Why is everybody laughing at Dan Brown? That's what he wants

Dan Brown has been shortlisted for a National Book Award. He is often mocked by critics, but is a powerful and influential author, whose goals may be more complicated than Clive James or Peter Conrad suspect.

On Monday morning, the National Book Awards shortlist was announced, and there among the nominees for International Author of the Year – sandwiched between Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt – was Dan Brown.

Now, Brown gets a lot of stick – and some of it’s deserved. At his worst, he writes like a severely concussed Tom Clancy. His grasp of historical fact seems loose in the same way that London in 1666 seemed on fire. But what if we’ve got Dan Brown wrong? What if he’s smarter and more playful than we’ve thought? And what if, when we laugh at Dan Brown, it turns out he’s laughing right back at us?

Like it or not, Brown’s an influential man: for millions of people, his books are their first introduction to Dante or Da Vinci. Even the Louvre offers a Brown-themed visitor trail, primly titled "The Da Vinci Code, Between Fiction and Fact". In response to Angels and Demons, the plot of which hinges on an "antimatter bomb" stolen from CERN and primed to destroy the Vatican, the international research institute issued an almost painfully patient FAQ for readers wishing to learn more (a sample: "Does CERN own an X-33 spaceplane? No."). In Florence, you can walk in the footsteps of Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, on a day-long tour which – some might say fittingly – stops for a lunch of tripe.

With this kind of global influence, it’s bizarre that more people don’t stop to consider how the man thinks. Jumping from painting to poem and back again, Brown wants us to see him as a renaissance man. But Dan Brown’s renaissance is no cultural revolution: it’s a machine to be broken down for spare parts. In his novels, every piece of knowledge is only valuable insofar as it can be directly applied to the solution of a problem. Da Vinci’s paintings offer handy clues to solve a murder. Bernini’s sculptures point the way to a conspiracy at the heart of the Church.

Even Washington DC’s architecture is only of interest as evidence in a Masonic mystery. Like some bizarre cross between Michael Gove and the gobbet-obsessed Irwin from The History Boys, Dan Brown wants us to see knowledge not as abstract, but as a key with which we unlock the present. And when the key doesn’t fit, it gets discarded. Behind his Harris tweed and Mickey Mouse watch, Robert Langdon is less Mary Beard and more Niall Ferguson.

Brown’s critics like to mock his uneasy relationship with historical fact. The Langdon novels all open with a statement assuring readers that what follows is based on the truth. Antimatter bombs, ancient Illuminati conspiracies, heirs of Christ – these, a sober note informs us, are all founded on real, reliable research.

Ridiculous, of course. But ask yourself: is it really possible that Brown is as naive as his critics think? Starting a Robert Langdon book, I’m reminded of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel whose multiple prefaces carefully muddy the question of whether what you’re about to read is the God’s honest truth or "just a novel". There’s nothing new in an author’s playing with truth and, at the same time, playing with their audience. Brown’s had his butterflies broken on the wheel by critics like Clive James and Peter Conrad, but nobody seems to have thought for a moment that maybe he’s in on the joke. And once you start to think this, it’s hard to read his po-faced insistence that he’s only dealing in facts as anything other than a prank – a glorious two fingers to the academics, preachers, and critics who love to tear him apart. If Brown’s appeal to facts enrages us, it just might be because we’ve fallen for it – hook, line, and blood-crazed albino monk.

Still, he’s only Dan Brown. If I was Eleanor Catton, I wouldn’t be worried. But as Brown, ever the New England gent, flashes his "gracious loser" smile, we could do worse than wonder at what might be going on in the mind behind it.

Dan Brown (and Dante) at the launch of "Inferno". Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

John Gallagher is writing a history PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2013/2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @earlymodernjohn.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage