f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of <em>The DaVinci Code</em>, in Which I Complain About Albinos

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Day 2 of The DaVinci Code, in Which I Complain About Albinos

No book is without its flaws. On a day in which I’m feeling particularly punchy I might even suggest that 1 and 2 Chronicles get a wee bit tedious, but I don’t think I’d get very far with that argument, so I’ll let it drop before lightning bolts begin flying. The DaVinci Code certainly has no divine authorship, so I think we can take a look at a few of the things that kept me from enjoying it as fully.

Four Not-So-Admirable Things in The DaVinci Code

1. Exposition — Almost exactly half way through this book all the running around, albino gunplay, code-breaking, and art-threatening come to a halt for three people (two of whom have Ph.D’s in insane fields) to chat so that the third person (our stand-in) can get caught up. Page count? A good portion of 44 pages—or 10% of the book! Most well-researched thrillers (techno or otherwise) have a tendency to fall into this trap because the plot ends up hinging on some arcane bit of the research but some writers tackle the problem better than others. Michael Crichton is notorious for this techno-babble but in Jurassic Park he made the conciliatory gesture of relegating his meanderings on chaos theory to their own chapters so that, if you were like me, you could simply skip them without missing a beat. Dan Brown, who had been doing a fairly nice job of filling us in on the fly, simply wore down, I suppose, and bit his exposition off in one chunk. His choice. Personally, the book waned for me after those chapters.

2. Sketchy Motivation — Like actors preparing for a role, writers need to understand their character’s motivations in making nearly any decision. Readers will then judge these motivations and believe (or disbelieve) the subsequent actions based on those motivations. Offer a solid enough explanation that fits a character profile and readers will believe even the most difficult decisions. One of the primary backstory plots involves a decision made by Sophie Neveu to not see her grandfather (her only living relative) for 10+ years, nor to even read any of his correspondence because of some supposed atrocity she witnessed. Her secret reason is held in the book for over 300 pages. When we finally hear it, I didn’t buy a word of it. Writers need to be sure that we don’t mistrust the validity of the character choices on which our plots’ hinge.

3. Albinos They don’t make the best assassins. They tend to stand out, particularly when garbed as monks with barbed straps gouging chunks of flesh out of their thighs. Anyway, I didn’t particularly mind Silas the Killer Albino Monk but I don’t recommend you try and work such a thing into your writing. (Also, it's apparently becoming a cliche to use an albino villain. Who knew?)

4. Character Arcs — In the end, The DaVinci Code isn’t going to stay with me other than a few scattered facts about the history of Leonardo himself. Why? Because Brown’s focus (as I said yesterday) was constructing, almost mechanically with building blocks made up of his research, a plot that allows him to talk about his theories on church history. His characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, are pawns or mouth-pieces only. They don’t grow or change. One has beliefs he finds out are true; the other learns things she believes. Emotional conflict is negligible. I had a fun time reading the book, but the story ended when I turned the last page.

A lot of popular fiction does that. It sacrifices fulfilling characters and emotional resonance for expediency in spinning out its plot. Literary fiction, meanwhile, oftentimes decides that plot is something only for comic books and that characterization is all we need. Obviously something’s got to give.

We’ll get into this more tomorrow in our discussion of “popular fiction”. I will say, though, that there are writers out there who span the fields. Writers who write rip-roaring tales that satisfy the most persnickety of readers. These are some of my favorite books and one’s I’d recommend to anyone. Come back tomorrow to find out more.