Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown

New York: Pocket Star, 2001, pp. 608.

I didn't think I'd bother to read another of Dan Brown's novels after suffering through the lousy Deception Point four years ago. Not only was the prose painfully bad (yes, painfully), and the characters one-dimensional, but the real draw--the plot--was ludicrous. (Yes, there certainly is the enmity of many "space cadets" to NASA, but an American presidential election hinging on the fate of the space program? In 1998? And oh, the lameness of his D.C. hijinks . . .)

Nonetheless, I ended up picking up the book he published right after that (incidentally, I didn't happen to catch last year's film), and so here I am. In this one Brown's recurring protagonist, symbologist Robert Langdon (in this his first appearance) is enlisted by the director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Maximillian Kohler, to assist an investigation into a brutal murder at the lab's headquarters that may be the work of the Illuminati (on which Langdon is an expert). This leads Langdon into an elaborate plot by the secret society to strike back at the Catholic Church in retaliation for its persecution of science, centered on a quantity of antimatter stolen from CERN. Compounding the mess, this is all happening at the very moment of the Conclave, in which the college of cardinals is meeting to select the next Pope.

It goes without saying that the treatment of antimatter seen here has no relationship with reality, but one may be willing to suspend disbelief on that one point, given its admitted symbolic value. And anyway, unlike his previous two, more technologically-oriented books, this is really a historical mystery more than a technological thriller. However, for a story founded on an intricate historical mystery, it gets a lot of easy (and often, unnecessary) bits wrong--as in its claim that Copernicus was murdered by the Church (he had a stroke, and foul play has never even been alleged), or that Winston Churchill was a "lifelong Catholic" (a description that not only Churchill, but no PM in British history, fits), or the labeling of the "Rio Plata" as an Old World river (when it's actually in South America). It is all too telling that Brown, who boasts of having taught Shakespeare at Exeter, repeatedly confuses a couplet with an iamb (a mistake made, incidentally, at a crucial point in the unfolding of the mystery)--which would be embarrassing for anyone who has ever studied literature, let alone taught it at an elite institution.

Given how many others have taken Brown to task for his scientific, historical, geographical and other errors (many of which will immediately jump out at the culturally literate), it's not worth my while to go on about this much more, and in any case, one could be forgiving toward these (in spite of Brown's considerable, financially profitable pretensions to factuality) if his storytelling proves up to par.1 And silly as his premise sounds, with its preposterous implication of scientists skulking around in dark rooms for centuries planning a catastrophic attack on the Vatican in retaliation for old grievances, it has some potential for excitement.

Now, I admit that Brown has a knack for the kind of pacing that keeps a reader turning the pages--assuming they also turn off their brains. (And while the prose of Angels & Demons is certainly not graceful, elegant, stylish or anything else of the kind, but it isn't painfully bad in the way of Deception Point.) Still, there's a good deal here that jars. In his hands, the conventions creak, and the demands he makes on our willing suspension of disbelief are not only frequent and large, bit unsupported by the kind of talent that compels a reader to take incredible coincidences in stride--to knowingly enjoy how over the top the situations are rather than scoff at them (though admittedly Brown's aforementioned pretensions make this much harder.)

This is the case from the opening chapters on. I get that Brown wanted to impress us with the sheer high-tech, futuristic feel of the world Langdon steps into when he gets involved with CERN, and perhaps to offer a contrast between that world and the Baroque-era Rome in which most of the story is set. However, the bit with the space plane that ferries Langdon from Massachusetts to Switzerland (sent by CERN's director at his own discretion, on a moment's notice, just because Langdon's was the name he found when he did an Internet search about the Illuminate) was a wildly implausible bit of overkill. There were much easier and more plausible ways of getting Langdon to Europe in time to get him involved in the intrigue. (He could, for instance, have been in Switzerland or a neighboring country on a fellowship or a research grant.)

Brown's characterizations are just as atrocious as they were in Deception Point, even if he lavishes more ink on them. His protagonist Langdon, whose Harris tweed is referenced at least fifteen times in the novel, isn't a real, believable character who happens to be a professor, but the tweedy cliché that people who have never actually been to college (or perhaps spent their whole time there never going to class) imagine college professors to be. The kind we so often see in bad movies and bad TV shows magisterially addressing a darkened lecture hall, invariably attended wherever he goes by the kind of Prestigious School Name-Dropping hacks use to awe the unsophisticated. (Langdon teaches at Harvard--where else?--and never lets us forget it. I counted no fewer than eighteen separate references to this little factoid.)

The rest of the dramatis personae aren't much better drawn (Brown seems incapable of thinking in anything but such clichés, a point also reflected in the dismaying shallowness and triteness of the dialogue where they discuss Big Ideas), and the villainous hit man would seem particularly worthy of mention. I didn't see what was gained by making him a Hashashin, except to throw the name of yet another secret society (this one even deader than the rest) into the mix, but Brown does absolutely nothing with it. (Indeed, I wonder if Brown wasn't pandering to popular prejudice as a way of lending this particularly flat character an additional touch of menace.)

Perhaps worst of all where this novel is concerned as a thriller pure and simple, the mystery seemed diminished considerably after the revelation of a crucial twist in the last act (which makes the whole thing seem even sillier), and diminished further still by the cover-up in which Langdon and Vittoria Vetra become complicit. That could have been a bold move on the writer's part at the end of a dramatic moment of decision, but it doesn't play that way here. The character drama, the political teeth that could make this work--they just aren't there. It seems like a cop-out, and a significant missed possibility at the end of a long train of them. Brown's themes--the clash between science and religion, the misuse and abuse of power by religious institutions--are worthwhile, but he was simply not up to their challenge. Unfortunately, given his success, it seems that no writer who actually is that will be able to command such attention.

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