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Thriller-Dillers

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 489 pages, 2003)

About 30 years ago, the novelist and essayist Gore Vidal came up with a great idea for a project in literary criticism and wrote a pretty funny essay as a result of it. Vidal’s self-imposed chore was to read the top ten best-selling novels, as listed by the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973. His essay, “The Top Ten Best Sellers,” published a few months later in The New York Review of Books, dutifully works its way from Number 10, Marjorie Holmes’ Two From Galilee: A Love Story of Mary and Joseph, right up the list to Number 1, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a spiritual work Mr. Vidal found so repulsive that he couldn’t bring himself to record the author’s name, one Richard Bach.

Along the way, Vidal ploughed through not only the above-mentioned Old and New Age “religioso” texts, but thrillers (Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction at No. 9, and Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File at spot No. 2), “Gothics for ladies,” (Victoria Holt’s Night of the 7th Moon at No. 8, and Robert’s Crichton’s otherwise unclassifiable The Camerons at No. 6), a sports novel (Dan Jenkins’ Semi-Tough at No. 3), and two middle-brow doorstoppers (Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War at 7, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 at 4). Despite being an admittedly “slow reader,” Vidal is also one of those scrupulous and self-avowed “rarest of reviewers who actually reads every word,” thus making his feat all the more impressive, since it included Wouk’s “885 pages of small type,” and the tombstone-sized tome by the “noble engineer,” Solzhenitsyn, then in exile from the Soviet Union. About the only book on the list that Vidal could take seriously, as well as take pleasure in, was Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy (at No. 5), a historical novel about Alexander the Great that asks, as Vidal campily puts it, “Can your average beautiful teen-age Persian eunuch find happiness with your average Greek world-conqueror who is also a dish aged only 26?”

Camping and war-camping aside, Vidal’s praise for Renault was genuine, as well as sound literary judgment, given that her novel of the ancient world is the only one from that three-decades-old best-seller list that bears reading today. In his review of The Persian Boy, Vidal observes, “We are able to see the Macedonian troops as they appeared to the Persians: crude gangsters smashing to bits an old and subtle culture they cannot understand, like today’s Americans in Asia.” It’s a remark that anticipates one of my themes here, namely, that not much changes on best-seller lists or in the world, except that 30 years later, the Americans are no longer in Vietnam as they were in 1973, but instead are currently camped right next door to ancient Persia. As a by-the-way, it should be noted that a few years later, Vidal wrote a very good historical novel about the ancient world, also from the Persian point of view, called Creation, a book that Ms. Renault herself liked, and that also bears reading today. I suppose one of the minor satisfactions for many of us, including Vidal, is to note that, despite the inordinate attention lavished on these mostly undistinguished best-selling fictions in their day, they are today pretty much utterly and deservedly forgotten.

Since I can hardly pretend to Mr. Vidal’s admirable industriousness, or match his bumptious energy (which, happily, still flourishes today), I’ll confine myself to one current bestseller, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But what a best-seller it is: Number 1 on The New York Times’ list for more than a year now (and equally Number 1 on The Globe and Mail’s list), it has sold some 10 million copies world-wide, and has spawned a veritable minor industry of books contesting, castigating, and debunking Brown’s Code (I’ve counted at least 15 Da Vinci Code-related titles in the last month), to say nothing of the score of websites dealing with it. The Hollywood blockbuster, to be directed by Ron Howard, and starring Harrison Ford (who is mentioned in Brown’s book as resembling the novel’s tweed-clad but craggy hero, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor), will hit the multiplexes next year.

Looking at the New York Times’ 2004 best-seller list quickly confirms my “the more things change/plus ca change” thesis. There’s the standard mix of religion/spirituality, thriller-dillers and uplift weepies. In addition to The Da Vinci Code, there’s one in which a “former L.A. police detective and [an] FBI agent… must contend with the serial killer known as the Poet,” another in which “a crazed killer targets his 20th class reunion to avenge himself on the girls who rejected him in high school” (hey, that’s clever!), the inevitable one in which “a counterterrorism expert rushes to prevent an attack on American soil,” and a couple more about lady detectives and a woman who has to deal with “the disappearance of her husband and a confrontation with a coldblooded killer.” As well, all of Mr. Brown’s backlist have been re-issued and are also selling like hotcakes, according to the lists.

