by Dan Brown
Two thirds of the way through Origin, Dan Brown’s seventh novel, the reader comes upon a joke. Robert Langdon, the now-familiar professor of symbology who works (as Brown’s narrator often reminds us) at Harvard University, has just done what he does best: cracked a code that may change the course of human history. Having entered the 47-digit password into a supercomputer, Langdon hits enter. And … nothing.
Our hero is shocked. We are shocked. Codes, even 47-digit ones, don’t normally resist Robert Langdon of Harvard University. He turns to his companion, Ambra Vidal (a stunningly beautiful woman – as so often in Langdon’s adventures – with whom he shares all the sexual chemistry of a used teabag) and is surprised to find her smiling. “Professor,” she says. “Your caps lock is on.”
It’s a good gag – one that dispels the portentousness of the moment and pokes gentle fun at both Langdon and Brown himself. All the Harvard brilliance in the world cannot prevent the basic error that all humans are prone to when logging into email. I hope Langdon’s next mystery will be solved by turning a computer off and on again.
As the title proclaims, Brown’s seventh outing is concerned with nothing less than the beginnings of the universe and life itself. The vehicle is Edmond Kirsch. Though he sounds like an aperitif, he is actually the sort of brilliant polymath who inhabits Brown novels: two parts Steve Jobs, one part each Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Dawkins, and a dash of anyone who has ever given a TED talk. It goes without saying that he is also a former student of Langdon (at Harvard, in case you had forgotten). Vehemently opposed to all religion, Kirsch has made a discovery that will blow every single church out of the holy water.
Kirsch presents his findings to (could this be the start of another joke?) a bishop, an imam and a rabbi. Three days later, it is the world’s turn, giving sufficient time for two of the holy men to be murdered. The unveiling is held at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Spain, and when Kirsch is murdered by a sniper, Langdon is on hand to solve the riddle.
Accompanied by Vidal (who is director, in fact, of the Guggenheim and fiancée of Spain’s crown prince), Langdon is pursued by all manner of nasties: Spanish secret service agents, the royal family, a sinister religious order and – most terrifying of all – a public-relations guru who is forever glued to her tablet computer. Langdon’s quest takes him from one high-culture clue to the next – drawing in historical figures such as Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudí and William Blake – until he hacks that password and Brown cracks that joke. (In another neat gag, Langdon mistakes the ancient symbol for alchemical amalgamation for Uber’s logo.)
Nevertheless, the caps-lock quip is the novel’s highlight, and a rare exception to the heavy footfall of Brown’s prose. It is, of course, de rigueur to mock his writing, but increasingly beside the point. Literary history, after all, is filled with bestsellers by inelegant authors (everyone from Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to James Patterson), and by brilliant stylists who sell in a lifetime what Brown manages in an afternoon.
Close reading certainly locates some clangers. For instance, the slew of extraneous adjectives in the opening paragraph: “As the ancient cogwheel train clawed its way up the dizzying incline, Edmond Kirsch surveyed the jagged mountaintop above him. In the distance, built into the face of a sheer cliff, the massive stone monastery seemed to hang in space, as if magically fused to the vertical precipice?” Vertical precipice? Sheer cliff? Is there another kind?
An ironic consequence of Brown’s reputation as a prose philistine is that he is probably read with the attention normally reserved for Samuel Beckett. Personally, I find his clumsiness part of the fun: it reveals that Brown is not a natural-born novelist, but a wannabe academic in a fiction writer’s clothes. There is a fussiness that climaxes whenever Langdon mentions a well-known artist, philosopher or architect, and the writer supplies a potted biography that could have been gleaned from Wikipedia. One can hear the same slightly nervous pomposity of that famously insecure author of bestsellers, Jeffrey Archer.
On the upside, one frequently learns something from a Brown novel. I confess to being rusty on evolutionary theory. The explanation by Brown/Kirsch of the Miller-Urey experiment, intended to mimic the Big Bang, was engaging. I also felt better for having the ampersand symbol (“&”) explained.
All too often, though, one feels like a child being lectured by an overbearing adult, whose only real advantage has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with experience and bluster. Brown and Langdon are narrative know-it-alls. The resulting tone, which turns mild haranguing into an art form, feels oddly familiar, and not only because Origin follows the same template as its predecessors: Dan Brown is the Donald Trump of literature. I don’t say this to suggest Brown is a reckless narcissist (though Trump, with his weird personality and weirder hair, would make a perfect Brown villain).
Instead, it is a question of tone, aesthetics and (dare one say) philosophy. Before Origin even begins, we are informed: “FACT: All art, architecture, locations, science, and religious organisations in this novel are real.” The more times I read the claim, the stranger it sounded. Why should a novel ever be real? Even stories aspiring to realism are merely realistic. Isn’t fiction’s biggest selling point precisely that it flouts reality?
One knows what Brown means – that his research is impeccable; that no matter how incredible the plot, Origin is convincing. But why should this be a matter of “FACT”? Shouldn’t a novel convince through other means – plot, character, dialogue, language? That “FACT”, capitalised as if barked through a megaphone, is eminently Trumpian, asserting authority by force rather than creating it with elegance, wit and consideration. Such posturing led me to look for cracks in the facade. One egregious example is Brown’s use of Blake, the English visionary poet, engraver and painter whose illustrated manuscripts have been justifiably called unique works of genius. Blake has been pilfered in all manner of popular fiction, most famously in Red Dragon, as the dark muse of Thomas Harris’ toothy serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde.
For Brown, Kirsch and Langdon, Blake was a wild nonconformist (fair enough) who provides “a slap in the face for religion” and held optimistic views of science. Langdon patronises a priest who confuses Blake’s portrait of Urizen, the artist’s embodiment of conventional reason and law, with that of a Christian God. He was, Langdon pontificates, “a god conjured from Blake’s own visionary imagination […] paying homage to the scientific laws of the universe”.
Only (and I hesitate to correct such a Harvard-educated eminence as Professor Langdon) he isn’t. Like so much else in Blake, Urizen was an ambivalent figure, whose name hints at the Greek horizein – “to limit”. Science would have appealed to the rational Urizen, but for Blake it was a complex issue. His profound scepticism about Isaac Newton inspired him to portray the scientist in exactly the same pose as Urizen: measuring space with a compass. In another engraving, of Trojan priest Laocoön, he wrote, “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.”
For all their cleverness, Brown, Langdon and Kirsch take Blake’s apparent enmity towards “dark religions” and exaltation of “sweet science” entirely at face value. Taking quotes out of context and simplifying Blake’s nuance, they see the world as they want to see it, espousing the very limitations that Blake critiques so passionately. “Without Contraries is no progression,” as he wrote himself.
Origin is fun, but a little more humility on the part of author and key characters would have made it a more enjoyable and less stodgy adventure.