Generic literature by generic names

Thursday, 26 August 2004 — 1:13pm | Literature

Last night, on a whim, I decided to whip up a Google search for “Dan Brown” and “prose” to see if others find his narrative style, if you can call it that, as irritatingly bad as I thought it was. As it turns out, this is exactly the search string you should punch in if you are exclusively looking for negative reviews.

My favourite one of the bunch – at least, in the first few pages of results – comes from the linguistics journal Language Log, which is the best weblog I have discovered in weeks, if not months. Geoff Pullum eviscerates the first page of The Da Vinci Code in a level of detail so meticulous that it captures down to the very word exactly what it was that bothered me about the biggest publishing hit this side of The South Beach Diet – the first page, at any rate. It is still a good indication of what the entire novel is like.

It was high time I found a new blog to satisfy my linguiphilic tendencies, now that Adam Pauls learning Japanese is winding down. There is some fascinating material on that site, and knowing the readership that regularly drops by here, many of you will probably want to read about gender-neutral word choice and the Persons Case, then follow it up with a contrary opinion, which results in debate.

Returning for a moment to the subject of Dan Brown, I think he is fast becoming my second-favourite outrageously successful author to pick on relentlessly, for the same deserved reasons as the one ranked first. By the way, that would be Robert Jordan of The Wheel of Time infamy, whom I like to call “the Bill the Butcher of fantasy literature” because of how he hacks away at his craft with abandon.

At first glance, Brown and Jordan could not be any more different. Brown writes chapters that average two or three pages in length; Jordan spends ten pages at a time describing what a random ageless Aes Sedai wizard-chick from the Plaid Ajah is wearing on this fine evening. Brown keeps a breakneck pace going by going from event to event with only the odd longwinded pseudo-historical lecture in between, whereas the only thing breakneck about reading Jordan is what happens if it makes you fall asleep on something sharp.

But fundamentally, they have the same bad habits. Both of them binge on perspective-hopping in addition to italicized passages of internal monologue that justify everything writing instructors say about the technique being outright cheating in the face of the limits of the third person. Neither of them have any regard for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Both of them write characters that are the spitting image of what fan fiction circles refer to as “Mary Sues”: the heroes are fantasies of self-insertion that regularly cross paths with beautiful and intelligent princesses, and invariably make out with them at the end of the day.

Both of them use a device that is almost identical in its respective implementations, which are therefore identically annoying. It always involves a master and his servant, typically belonging to a Generic Fanatical Organization (GFO), with the master telling the servant that he is about to reveal his evil plot and assign him a whole new set of nefarious orders. Sometimes it even ends with an ellipsis; i.e. “Now I will tell you about my evil plot, dot-dot-dot.” We, the readers, never actually hear the plan, but we are subjected to a sentence along the lines of, “As the servant listened to the evil plot, he smiled, for it would be an honour to serve his ingenious master and the GFO’s noble faith.” End of chapter.

It’s cheesy enough as it is, and these guys do it all… the… smegging… time.

And despite all this, both of them are good enough at dropping breadcrumbs of unsolved mysteries that one is compelled to keep on reading, just to see if the authors could answer some burning questions already. To Brown’s credit, he drags the reader through the mud at a hundred knots by dropping these unanswered puzzles and revealing them bit by bit. As for Robert Jordan, there is a clear explanation out there of why anyone ever stuck with him after the first few volumes. It is because he ends the fifth Wheel of Time volume, The Fires of Heaven, with a shocking and anonymous murder that contains all the excitement that was lacking for much of the preceding eight hundred pages of fluff. It’s last-minute, last-chapter desperation plays to keep the audience’s attention like this one that compels people to keep on buying his books. Jordan is through ten now, and from what I hear, he has yet to even mention the incident again.

With these two authors, we have two major arguments at the ready for any aspiring English teacher to emphasize the value of revision. If anything, The Da Vinci Code and the books in the Wheel of Time series (the ones I’ve read, anyway – I quit after seven) feel like first or second drafts, refined and admittedly intriguing plot summaries that go completely unsupported by any semblance of storytelling ability.

They also have generic names, though ‘Robert Jordan’ is a pseudonym.

This is itself a point of interest, as Dan Brown is also the name of a CBC Viewpoint columnist who writes about much the same kind of things I do – movies, comic books, Dan Brown, you name it. Of the two Browns, one is an excellent writer. I would recommend his article entitled “I am not Dan Brown” over The Da Vinci Code any day of the week.

On a completely different note, I saw Garden State last night. It is one of those movies that is difficult to write about, and not because I am at all uncertain as to how good an impression it left. Zach Braff’s self-starring directorial debut is marvelous, which makes it very hard to criticize, but what makes it so great has a lot to do with how it unfolds and tells its own story, which makes it very hard to praise to high heaven without robbing a reader of some of the pleasure that the movie offers on its own. Not a week ago I was complaining about how devoid of truly amazing movies this year has been with the exception of a few key sequels (though to be fair, I regret never getting around to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I am told is wonderful). After seeing Garden State, that simply isn’t true anymore. I implore you to go and see the movie while it is still in relatively wide release, so I can talk about some of the very specific things that struck me about it without spoiling the experience.

But I will stop for now, as Garden State is very well written indeed, and has no business dawdling around in this post.

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