Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Da Vinci Prose

My tastes in books and music have always given preference to the come-and-gone. There are too many classics demanding digestion and too many new releases competing for attention, and so many trends and pop culture artifacts tend to pass me by. Sometimes this means I miss out on some very good things. But it also means weathering the hysteria surrounding the likes of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

I had seen people sporting the book in public, heard about the “controversy” over its treatment of Catholicism (that the Church took to publicly refuting a work of fiction says a lot about the sand on which Peter’s holy house was built), and had heard the occasional dismissal of it as ‘beach reading,’ ‘airport fiction,’ what have you, but I never took much of an interest in the book myself, not until recently. I chanced upon a website--sadly forgotten, though this is very much in the same spirit--which pilloried and most courteously excerpted its ungainly prose, starting with the book’s opening:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière 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 Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

Reading this was a revelation. Did Dan Brown have an editor? Were readers so undiscerning as to let their fiction be driven by such a loud and ugly engine? The author of the webpage showed several such examples and pointed out just how they were written so perfectly wrong, noting for instance that telling us straight out that a character is a “Renowned curator” is a terrible way to start a book, and an action scene to boot.

I thought there was a good writing exercise to be had in rewrite the given examples, which I did. Then I thought, well hell, why not the whole book? I thought I could learn something about how writing does or doesn’t work, and along the way develop Dan Brown’s halting style into something if not more elegant, than at least less awful. So I went to my local library to pick up a copy, embarrassed enough that I felt like I was buying pornography in public. I read the Prologue and then set about whipping the text into shape.

Here are some examples. The first is a revision of the excerpt from above:

Jacques Saunière staggered through the gallery’s vaulted archway. He lurched toward the nearest painting, a large Caravaggio, and with stiff, arthritic hands gripped it by its gilded frame and pulled. It refused to move. He pulled again, more determined, and it only barely shifted. With all the strength he could muster he gave it one last pull and tore it from the wall and collapsed beneath it.

Nothing special, but you see what I’m getting at. That this is the Grand Gallery will be mentioned later on; right now I’m aiming for boldness and broad strokes in the scene-setting. Then instead of coming right out and saying he’s 76 years old, I mention his hands being arthritic. He’s going to die in a few pages anyway, it’s enough that we know he’s old. The most liberal amendment is the act of pulling the painting down, which takes three attempts, described in some detail. The original version says he “heaved the masterpiece [don’t we all wish we could heave masterpieces?] toward himself until it tore from the wall.” The word ‘until’ suggests it takes some time before it tears free, but the entire act happens in one sentence, confusing the effect. Confusion reigns in Dan Brown’s writing.

The next example is much briefer, thus managing a breathless economy of ineptitude.

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”

Here’s the redux:

“I… I told you already,” Saunière said, kneeling and putting his hands in the air. “I have no, no idea, what you’re talking about!”

Any writing teacher will tell you the ironclad rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” It makes no sense to tell us the curator is stammering when the speech we are given is in complete flowing sentences. Nor should we be told he’s defenseless when the particulars of his defenselessness can be described. And we already know he’s in the gallery, it doesn’t need to be reiterated in the heat of a death threat. There is also the matter of Dan Brown’s tic of referring to characters by their occupation. Nearly 15 times in three pages Saunière is referred to as “the curator.” All of these are obtuse generalities that inflate the action without telling us anything of substance. I may be interested in reading about a defenseless stammering curator, but when I do I’d like to hear Jacques Saunière say “I… I…” with his hands in the air. Dan Brown is telling us about what’s happening and not what actually is happening.

One more, this time from the end of the Prologue:

Alone now, Jacques Saunière turned his gaze again to the iron gate. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes. By the time anyone got to him, he would be dead. Even so, the fear that now gripped him was a fear far greater than that of his own death.

I must pass on the secret.

Staggering to his feet, he pictured his three murdered brethren. He thought of the generations who had come before them… of the mission with which they had all been entrusted.

An unbroken chain of knowledge.

Suddenly now, despite all precautions… despite all the failsafes…Jacques Saunière was the only remaining link, the sole guardian of one of the most powerful secrets ever kept.

Shivering, he pulled himself to his feet.

I must find some way…

My edits:

Saunière wiped his brow and, shivering, rose to his feet. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes. By the time anyone got to him, he would be dead. That did not matter. Next to the secret, his death was trivial. He thought of his three murdered partners. He thought of the generations who had come before them, of the mission with which they had all been entrusted, of the unbroken chain of knowledge they had formed. He thought of how suddenly now, despite all precautions, despite all fail-safes, he was the only remaining link of that chain, the sole guardian of one of the most powerful secrets ever kept.

The original is quite lengthy, and my whole point is it need not be. One of Dan Brown’s more obnoxious habits is to include and italicize characters’ thoughts, usually the ones that ought be accompanied with booming BUM-BUM-BUUUUUUUM drums. In this case, the effect is additionally maddening by weaving the thoughts with the narrative, instead of settling on just one of those approaches, and then having the narrative elaborate on those thoughts (after Saunière thinks of “an unbroken chain” the narrator describes Saunière as “only remaining link”). It needlessly wastes space switching between the two, and ends up reading more like a bad back cover synopsis that tries to be exciting as possible to entice readers, perhaps because the actual back cover was already filled up with glowing, and wholly undeserved, endorsements, one of which considers this book “pure genius.”

Also in this sample, Saunière pulls himself to his feet, after staggering to his feet. Pure genius!

I had thought I would redo the entire book, but after reworking just the prologue took me a couple hours, I doubted the idea. Then I read the first few chapters and quickly realized rewriting would be impractical, not only because the prose is so painful, not just because I could never do anything after investing so much effort into it, but because there are things I could not do without changing the entire nature of the book. For The Da Vinci Code is, in its own idiot savant-like fashion, an ideal marriage of form and content.

The book tells of the unraveling of an elaborate conspiracy of the Catholic Church’s covering-up evidence of a secret relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, or something of the sort. It’s an elaborate conspiracy, and so needs to be as absolutely impenetrable and busy as possible. So we get things like—and this is just the first few chapters, mind you—a sadomasochistic albino priest trying to kill the “renowned curator” but instead deciding to leave him to bleed to death, giving him twenty minutes to screw up the Grand Plan. But instead of just calling expert symbologist Robert Langdon on his cell phone like any sane person would if they were about to die, he engages in some ridiculous symbolic exercise which Langdon must then decipher. All of this is cheap baiting of the reader, to get them to go on to the next chapter: ‘Saunière only has twenty minutes to live. WHAT’S HE GOING TO DO?’ ‘Saunière did that to himself. BUT WHAT ELSE DID HE DO?!?’

The writing describing all this is, accordingly, full of sound and fury. When characters act ridiculously, with their actions being described ridiculously, they will also speak ridiculously:

“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.”

The Da Vinci Code is plotted like a parody of a conspiracy thriller, and so it is only fitting that it be written thus. So you see, one cannot go in and attempt to “fix” its wretched writing, for it is tied inextricably to the brutally mechanical goings-on it describes. To make these creatures talk like real people would entail making them act like real people and not morons enslaved to Dan Brown’s needlessly Byzantine plot machinations. The entire story, such as it is, would collapse under the strain of logic and credibility and well-observed characterization.

And so I realized my time was too important to waste on The Da Vinci Code. I had better authors, like Fitzgerald and Rushdie, to absorb. That I had to take the most circuitous route possible to reach this obvious conclusion, I am sure Dan Brown would be proud.

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