Perhaps I ought to have paid more attention to “The Da Vinci Code”. It was such an irresistibly delightful lark that I didn’t look very closely at the language. Certainly, nothing dreadful jumped out and whacked you in the face. This isn’t true, however, of “Deception Point” or “Digital Fortress”. Like “Da Vinci Code”, they’re silly and slight, the kind of thing you carry on a long plane journey, but at least “The Da Vinci Code” was clever, even though it’s theories are nothing but a well-known con, as an excellent article in the New York Times shows.
These two books by Dan Brown don’t have the élan of “The Da Vinci Code”. They are just contrived and affected. Worse, the writing is truly terrible. In “Deception Point”, we get phrases like “wrought with failure”. Shouldn’t that be fraught or plagued or beset or dogged? But wrought? What hath Brown wrought?
The real beauty, though, is this:
“Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender build and narrow shoulders.”
I didn’t realize that becoming a President gave you wall-to-wall muscles. Or that you needed to be a block of walking concrete to get the Presidency. I thought Arnie was an aberration. How very perspicacious of Brown to note, years ahead, that pumping iron is the siné-qua-non of presidential or gubernatorial aspirations.
But what I really disliked about both books is their deliberate dumbing-down of their protagonists. This isn’t a concession to the reader at all; it’s talking down to the reader, and it’s humiliating. In “Digital Fortress”, for instance, Susan Fletcher is supposed to be a very highly educated, blindingly intelligent mathematician working in code-breaking. She’s not just a pretty face. She is a Brainy Person. So how is it that she has no Latin at all?
Hale nodded thoughtfully. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Susan looked puzzled.
“It’s Latin,” Hale said. “From Satires of Juvenal. It means ‘Who will guard the guards?’”
“I don’t get it,” Susan said. “‘Who will guard the guards?’”
Oh, come on, Mr Brown. We realize you were bothered that many of your readers wouldn’t know the prhase, but did you have to turn your mathematician into a dimwit to explain it? Surely she would know, with her fancy degree and all? And the dilemma that confronts Susan Fletcher is, in the world of computers and even more acutely in the world of the Internet, as old as the hills. Anyone working in code-breaking and snooping knows that policing the police is a fundamental conflict in information technology regulation. It can’t be a first for any code-breaker working for a top-secret US agency.
On the whole, “Digital Fortress” works better than “Deception Point”. In the former, the world is under threat (naturally) because a renegade code-breaker threatens to release into the public domain an encryption of a kind never seen before. This will jeopardize the work of an US agency which constantly monitors global information flow. Along the way, Brown takes a swipe at the EFF, portraying it as a bunch of misguided zealots. That the EFF is actually fighting a rear-guard action to protect citizens’ rights against state-sponsored invasion of their privacy and that this is something to be supported totally escapes Brown. He sees anarchy as the only alternative to state spying. Anyway, the story races on, with a secret ring (the Tolkien influence) being chased down in Spain while havoc is unleashed in the US. It’s all exciting stuff with wonderful echoes of “The Matrix” films: towards the end, as the ‘shields’ start to go down, the ‘sharks’ and the ‘snakes’ start busting through the agency’s firewalls, all vividly projected on their screens.
In contrast, “Deception Point” is dull, uninspired and hopelessly contrived. Here, we have a Presidential race on our hands. The challenger is brash, arrogant and anti-NASA. The incumbent (he of the slender build and narrow shoulders) is determinedly NASA prone and fixated on the idea that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Which, as someone said, is very likely given that none of it has tried to contact us yet. The director of NASA, in a wild attempt to shore up the present administration, plants a meteorite in a Polar ice-cap and claims that embedded in it is a huge prawn or some such, proof of extraterrestrial life or, at any rate, an alternate food supply. Cracking open this hoax is Rachel Sexton, daughter of aforementioned challenger. Her involvement in the whole thing is doubtful throughout and even Brown does not seem fully convinced: he tries to explain it repeatedly with diminishing success in each round. This is a book in which Brown ties himself in knots. In his desperation to add twists and turns, he jettisons the plausible completely and we have the most absurd situations piling on top of each other. Escaping from an ice-floe by banging on it so that the sonar of a nuclear sub conveniently cruising nearby hears it. A gunfight on a rig with a helicopter gunship above and hungry sharks below. Incompetents from Delta Force who can’t seem to accomplish the simplest termination. We get just about everything except credibility and, after a point, that’s really tiresome. At the end of both books, of course, the threats are neutralized, all is well with the world and the American Way of Life is preserved intacta.
Incidentally, has anyone noted the link between “The Da Vinci Code” and the “The Matrix”? In the second part of “The Matrix” trilogy, there is a character called The Merovingian. Everybody in the film is called ‘The’ something or the other: The Architect, The Keymaker, The Oracle, The One — this is possibly the most over-articled film of all time. But it’s possible that the Wachowski Duo read the same material as Dan Brown. One of the theories in “The Da Vinci Code”, and in “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, a best-seller of the 1980′s) on which the Dan Brown book is based, is that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. Also, she was pregnant when he was (allegedly; no real proof of this, it seems) crucified. She fled to France and became the figurative chalice, or Holy Grail, in which Christ’s blood was preserved. Their descendants married with the locals, to conceal their identity and eventually founded a dynasty of Frankish kings who, being lineal descendants of the Christ, apparently had the healing touch and were called — you guessed it — the Merovingians.