Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Premise vs. Content

Not that anyone is asking for it, but here’s my personal review of Dan Brown’s, The da Vinci Code. I’m sure many of you have already read it, and perhaps you found parts of it interesting or even thought-provoking, but let me assure you that the book itself is just a bunch of over-hyped crap. Nothing bothers me more than when a book takes a good premise and goes nowhere with it – and that’s exactly what I felt The da Vinci Code did. Kudos to Brown for doing a fair amount of research into the lore and mysteries surrounding what history has left unknown about life and works of da Vinci. A lot of the conjectures are truly fascinating (even though many of them are outrageous and almost certainly untrue). As I read the story I found myself stopping to look through art-history books with prints of da Vinci’s paintings (namely the Last Supper) and ponder possible hidden meanings. I found a plethora of internet websites devoted to conspiracy theories about da Vinci, and I came to discover that all of the different interpretations in Brown’s book were, in fact, established theories and speculations that had been printed in countless earlier books. All Brown did was take these various intrigues and try to weave them together into a cohesive fiction adventure. Personally I think that’s a great idea for a fiction novel, I’m only disappointed that Brown did such a poor job of it. Armed with the best of materials about a fascinating historical figure Brown proceeded to create a completely mediocre narrative.
The story revolves around the machinations of a secret society devoted to protecting the Holy Grail. Brown makes a big deal about something he labeled “the sacred feminine” and how this secret organization protects the coequality of women in society (specifically their understated roles throughout the history of the Catholic Church). Of course the organization itself is run by men. Only men are allowed to know of the group’s deepest secrets and they are the ones responsible for protecting the Grail. Up until the revealing of the Grail itself (and I would argue even then) women seem suspiciously absent from any role of authority or self-determination. Brown seems oblivious to the fact that rather than any sort of coequality, his secret society perpetuates a male chauvinistic ethic - women must be constantly taken care of and protected because they can’t look after themselves. Believe me, I’m not usually one to take up the feminist point of view. Normally I love a good damsel-in-distress, but in this case I felt the contradiction was glaring.
I also didn’t like that fact that Brown felt the need to demonize the modern Catholic Church in his search for an antagonist. Sure, every hero needs a villain, but taking group like Opus Dei (which is admittedly somewhat kooky) and turning it into a super-evil paramilitary organization complete with ruthless assassins is going way over the top. Given its history, the Catholic Church is certainly an easy target, but if you’re going to attack a religious institution I think you should have a more serious agenda than simply trying round-out the plot of a fiction novel.
Ultimately Brown did a decent job of introducing the intriguing lore surrounding what is known and not known about Leonardo da Vinci, but the narrative itself read like a bad Indiana Jones knockoff. Apparently most readers were sufficiently engaged by the da Vinci mysteries themselves and were willing to overlook Brown’s amateurish plot-points. Unfortunately, I had discovered those accounts concurrently and apart from reading Brown’s book and ended up feeling completely let down by the storyline.
I continue to be amazed at how much hype The da Vinci Code continues to generate, and I wonder - is a good premise really enough to compensate for lack of content?


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