For the born-again and about-to-be-born-yesterday, there’s a novel about an old man who “discovers that all will be explained to him in the afterlife,” and Glorious Appearing, the “12th volume of the ‘Left Behind’ series, in which the forces of good battle the forces of evil, [and] the Second Coming occurs.” (This last is only for readers who are seriously nuts.) Sandwiched in is the requisite weepie about a “wife and mother, [who] having survived a deadly boating accident off the coast of Maine, begins to question her priorities.” (Well, I should hope so. For starters, don’t go near the water.) About the only thing not on the list 30 years later are any books that even pretend to be literature, or Quality Lit, as Vidal refers to it. No Wouk, no Solzhenitzyn, certainly no Mary Renault.

So, what makes Da Vinci Code (not, by the way, to be confused with the popular Canadian TV coroner show, Da Vinci’s Inquest) so special? Easy: it manages to combine the most bizarre elements of Old and New Age religion with an international thriller-diller. Mr. Brown, the author of this concoction, is surely a genius… well, a marketing genius.

Here’s the tale: (I’m borrowing elements of this reprise from Joseph Szimhart’s thorough-going review on the internetzine, Cultic Studies Review, because I just don’t have the heart to go through Brown’s convoluted bestseller again to extract a synopsis.)

One night, an albino monk, Silas, who belongs to the radical, ultra-conservative Opus Dei sect of the Catholic Church, goes into the Louvre Museum in Paris and guns down an elderly curator among the Da Vinci masterpieces. Silas works for someone known as “the Teacher,” who later turns out to be a wealthy British scholar named Teabing, who is obsessed with finding the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. The curator was the leader of a secret sect called the Priory of Sion that hides and protects the Grail and a batch of allegedly ancient manuscripts that prove that Jesus Christ fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, whose bloodline survives in modern France. There’s lots of stuff about how the leader of Opus Dei strikes a 20-million Euro deal with the Vatican in order to prevent exposure of the Grail secret, which leads to the albino killer monk and the Brit Grail scholar, Teabing (a villain who one eventually thinks of as Mr. Teabag), getting into the act.

Enter Robert Langdon, famous Harvard prof of religious studies, an early middle-aged bachelor who looks like Harrison Ford (according to a recent imaginary Boston mag “profile”), in Paris to meet the now-dead curator. Before he died, the curator managed to leave some clues in visible and invisible ink and blood, before he expired in front of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Also enter Sophie Neveu, a code-cracking French criminal investigator (and coincidentally, the granddaughter of the murdered curator), and Bezu Fache, head of the French something-or-other police.

Okay, enough plot. After that, it’s riddle-within-riddle, code-after-cracked-code, gobs of exposition, and a requisite number of chase scenes, in Paris, the French countryside, England, and the Rosslyn chapel, a medieval Midlothian church in Scotland (which has seen a 56 per cent increase in tourists this year, thanks to the Da Vinci phenomenon).

The theo-ideological axe author Brown is supposedly grinding is that the Roman Catholic Church in 325 a.d., under Constantine and the Council of Nicea, made a heretofore earthly Jesus into a divinity, covered up his mortal sex life with Mary M., and thus suppressed the whole “sacred feminine principle” at the root of religion, along the way executing all the witches they could find. What’s more, the Church, aided by present-day in-house mafiosi known as Opus Dei, intend to go on hiding the truth. On the other side are a whole array of Holy Grailers, including the Knights Templar, Leonardo Da Vinci and other initiates of goddess-based pagan cults, the aforementioned secret Priory of Sion cult, and our hero, what’s-his-name, Harrison –er, no, Robert Langdon.

So, the book is an attack on a) official Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church, b) the thuggish Opus Dei group within the church, and c) by implication, the Born Again biblical literalist types who read books like the aforementioned Left Behind series, an aggregate comprising about 30-40 per cent of the U.S. population and a goodly number of the inhabitants of the George W. Bush White House.

