16 May 2006

Why I Enjoy the Da Vinci Code

In the days leading up to the release of the Da Vinci Code movie, I have been enjoying the opportunity to discuss this book with the people around me. (I missed the first wave of discussion since I was one of the last people I knew to read the book.) So far, I've seen two main arguments as to why people didn't like the book:

  1. Historical Inaccuracy/Improbability - Lots of people complain about the history in this book being just plain bad. I mean, overall, it's not good history: ancient texts taken with much more certainty than they can possibly be given, jumping to conclusions based on only a lack of evidence. Not even to mention that Catholics everywhere are mortally offended by the implications. (Of course, I haven't met any of those, but it must be mentioned.)

  2. Poor Writing/Predictability - Basically, all Dan Brown books are the same. You think you know the way the world works, but just wait! There's this giant conspiracy run by the people you thought you could trust, and if they are allowed to succeed it could revolutionize the world (for good or ill). Additionally, chapters are artificially terminated to enhance suspense, the characters are flat and static, and the quality of the puzzles is uneven at best. (I managed to guess the answer to the crucial puzzle in both Da Vinci Code and Digital Fortress shortly after they were discovered, which sort of ruins the suspense for the next half of the book.)
Somehow, neither of these things are a problem for me. As infinite numbers of people have pointed out, complaint #1 is sort of silly: this book is fiction. The claim at the front about all the information being correct is a classic ghost-story/Scarlet Letter claim: it enhances the stakes of the story by insisting that it is all true. But underneath all that, no one really believes in magical 'A' shaped comets or in campfire ghosts. The claim is put there to help the reader suspend disbelief, not to make them actually believe the story is true.

The way to deal with claim #2 is less obvious. I mean, what is a story besides good writing? On the contrary, many of the "classic" books have poor writing. Tolkien, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky are long-winded (Please don't attack me! I like . . . well, at least Dostoyevsky.), CS Lewis' Penvensie children are flat characters to the core, and Herman Melville can't stop rambling out on tangents. We overlook some faults in writing because of the quality of the ideas and intent behind them.

Which brings me to the reason that I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. The topic was original--at least, I still have never read anything like it. It dealt seriously with divinity, religion, and gender issues, though admittedly very incompletely. It set me thinking about new ideas and things which I never would have even given a second thought. Admittedly, I disagreed with many of the main premises of the book--being married does not cancel out the possibilty of divinity--but the thoughts it led me on could still have significant meaning. But before this, I had given up on modern portrays of religion in fiction: either you are anti-religion (which paints all organized churches as corrupt organizations, and all truly good people as merely spiritual--think His Dark Materials) or you are rabidly religious (think all Mormon novels--the characters are perfectly righteous except for a minor flaw, all doctrines of the gospel are assumed to be standard, and, almost without exception, the prodigal sons return eventually or die miserably). Very few books deal with religion and truth as a serious issue, and this is one of them. (The Women of Genesis novels and Stone Tables by Orson Scott Card have come close, though.) It felt so liberating to have a book which actually looked at this issue that I was willing to overlook almost any number of faults to enjoy it.

Who cares if it follows a formula? One could say the same about Sherlock Holmes, but we still read him today. Sometimes we like a good formula fiction. Like writing a sonnet, strict, predictable form can liberate content.

Oh shoot. I just compared sonnets to formula fiction. The English Deparment secret police will be knocking on my door any second.

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