only redeeming value seemed to be the belly laugh I got at its amazingly shocking conclusion.

(Please. Did Brown never come across any feminist fantasy and revisionary historical novels of the 1970s? What about Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology? Guess I had the benefit of sitting in on all those alternative feminist spirituality groups in the 1980s.)

Here's what I have to ask: Does a page-turning plot really excuse excrebably bad ideas? (I'm getting into these italics.) Maslin and happy booksellers would no doubt say this kind of disposable fiction is pure escape, and that Brown is giving customers what they want.

But can't we, as writers, do better than this?

Yes. See Part Two below.

One of the things I love about Dowd's review is that she engages with Brown's ideas and sends them up as a load of hooey—particularly his smarmy rationalizations about the Masons. It's bad enough that the hero of Brown's novels, Robert Langdon, is a professor of "symbology" at Harvard; now we get a new love interest who specializes in "Noetic science," which Brown describes as a study of “the untapped potential of the human mind.” Dowd barely has to comment on that one.

And she's so good at deflating pumped-up melodrama:
"You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clich├ęd villain whose eyes shine 'with feral ferocity,' appears. He goes from sounding like a parody of a Bond bad guy ('You are a very small cog in a vast machine,' he tells Langdon) to a parody of Woody Allen ('The body craves what the body craves,' he thinks).

But Brown tops himself with these descriptions: 'Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations,' and 'Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.'”
Oh, Maureen. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes the emperor really does need to wear some clothes.

Part Two of D1B1: The List that Protects Me

* Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
* Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
* Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
* Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
* Sara Paretsky, Killing Orders
* Laurie King, A Darker Place
* Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
* Graham Green, The Quiet American
* Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
* Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater
* And so many more...!

Dear reader, if you feel at all tempted to buy The Lost Symbol, save yourself. Even Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park qualifies as an antidote. Add suggestions here for other well-written page-turners—for your own D1B1 vaccine—and to help me keep renewing mine. I'm always on the lookout for the most nourishing candy.


  1. I just read the Dowd review and then saw your blog entry. Here's what I came up with for why he is so popular: the plotting, the escapist entertainment, the easy thoughtless prose, the simple story, one dimensional characters, the ends fit together neatly so the reader isn't left with any pesky thinking to do, the media hype. But mostly, I think the reason he is even more famous than most authors who write mysteries or thrillers is that he gives the reader the added bonus of feeling like they are either rebelling against an establishment or else taking a moral high ground. It's infantile and dumb blasphemy (OMG! The Pope is a wolf in sheep's clothing!! OMG! Jesus had a wife!!) but it satisfies people who feel that religion is complicated and contradictory without making them actually think about why that might be. All you have to do is be smart enough to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and the world will make sense again...

    But to be more productive and positive:
    Phillip K Dick - Minority Report
    Iain Banks - The Business
    Pynchon- Crying of Lot 49
    any of Robert Ludlum's hundreds of books

    -EMAnders (I don't have any of those accounts)

  2. Great analysis of why Brown works for many readers, especially that vicarious putting together of all the pieces--if I can just crack the code, I'll understand the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. And a good list of alternative thrillers. I was especially happy to see Iain Banks. I just bought a used copy of *The Steep Approach to Garbadale" in a shop in London. He's not so well known in the States...

  3. You made me smile this morning! Okay, I've been successfully talked out of the purchase. :)

    Dowd is so acerbic! I disagree with her on nearly everything, but can't stop reading her--she's got such a great grasp on language and the way she presents an argument. Her thoughts on Brown seem spot-on, I have to say.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. I know what you mean about Dowd, Elizabeth, but I forgive her a multitude because of the way she took Ross Perot apart years ago, completely defanging him.

    Anyway: What are your all-time favorite terrific thrillers? I need more for my vaccine...


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