!>/files/2006/05/6311368.gif(The da Vinci Code)! Wikipedia notes that “fans have lauded [this] book as creative, action-packed, and thought-provoking. Critics have attacked it as poorly written, inaccurate, and creating confusion between speculation and fact.” A fitting critique, as both points of view are entirely accurate.
Not generally up on “popular fiction,” I picked up _The da Vinci Code_ in Paris yesterday for my flight home on the recommendation of my aunt and finished it today. The experience of having recently visited many of the most important settings of the novel heavily offset for me the awful prose and sloppy storytelling. In fact, as I read, I constantly noticed discrepancies between Brown’s travel guide descriptions and what I actually saw when I had visited the locations just a few days prior. One can forgive a novelist’s license in changing subtle details to help the story (metal detectors at Westminster Abbey, bar soap in the bathrooms at the Louvre, details of security systems and computers and display cases, etc.), but I was practically shouting at Brown’s description of the architecture of Westminster, including doors that and passageways that I knew (having just been there a week ago) did not exist. Luckily he redeemed himself later on, and all respect was not lost.
_The da Vinci Code_ — as my dear readers are most likely well aware, although I was not — is a chase thriller that begins with the mysterious and ritualistic death of a prominent art curator at the Louvre in Paris and quickly leads into a far-reaching and highly detailed conspiracy spanning hundreds of years to cover up certain secrets about the Bible, the Church, and Jesus Christ. Our main character is one Robert Langdon, a “symbologist” from Harvard who is lecturing in Paris and is called to the gruesome murder scene when his name comes up in the course of the investigation. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues at the crime scene lead Langdon and a French cryptologist (who happens to be the dead curator’s granddaughter) on a quest across Paris and England to unravel a series of clues that they believe will lead to the location of the Holy Grail. Along the way, readers are treated to an extended (and extended, and extended again, to the point of absurdity) history lesson on the founding of the Catholic church, the history of pagan religion and the Church’s quest to rewrite that history, the truth about Jesus (hint: he was just a really important guy, but not actually a son of God), and various other secrets that I won’t reveal so that you can enjoy the surprise.
One might wonder, and not idly, how many of Brown’s “facts” (for they are presented that way, and, in fact, the first page of the book strongly implies that the entire story is highly grounded) are actually true in our reality. And this is a difficult question to answer, because when you are basing your history in a single book and a (relatively small, highly related) set of accompanying documents, you can’t really look at ideas coming from a different angle and say that they are more or less “true.” When talking about things 2000 years ago, stories and ideas and deeply held beliefs that have evolved greatly over time, there can be no such thing as “truth.” Brown’s arguments are interesting, some may even find them convincing, especially as the novel presents them in a very scholarly (if banal) way that belies their absolute fiction.
But it is not enough to call the story “fiction” when, as I said, your signpost is equally a fiction. Rather, you can point out that biblical scholarship is massive, contains many different viewpoints on many important details, but contains a lot of agreement as well. Brown, in creating a six hundred page mystery replete with puzzles and clues and vivid imagery (and here I refer to paintings, not his awful scene setting) inevitably must grossly exaggerate, twist, and sometimes downright fabricate history. This is what fiction is, after all. And so many hints and wisps of the things he states, lifted clearly from a few scholarly works on the subject, are interesting and familiar to biblical scholars, but not necessarily groundbreaking. If you believe purely in the absolute truth of the New Testament, and you are also the kind of person who believes pulp fiction, you may find this book troubling, or, perhaps more likely, you may manage to somehow gloss over the bits that trouble you, conveniently forget them, and instead marvel at the strangeness of it all while still content to live in your cocoon. Those who have given it a bit more thought and continue to be troubled will be comforted to know that the Priory of Sion, the cornerstone of Brown’s conspiracy theories, is, in fact, completely fictional.
If you accept the Bible as a piece of history, in fact dozens of stories, twisted and shaped through the ages, some fact, some fiction, adding up to a powerful story, a guidepost for hundreds of millions, then you must also accept that it is, far from the straight word of God, a product of man. And we well know how stories can be distorted even on the day they happen (watch CNN, watch Fox, and try to determine the truth), so there can be no doubt of how these stories have changed through the ages. And certainly some of the things Brown discusses have a basis in truth, and very well many of them may be *completely* true. This can be accepted, acknowledged, filed away under “interesting things to follow-up on at a later date” and the world can go on.
_The da Vinci Code_ is brimming with very interesting concepts, ideas, and speculation. It is written in an awful, trashy, boilerplate style that serves to belittle its subject matter, to stretch it to the point of absurdity. I frequently wondered, as I plowed through the absurdly short chapters with their many awful twists and turns and dozens of vaguely interesting but impossible to decipher riddles, what a far better writer such as Neal Stephenson could do with the source material, should he ever turn his attention in this direction. I suspect the end result would be something far more captivating, thought-provoking, and deep then this quasi-intellectual quasi-trash.
By all means, read _The da Vinci Code_, I certainly found it interesting and sometimes fun and certainly a quick read, and while I anticipated most of the plot twists, a few things did still take me by surprise. Certainly if you are traveling in Paris or London or have before, you will find much to enjoy in this book. And if this sort of book appeals to you, you very well may find this one better than most. Just keep firmly in mind the knowledge that, no matter what the first page says, this is, indeed, a work of fiction.