There’s a deeper message here than the unmasked secrets of the Holy Roman Catholics and the Grail that I’ll get to in a minute, but first, let’s deal with, Where does Brown get all this stuff, and what kinds of claims is he making? Well, as Brown tells us through his Harvard prof hero, who does a whole lot of expositing throughout the book, he gets all this stuff from other books, except the other books don’t have the decency to call themselves novels. Rather, they belong to a fringey mock-scholarship world of secret spiritual knowledge cults. Titles include such non-fiction bestsellers of yesteryear as Michael Baignent et al’s Holy Blood and Holy Grail, and books like The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, and Daughter of God. Brown’s trick is to whip up all this stuff into a thriller-diller souffle.

At the beginning of The Da Vinci Code, there’s a page headed “Fact,” in which Brown claims, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” He also says it’s a fact that the Priory of Sion “is a real organization” and that in 1975 parchments known as Les Dossiers Secret were found in the French National Library that identifies all sorts of members of the Priory, including Da Vinci. Finally, he claims that Opus Dei “is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy” because it engages in some kinky practices, including “corporal mortification,” and that the sect has recently completed construction of a $47 million headquarters in New York.

This is where the various participants in the website slugfest weigh in. Much of the following, TGG (Thank God/Goddess for Google), comes courtesy of our ho-ho enhanced informational environment. There are two kinds of websites busily debunking Brown. On one side are respectable religious folk interested in defending Jesus’s divinity, the Council of Nicea, the truth of the Bible, and whatever else. On the other side are the ghostbusters. The latter are more useful than the former. From the ghostbusters you learn that although it’s a “fact” that there are some Priory of Sion documents in the French national library, it’s also pretty much a fact that the documents are a forgery and the whole thing is a hoax cooked up in the 1940s by some French fraudsters (see Robert Richardson, “The Priory of Sion Hoax,” www.alpheus.org). Once you know that, you don’t need much more, although, since we’re dealing with obsessives, just about every other puzzle in the Code is given a go. There’s even information about whether the albino killer monk, Silas, should really be wearing tinted glasses as do most people with the albino gene structure. But it’s the “fact” about the Priory hoax that will save you from temptation.

As for lesser facts, the “fact” about Opus Dei is a fact. They exist and they’re dangerous-kinky. They also have an expensive building in New York. The “fact” about “accurate descriptions of artwork” is not a fact, but a disputed claim, the main dispute being about whether one of the figures in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco is a woman rather than a long-haired young male disciple (most art profs rousted for this caper calmly deny the claim).

Most of the websites, whether respectable religious or ghostbuster, and a surprising number of reviewers, feel obliged to note that despite all, Da Vinci Code is an enjoyable pulp-fiction thriller. I don’t feel so obliged. Evidence as follows:

Robert and Sophie are in a cab, on the lam from the French flics, speeding through the street-prostitute-lined lanes of the Bois de Boulogne. “Langdon was having trouble concentrating as a scattering of the park’s nocturnal residents were already emerging from the shadows and flaunting their wares in the glare of the headlights. Ahead, two topless girls shot smoldering gazes into the taxi.”

“’Tell me about the Priory of Sion,’ said Sophie.” Robert gulps at the scenery, and then goes into lecture mode. “’The Priory of Sion,’ he began, ‘was founded in Jerusalem in 1099 by a French king named… [blahblahblah].’ Sophie nodded, her eyes riveted on him.” ‘Nother big glob of explanation follows. “Sophie looked uncertain.” Onto the Knights Templar. “Sophie glanced up with a surprised look of recognition.” More Templar. “Sophie already looked troubled.” “Sophie looked confused.” “Sophie looked uneasy.” “Sophie looked skeptical.” And so she should, poor dear. Yes, Sophie looked skeptical. “I’ve never heard of it,” she says of the reference in the last glob of exposition. “’Sure you have,’ Langdon smiled. ‘You’re just used to hearing it called by the name Holy Grail.’” Cue music. Cue Harrison Ford in his Indiana Jones tweeds. Cue the smoldering gazes.

The Da Vinci Code is a lot like thrillers of yesteryore. In fact, it doesn’t seem all that different from Gore Vidal’s account of Trevanian’s Eiger Sanction. (Trevanian, by the way, is the one-name pseudonym for a reclusive gent apparently named Rodney Whitaker. He was still in the game as of the late-1990s.) Vidal saw Trevanian’s thriller-diller as an Ian Fleming/James Bond knockoff. Whereas Fleming aimed at “warm-blooded heterosexuals,” says Vidal, “I suspect that Mr. Trevanian is writing for tepid-blooded bisexuals—that is to say, a majority of those who prefer reading kinky thrillers to watching that television set before whose busy screen 90 per cent of all Americans spend a third of their waking hours.” Well, same thing for Dan Brown’s audience.

