Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review: THE DA VINCI CODE (Special Illustrated Edition) by Dan Brown

da vinci code cover

Recently, I had a strange urge to re-read The Da Vinci Code--strange, because while I did enjoy reading it the first time (around 2005-ish), I wasn't in love over it. This isn't the typical sort of novel I enjoy, and at 597 pages it was a near-miracle I even finished it, so I never saw myself rereading it. However, after reading a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I can't find the link, sorry), I found myself re-intrigued with The Da Vinci Code.

The point of the review of Rise was that successful sci-fi movies resonate with contemporary social and political subtext (I'll let you guess as to the reviewer's opinion on how successful Rise was at doing that). That got me thinking about The Da Vinci Code because it obviously resonated when it was released, but with what? Whatever it was certainly didn't translate to the movie.

At its heart, TDVC is a quest, filled with a lot of traveling, symbols, and treasures like the Holy Grail. There are a lot of knight references in the book--not just the Knights Templar and Holy Grail, which are pretty obvious, but more subtle references like the statue of the knight in shining armor in Saunière's office, and Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu going to a "knight," Leigh Teabing, for help.

Also as in many questing stories, the final goal isn't an object, even though the protagonist may not realize this. As Langdon reflects early in the book,
Rome [from Angels & Demons] had unlocked in him a longing he never imagined he could feel. His lifelong affinity for bachelorhood and the simple freedoms it allowed had been shaken somehow... replaced by an unexpected emptiness that seemed to have grown over the past year.
There's a lot to read into that sentence (no lifelong bachelor jokes, please--too easy). Is Langdon questioning his existential nihilism, looking for God, or love? Or all three? Either way, I think this gives the novel more of a romantic streak than your average thriller.

I don't believe the reason behind TVDC's massive appeal was a romantic quest, though. Aside from Langdon and Sophie's odyssey, the main message of the book is about the threats of extremism. The only part of the novel that was truly alarming was the idea that an organization like Opus Dei could not only exist in the modern Western world, but thrive. In a post-9/11 US, the notion of a very conservative monotheistic organization that wanted to severely suppress women's rights and was semi-secretly headquartered in New York City was not only more credible than it would have been previously, but more portentous. Just think of all the fuss that was stirred up a few months back over the building of a new Islamic community center. Because of 9/11, people were more wary of "hidden threats" and the knowledge that extremism was gaining a foothold in the US.

I'm not saying the plot of TDVC is anti-Islam, although it could probably be read that way--the novel does tend to treat anything east of Provence as suspect--but rather that it's anti-fundamentalist, arguing against simply accepting someone else's definition of what events mean or who is and isn't dangerous. In many ways, Langdon himself could be described as a monist: many paths can lead to the same answer. Unfortunately, anyone who's tried to avoid hearing about politics lately knows that message, if noted at all, clearly didn't stick.

book interior
Example from the interior of the book.

As for the writing, Dan Brown has gotten a lot slack for it (especially on The Colbert Report), and I have to admit the book was more cheesy than I remember it being. But on the plus side, the obscure product placements were kept under control, so that's good. The only thing Brown does that really drives me crazy is insert the characters' thoughts randomly in italics for no reason. It makes me go, Huh? Why do I need to know lovely little Silas is thinking that? It should be self-evident. And now Brown's got me doing it!! Aiee! 

TDVC has also been criticized for historical inaccuracy, which quite honestly makes me laugh. One, it's a novel. Look up the definition, please, then get back to me on why this is news. Two, historical accuracy or lack thereof not withstanding, Brown researched the ever-loving crapload out of this topic, and pulled it all together in a way that was really interesting and creative, so I think he deserves kudos for that.

As for the Illustrated Special Edition... uhg. The illustrations have an inconsistent, home PhotoShopped feel to them; and some of the things they chose to illustrate were just odd. The Olympic Rings, for instance--considering that most five-year-olds know what the Olympic Rings are, I don't think it's necessary to include a picture of them in this book. And even if it was necessary, they could have found a damn better example than the .gif-quality image that just about anyone could pull off the internet.

Overall I'm happy I decided to reread this book. It's definitely better than the movie (sorry, Tom Hanks, you just don't make a believable academic), and as a modern-day quest/thriller novel, I think it's pretty decent.

Musical Notes: I don't know why, but I had "Give Me Some Love" by James Blunt and "Your Song" from Moulin Rouge stuck in my head the entire time I was reading this.


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