My friend and frequent commenter Charles recommended I consider Ross Douthat’s Dan Brown essay from a few years’ back. Even though I’ve panned his recent book, I consider Mr Douthat a serious commentator, a conservative voice worth attention. And anytime a good friend urges me to check on something, I’ll do it. Even if it’s not musical.
It’s my premise that Dan Brown is just another guy churning our page-turning novels. I lose patience with page-turners. It takes me about twenty, thirty seconds to read a page. If it were serious lit, I know I’d be missing something. But I know I can speed-read these tomes and not miss a beat. Mr Douthat:
It isn’t just that he knows how to keep the pages turning. That’s what it takes to sell a million novels. But if you want to sell a 100 million, you need to preach as well as entertain — to present a fiction that can be read as fact, and that promises to unlock the secrets of history, the universe and God along the way.
Okay. I went back over the hundred-million sellers in my brain. Dr Seuss. Hobbits. Harry Potter. Stop! JK Rowling just wanted to tell a marvelous story about a boy who lived. I get her because she’s a world-builder. And yes, there are a lot of secrets to unlock. My sense is that Ms Rowling operates on many levels at the same time. There is the story, and then there’s the mythological level. And I perceive something also of the modern celebrity schtick. 832 pages of Order of the Phoenix is not so bad because it satisfies our need to know. It’s like the teen fan edition of HP.
On the level of his above quote, perhaps Mr Douthat overstates his case. But then again, as a voracious reader of science fiction both great and ordinary, practically every other sf story is about unlocking the secrets of the universe. Maybe that’s why I found Tom Hanks’ costars more interesting as eye candy than I found the universal revelations juicy. So Mary Mag is the biggest secret of Western Civ–yawn! I read books where universes get created, planets get moved, and aliens interact with humans.
Mr Douthat suggests Mr Brown is selling an alternate reality, and I won’t disagree. I think it’s part of the fiction. Maybe he is a younger brother of Ayn Rand. I wouldn’t know–I’ve never read her stuff. I have read Tolkien, and I know about his musings about creating a pre-historical English heritage through Middle Earth–something that would compare to the great Nordic epics of Beowulf and the others. I don’t have a problem with reading Tolkien as a sort of alternate mythology. He captured the style in the early chapters of The Silmarillion. But I know the backstory of Valimar and the Elves and such was intended to fill in a mythical mythology. Not create something new.
This explains why both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” end with a big anti-Catholic reveal (Jesus had kids with Mary Magdalene! That terrorist plot against the Vatican was actually launched by an archconservative priest!) followed by a big cover-up. A small elect (Tom Hanks and company, in the movies) gets to know what really happened, but the mass of believers remain in the dark, lest their spiritual questing be derailed by disillusionment and scandal. Having dismissed Catholicism’s truth claims and demonized its most sincere defenders, Brown pats believers on the head and bids them go on fingering their rosary beads.
Rightly or not, the Catholic Church has some huge advantages over Judaism and Islam as a bad guy and source of secrets. It has a worldwide organization. It has tradition and history. It has secretive subcultures. It has been involved in intrigue both good (saving thousands of Nazi-hunted Jews) and bad (banking scandals). The Catholic Church, as a villain, is utterly believable. And if you read the latest CDF adventures, it is, for better or worse, more believable by the day. Suspension of disbelief is a big, big part of writing a successful fantasy novel.
Mr Douthat complains that Jews and Muslims would never pass muster, and I have to wonder what culture he lives in. I don’t inhabit tv a whole lot, but as a spectator to my wife and daughter’s love of all things NCIS, I can tell you that Jews and Muslims do not get the kid gloves treatment on those shows. Granted, most of the bad guys there are political, not religious. But really: there is nothing like the Vatican in any other religion. Even Islam. Mecca does not make pronouncements and all Muslims worldwide expected to jump on the word, “Frog!” This is a typical near-sighted conservative argument, and one that does not do Mr Douthat credit. Skipping ahead to his conclusion:
For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.
As a non-reader and one-time viewer, I’m not sure my exposure to Dan Brown has compromised me in any way. I really think that corporations are smart enough to package books in such a way to maximize sales. Mr Brown is skilled enough at his craft (note: I did not call it art) to implement the suggestions of good editors and consultants at Simon & Schuster. Or do it himself, for all I know. Let’s hear from the author on what he does:
I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else.
Given that, I’m sure there are many people out there who look for meaning in life. They latch on to Mr Brown. Or Tolkien. Or Dungeons and Dragons. Or drugs, sex, and/or rock-n-roll. I’m convinced that if they explored faith to the extent they seem willing to delve into other indulgences, they would find what Jesus Christ–the real Jesus–has to offer would be far richer, far deeper, and even more entertaining.
That people latch onto Robert Langdon and his unearthing of conspiracy does not surprise me, is unfortunate, and I’m not sure Mr Brown is totally to blame for it. Amy Welborn took me to task for saying The DaVinci Code was just another book. She was earnest about it, and sent me a copy of her book, and urged me to reconsider my position.
My position remains, “It’s only Dan Brown. Get over it.” I would say that to his detractors and fans alike. No change in message.