There are some coincidences between Trevanian’s and Brown’s books. “Mr. Trevanian’s James Bond is called Dr. Jonathan Hemlock,” reports Vidal. “A professor of art, he ‘moonlights’ as a paid assassin for the Search and Sanction Division of…” Mr. Brown’s guy is Dr. Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology, who moonlights as… well, you get the idea. “Mr. Trevanian has a nice gift for bizarre characters. The chief of Search and Sanction is an albino who lives in darkness; he must also undergo periodic changes of blood because…” etc. Mr. Brown’s albino is Silas, a kinky monk who wears a spiked flesh-cutting thingie on his thigh (it’s called a cilice in the trade) that keeps reminding him of his sins. After a hard day at the office murdering secret sect officials, he relaxes by flaggelating himself in the discomfort of his monk’s cell. Then there are the names. Although there was a falling off from Fleming’s memorable Pussy Galore, “Mr. Trevanian brightly offers us Felicity Arce, Jean-Paul Bidet, and Randie Nickers.” Mr. Brown doesn’t get much beyond French cop Bezu Fache, and villain Leigh Teabing. Speaking of villains, “Mr. Trevanian has recourse to that staple of recent fiction, the Fag Villain… I will say for Mr. Trevanian that his Fag Villain is pretty funny—an exquisite killer named Miles Mellough with a poodle named Faggot,” reports Vidal. I’m not sure if Mr. Teabag is a Fag or not, but I’ve got my suspicions. In any case, all this coincidence is pretty plus ca change, n’est pas?.

The deepest, and most insidious, level of The Da Vinci Code is the suggestion that there really is a mystery. Mr. Brown’s mystery-mongering is of the Secret Gnostic branch, somewhere between television’s X-Files conspiracy theories and the fictional spiritual bestseller of a few years back, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, which encouraged us to believe that there’s a reason for everything that happens. This one is shot through with secret wisdom, too. The “progressive” politics of the Code’s-pro-feminist goddess principle is undercut by its reactionary Gnosticism (only really smart guys really know what’s going on). The problem is not so much that the world’s a mystery and needs a key (say, Marxism or chaos theory), but that Brown’s apocryphal key is as goofy as the orthodox Catholic key it opposes, and has a lot of tourists sneaking around the Rosslyn Chapel these days looking for clues under old floorboards.

Since The Da Vinci Code is about the silliest best-selling thriller-diller that I’ve encountered, I must confess that I read a couple of other best-sellers along the way (I guess this is my smidgeon of Gore Vidal’s industriousness coming out), just to see if they were all so goofy. I read Robert Harris’s Pompeii (Hutchison, 2003), and Swedish detective novelist Henning Mankell’s The White Lioness (Vintage, 2003). Happy to report that both were more plausible and interesting than Da Vinci. In Pompeii, an historical thriller about a volcano explosion, I actually learned something about the importance of water and acquaducts in the Roman Empire, while Harris tried his hand at portraits of Pliny the Elder and Younger, as his hero, an acquaduct engineer, chases down the bad guys. Mankell, a Mozambique-based, Swedish writer, who does detective novels and children’s books as a sideline to fund Third World theatre work, is the current Number 1 crime-writer in Europe. His White Lioness, an early work from a decade ago, is about an attempted assassination in South Africa (Sweden comes in because that’s where the ex-KGB Russian trains the South African triggerman). It’s pretty scary, as these things go.

In a year when The Da Vinci Code is the wacky New Age other side of the coin to moviemaker Mel Gibson’s fundamentalist Passion of the Christ, both of them earning more than a pretty penny, it’s a shame that it’s so hard to get anybody to read Canadian novelist Nino Ricci’s Testament (Anchor Canada, 2003), which happens to be the best of the Jesus novels, as well as a work of literature. But, as Gore Vidal pointed out, also about 30 years ago, literature is pretty much over. “Sophie looked skeptical.”

Berlin, July 28, 2004

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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