Bloodied and Bruised, But Not in a Good Way

Yesterday, I was finally ready to read.  It’s been a while since I found myself willing to give into a book.  I’ve started a lot – a LOT – in the past few months and every time I’ve closed them pretty quickly.  There have been various reasons: I don’t feel like reading another novel by a guy with father issues, I don’t feel like working that hard to wait for the narrative to really kick in, I just don’t find the story appealing at all, etc.  It’s been bad, and it’s been especially bad for an English professor.

Perhaps it has something to do with not teaching for the past three semesters.  I’ve been deep into administrative mode for a while and maybe that has led me to reading a certain type of text.  J. thinks that it might have something to do with being on the computer a lot, and that reading on a Kindle or iPad might make a difference.  I’m not sure, really.  I can still get into certain genre fiction without any difficulty – especially detective fiction, not surprisingly for me – but serious literary fiction feels like it takes itself too seriously.  It’s bored me.

So what do I choose as I rummage through the house?  I’m looking for a detective novel, something I can sink my teeth into, knowing that the second two Stieg Larsson books aren’t in the house and wishing they were, when I come across Angels and Demons.  Dan Brown.

I’ve never read any Dan Brown, not even The Da Vinci Code.  It never had any appeal.  I’ve caught bits of the movie on television, but Tom Hanks didn’t seem to make sense to me in the role, and frankly his long hair bothered me.  But I figured Dan Brown’s books supposed to be page-turners and what did I have to lose?  I brought the boys to the pool and cracked it open.

It’s not a good book, not at all, at least in terms of most of us would call “good.”  It’s weak in terms of character development, there’s way too much exposition and explication for fiction, it’s silly, some things in it are just wrong.  The plotting is ridiculous and Brown keeps trying to come up with hairpin turns to keep the reader off balance when it’s been pretty clear all along where things were headed.

But it is a page-turner.  I read fast and I stayed up late and I finished it.  Overall, I’d estimate that this 545-page book took me about ten hours to finish.  And I’m not a fast reader.  So that gives you a sense of Brown’s style of pacing – his soulmate James Patterson operates the same way.  Each constructs chapters of little more than four pages.  To be fair, Brown is better than Patterson, but still, unless he is describing an action sequence or having a character lay out a long speech that works essentially as a monologue (and therefore some sort of exposition of the theme), he is unable to stick with a scene for very long.  He just doesn’t have much to say or do, except on the theme of the conflict of religion and science.

And he sticks to that theme, baby.  He doesn’t develop it, the narrative doesn’t push that theme in any direction or take us anywhere in our thoughts – no, nothing like that.  The book creates a tension and seeks to play it out over the next 500 pages, but nothing in those 500 pages takes us any further into the debate and tension than Brown had characters articulate in the opening 50 pages.

By about page 300, you’re exhausted, bloodied and bruised.  But not in a good way.  You feel the need to finish, sure, because although it’s just been a few hours now you’re 300 pages in.  But you know pretty well what’s going to happen, and you even have a pretty good sense of the villain’s motivations, even though these won’t be revealed for another 225 pages.  It’s just not that complicated to figure out.

And yet that’s part of the appeal of the book in a weird way.  It’s so simple-minded, it’s so pedestrian, that it makes for easy reading.  It’s like listening to Joe Mantegna read Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels on a long car ride.  There’s a pleasure in the known and seeing it fulfilled, even if it often isn’t very well done.  Angels and Demons is not a good book, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad book either.  Oddly, I would just say that it doesn’t actually aspire to be good.  It’s like most network sitcoms on television nowadays.  It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t have any ambition to be anything other than a network sitcom maybe hoping to be picked up for the season, then the next year, and then to grind the way to syndication.

It’s not that Brown tries and misses in Angels and Demons.  I think he actually does the very thing he tries to do – to keep you reading his book until the end.  Is he a weak abstract thinker too caught up in insisting on the importance of his theme but lacking in the ability to actually dramatize that theme?  Of course.  There’s no real drama here.  But he’s very good at demonizing institutions and schools of thought without actually engaging in the ideologies at play withing those schools of thought or those institutions.  And he’s good at research – the titles of works of art and where they reside, and who painted or sculpted them, and when they lived.  These details don’t add much, but they do help to keep readers going until the end and they do allow him to weave a elaborate (and ridiculous) tale of conspiracy and deceit.

And who doesn’t enjoy that?

The question now is how quickly I turn to The Da Vinci Code.  I’m a bit afraid.  I’m still feeling a little tender after my first experience with Robert Langdon, Brown’s protagonist in the two novels. But hey, maybe this will get me back in the reading habit.  So it might have some ancillary benefits after all!


2 Responses

  1. Ugh. His plot is the same in every book, unlike, say James Lee Burke or Donna Leon, who manage to fuflill the conventions of genre without plagiarizing themselves (too much). It’s true, though, that as I get older and my time to “just read” gets shorter, I find it harder and harder to wade through much of what gets billed as “serious fiction.” So much of it would be better labeld “pretentious pastiche.” Frankly, I find a lot of really good stuff happening in YA fiction these days – creative, unpretentious, well-plotted, nice commentaries on life and society (I exempt Stephanie Meyer from all of this. Despite having read all those damn books like 4 times, I realize that the woman can’t write her way out of a bag. I excuse her only slightly more than Dan Brown b/c at very least, she’s coming up with her own bizarro plots: a vamp gnawing his baby out of his mortal wife’s belly? That shit is crazytown).

  2. […] and writing.  Which brings me to this past summer and what I encountered.  First a brief note: it took me some time this summer to get into reading again, but I found my way there.  I’m not looking to discuss every book I read, but want to […]

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