Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Really literally actually secretive symbolic cipher

FACT: Dan Brown loves facts so much that he begins all his books with the word ‘fact’, followed by a series of assertions, that could, in fact, be facts. His favourite adverbs are ‘really’, ‘literally’, and ‘actually’, which he uses with liberal abandon in his books.

But anyway, the opening sentence to The Da Vinci Code really is a doozy. Check it out:

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the Grand Gallerie of the Louvre Museum, clutching at his chest.

That, I submit to the reader, is pure genius: something horrible happening to a very famous, though fictional, person. Fame is just like reality, only better. And of course, when something bad happens to a famous person, it’s a something that is even worse than the something that would happen to an ordinary person. Brown simultaneously appeals to the sensibilities of the readers of Who magazine and the purchasers of true crime novels, with a nod in the direction of Sister Wendy fans as well.

Dan Brown doesn’t so much take the truth for granted as he takes it to be a liar. His next favourite words, alongside ‘really’, ‘literally’ and ‘actually’ are ‘secret’, ‘symbol’, ‘code’, ‘cipher’; and his codes and ciphers, once revealed, nearly always lead to other codes and ciphers. A symbol is no good unless it symbolises another symbol, which is itself a code for another code, which is also a secret. The secrets themselves, once you get to them, are not very good, but the investigation that uncover the secrets is of some interest. The last secret in Brown's books are always the most disappointing.

Once you become familiar with Brown’s favourite terms, it becomes quite easy to devise a few standard Brown sentences for yourself: ‘The symbol for the code was literally embedded in the cipher, and the symbol…’ This is perhaps an exaggeration, but not much.

You can have a good game with the sentences in Brown’s novels, finding mistakes and grammatical errors and ambiguous descriptions and repeated terms and clichés and unrealistic descriptions, but you don’t have to. It provides literary critics with an entertaining exercise and an opportunity for them to demonstrate why they have been given the job they have. I can think of two examples off hand: in The Lost Symbol, Langdon and his friend Katherine Solomon narrowly escape from the CIA in a subway train that ‘whisked them to their destination’. In Da Vinci Code, Langdon and Sophie Neveu await for a box in a French bank which is both ‘mysterious’ and ‘whose contents were unknown’. But who cares? The plot is what is important.

I suppose I shouldn't admit to enjoying Dan Brown. I don't think I've ever read a favourable review of his books. Funnily enough, though, when I read Brown I find myself, again and again, encountering ideas and plot points that I've encountered in books by authors that are taken much more seriously. In The Lost Symbol Brown goes on about telepathy and the development of mental powers: look in the pages of a few Brian Aldiss books and you can find the same. Brown's plots, with their elaborate three-act structures, echo those of Michael Moorcock. He's nowhere as thoughtful or as well crafted as those two writers, but still, he's a lot of fun.


Meredith said...

‘really’, ‘literally’ and ‘actually’ are also Jamie Oliver's favourite words. Really.

TimT said...

Fancy that.

It'd get a bit annoying if a Randian philosopher or someone like that started using these words. 'And really, reality is really real, can't you really see?'

Email: timhtrain - at -

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