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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.

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

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.