Monday, March 8, 2010

Dan Brown is a Hack (and other observations)

Dear Dan Brown-

Please, for the love of all that is holy, hire a writing coach. Hire a ghost writer. Hell... Hire a third grader. Anybody. Please. I just read your newest book The Lost Symbol, and let me tell you... I hate you. You make me sad. You have stolen hours upon hours of my time. You've lured me in with your interesting secret clubs and weirdo religious artifactual do-wah (they may not be words, but they should be), and then you pull the tapestry out from under me. Well fuck you Dan Brown. Take a writing lesson.

The Beefy Muchacho

So many things to say about The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's most recent addition to the Robert Langdon "Histo-Adventure" lexicon. Let's start with why I read it to begin with...

I readily admit to really enjoying The DaVinci Code. I never exactly thought it was this immense work of genius (I mean... it IS beloved by the American public, afterall... How truly good could it be?), but it was entertaining. Then I read the lesser known Angels and Demons, and actually actively LIKED that one. Again... it's not a candidate for the National Book Award, but it was really enjoyable and I'm a sucker for weird Catholic mythos. So yeah... I was down with The Lost Symbol. And Brown sure as hell had plenty of time to make it good. He'd been working on it since 2004... God damnit did he fuck it up.

Here're the problems:

1) The formula is far too formulaic.

The plot is almost literally identical to the other two books. I understand that he's basically working on a formula, not much different from an episode of CSI (I bet they figure out who the killer is right around minute 48), but jeez man... The writers of CSI need the formula to churn out an hour a week for 10 years. What's your excuse? Langdon gets roped into some piece of intrigue under the premise that he's some genius symbol expert. Langdon ends up alienating the law enforcement, who seem to be working against them, but really are on the same side. Langdon joins forces with an attractive and exceptional woman of some kind, in this case a Doctor of Noetic Science (don't even fucking ask...), who has a personal and emotional connection with a victim of the bad guy. Oh... And the bad guy is some loony religious zealot who has a predilection for self-mutilation in some way.

Too familiar. Too cookie cutter. Even if it IS a cookie cutter to his own work, it's still lazy.

2) The ticks are too ticky.

Dan Brown's writing has more ticks than a fucking field guide to the Insects of Pennsylvania. There's something overly repetitive on every page. It's not like Cormac McCarthy, who cultivates a rhythm that some people would call repetitive. For McCarthy it's a choice. For Dan Brown it's hackery.

The New York Times liked the book a lot more than I did, but they did point to (as one of their lone pieces of criticism) something I'd also noticed... At different points in the book, it seems that nearly every other piece of dialogue starts with a variation on "What in the hell...".

When I was in the 2nd grade, I wrote a story called "Short Duckie Blue". I remember using the phrase "Short Duckie Blue was short" and I remember the teacher (Mrs. Roberts) telling me that I should be more creative. It seems that Mr. Brown missed that lesson from the 2nd grade. It's all kinds of "What in the hell"s and "Who in the hell"s and "Why in the hell"s, and it gets old after about 10 pages... too bad there are 440 more. And you know...that's just one example. How about the number of chapters where something is revealed to a character but not to the readers that CHANGES EVERYTHING? How about a character describing another in the exact same way every time? How about every lecture scene, every phone call, every new clue uncovered fitting into the same exact pattern. How often can Robert Langdon's primary trait be incredulity?

It's not just the tired dialogue. It's the characters too... Brown seems to have this obsession with religious zealotry in his villains, but also he obviously wants to fuck them, and badly. Honestly, if he wasn't such a weird misogynist on top of being clearly a little too in love with the physical traits of his characters, it wouldn't be so bad. He's got these man-crushes on his male characters while at the same time over-sexualizing his female characters in a much grittier, grosser way. Brown spends a good amount of his books talking about how strong these women are, but then being amazingly quick to put them in times of peril that only Robert THE MAN Langdon could get them out of... forgetting, of course, that Langdon is essentially giant pussy most of the time.

Oh, and also I could definitely have done without a dozen long descriptions of how ripped the bad guy is, and how giant his junk is, and how the guy spent all this time quenching his insatiable sexual thirsts. If it were in any way relevant to the plot, that'd be one thing, but it's just superfluous nonsense.

I think my least favorite portions of the book are the flashbacks to Langdon when he's teaching. Maybe the students at Harvard are actually mentally retarded, but I've never heard of students get so intensely interested over whatever random theory or notion their professor discusses. It's all "They leaned foward in their seats. You could hear a pin drop" and "Their eyes went wide. Langdon knew he had them!". It's so unbelievable that it takes me right out of the story. I just keep thinking these Harvard students are far too easily moved to awe.

3) Is this a lecture or an adventure?

I liked the same things about The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons that everyone else did. It is really interesting to read about all of these true historical facts about these familiar landmarks and pieces of art. It's fun to postulate the conspiracies of Bernini or DaVinci. It's interesting to hear about these real organizations and locations and get these inside takes. Dan Brown's strength is his incredibly deep research, and the way he interweaves (however flimsily) the facts of his research into a plot. The Lost Symbol had all kinds of potential too. It'd be really interesting to hear about the secrets behind the architecture and art of Washington D.C.... I suspect Dan Brown agreed, which is why he started writing it. Then something unfortunate happened. He got allllmost done with his book and discovered there wasn't really all that much applicable stuff for him to delve into. There isn't a thousand years of religious art and intrigue. There aren't four-thousand year old buildings to find layered in conspiracy and cover-up. Ultimately the Masons aren't all that interesting. So what does Brown do?

He finishes the plot about a hundred pages before he finishes the book. He runs out of Masonic secrets to divulge. He runs out of Washington DC architecture to break-down. So instead of doing the wise thing and ending the book when the villain is beaten (oh... uh... Spoiler Alert), he has Langdon win the day and then he lectures philosophically about the nature of the human brain and Noetics (that's some effing crazy shit). . And the worst part is that the payoff... the big Mason Secret he's built up to for hundreds of pages. This thing that supposedly will endow the bad dude with incredible power... It's fucking LAME. It's so, so lame. I invested all of this time thinking there'd be some awesome payoff, but there wasn't. It was just a lame, silly thing.

This is the thing that pissed me off the most. I could have handled the bad writing, and the weird sexual obsessiveness, and the strangely mottled dialogue if the payoff had been cool. But it wasn't. And then, instead of sucker-punching us all and running like a decent asshole would do, he rubs salt in the wound by talking on and on and on (much like this review) about shit that I don't care about. If I want to know more about Noetics I would look it up. If I wanted to know what Kryptos says, I'll go to Langley and stare at it. Tell me a story or give me a lecture, but make a choice, and don't trick me into thinking I'm getting a story when the story is fucking over.

You know what makes me saddest? There is potential here. I would love to read an adventure story about the secret holdings of the Smithsonian. That would be awesome.

Instead I was subjected to a dumb story about a dumbass, unlucky, bumbling, indignant douchebag named Robert Langdon, who despite his having saved the world (to some degree or other) 2 times previously, seems to forget everything he's learned about himself the moment he returns to Harvard.


Gregg Fraley said...

Tell us how you really feel Dan.

Miss Mary said...

I also hated that in the first two books he was forced to use his brain to figure things out, but in The Lost Symbol he was GOOGLING things. Seriously, you're above that Langdon.