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April   3

The DaVinci Code Has a Prequel
Angels & Demons. By DAN BROWN. Pocket Star Books, New York, 2001. 572pp., $7.99
Twenty-five million people (thus far) have read Dan Brown's fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed it tremendously and thought it would be fun, while waiting around for the release of his fifth book, to check out his three earlier ones. Reviewers called Deception Point  "unputdownable" but I set it aside after fifty implausible (yes, even for Dan Brown) pages. Onward to Digital Fortress, which was superb – a self-replicating computer virus with an impenetrable mind of its own threatens to melt down all the networks in the world. But Angels & Demons is of particular importance in Brown's oeuvre because it introduces us to the hero of Da Vinci, "world-renowned Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, summoned to a Swiss research facility to analyze a cryptic symbol seared into the chest of a murdered physicist."

Without committing the unpardonable sin of betraying the convoluted plot, let me say that Angels & Demons previews key elements taken to even more sensationalistic heights in Da Vinci – a beautiful and brainy sidekick for the somewhat reserved, tweedy Langdon; the resurgence of a centuries-old, insidious conspiracy aimed at the highest reaches of the Catholic Church; a faceless, demonic killer pitted against religious and secular antagonists that are one frustrating step behind him; complex, allusive iconography that Dr. Langdon must harness all his expertise to decipher in order to stay in the game; "old Europe" scenarios with an authentic, on-location feel; and not least, the author's subversive aptitude for yarn-spinning that tempts you to peek ahead as you flip pages frenetically. Angels & Demons makes no pretense at being great literature; it simply grabs you by the collar and yanks you in from the first page. Deep into the story, when Langdon quotes P.T.Barnum on the run – "I don't care what you say about me, just spell my name right!" –  I  heard Dan Brown laughing all the way to the bank at the protestations of his highbrow detractors.


Neil Baldwin's new book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War, will be published in June by St. Martin's Press. More about Neil at his website.

April 3, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink


It was also notable for other Brownian motifs we came to love in the Da Vinci Code:

1. Insulting art history condescensions from our favorite protagonist.

2. Complete lies, misconstruals of history, and total bullshit.

3. Disregard for the laws of physics. (I refer, of course, to the fact that two important characters survive a free-fall of thousands of feet. I have no compunction about revealing that plot twist because Brown himself reveals it early in the book.) Oh yeah, and no plane could get from Boston to Geneva in forty-five minutes.

4. Simplistic views of religion, especially the Catholic Church.

5. Crap cosmology. Creating anti-matter would prove that God sparked the Big Bang? WTF?

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 3, 2005 11:11:27 AM

I should add that if you want a good laugh at Dan Brown's pretensions, read "The Dick Cheney Code". It's somewhat dated since the election, but it's still the definitive skewering of this ridiculous genre.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 3, 2005 11:18:21 AM

Well, at least we learned the meaning of "camerlengo" before yesterday...

Posted by: Bella Roma | Apr 3, 2005 1:10:48 PM

The Da Vinci code is FICTION! It's a great yarn, and to the extent it's provocative and causes people to question and talk about religion and art, three cheers!

Posted by: Jessica | Apr 3, 2005 1:18:10 PM

Oh yeah, they might talk about religion and art, but if they believe half the crap in that book they'll be woefully misinformed. It's not like you need to dumb down the truth in order to make it accessible to a wide audience.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 3, 2005 2:06:22 PM

It's wildly inaccurate (even as to the actual locations of places, the direction one walks to get from a to b, etc.) But what's really amusing about it and its successor novel is how both serve as vehicles in which Dan Brown can play Walter Mitty. Look at both his website and his jacket photos, then compare them to descriptions of Langdon (is that right?, it's been a while since I read them) - the turtlenecks, the tweed jackets, it all fits. Too closely.

Posted by: cathar | Apr 3, 2005 6:57:33 PM

Um, Neil? This may be a psuedo-mass media, but you got to know your audience.

If you check the story about Montclair you'll see that we're all millionaire intelligentsia wanna-bes trying to amuse our investment banker friends when we're not publicizing them in our groovy media vehicles. And the ibankers with their five minute attention spans already read all of Dan Brown while on the red-eye from Zurich. Steven King, Crichton and Clancy too. So we're going to need more high-brow stuff.

Posted by: MiloG | Apr 4, 2005 9:25:45 AM

Milo, be fair.

Neil wrote his piece before I wrote the story on status-income disequilibrium.

Besides, you don't get any more highbrow than the former head of the National Book Awards. If he says it's time to read Danielle Steele, then it's time to read Danielle Steele.

Posted by: The Barista | Apr 4, 2005 9:35:56 AM

We have to be fair now? Awww...

I'm sorry Neil, I am honestly looking forward to your book recommendations.

"If he says it's time to read Danielle Steele, then it's time to read Danielle Steele."

Says the lady with the three pound hardcover on her nightstand.

Posted by: MiloG | Apr 4, 2005 10:11:07 AM


Barista, I am going to say un-called-for things that have very little basis in fact. However, here it is. I think there's an unfortunate current among us liberals to the extent that George Bush's electoral success somehow invalidates our cultural preferences and, in fact, our daily lives. Now we've adopted his purported worldview, that we are the out-of-touch elite and he and his folks are the true-blue Americans. Out of that perverse idea comes Mr. Baldwin's book about American principles or whatever. I haven't read it (it hasn't even been published), and admittedly one of the subjects is John Winthrop who is one of my personal heroes. However, the idea that we supposed intellectuals have to appeal to real Americans and their values is just ridiculous. I don't even know what the book says, but (I'm assuming--unjustifiably) it's about the "values that unite us," complete with revisionist mud.

To extend this further, this self-doubt mirrors the creep of Republican brutality in popular culture. Suddenly these "minutemen," vigilantes who patrol the Mexican border on the lookout for wetbacks, are acceptable. They're protecting our way of life, I betcha. They're armed to the teeth, and I can't imagine how thorough their investigation of 'suspects' is. I think a brief appraisal of skin color would satisfy them. And we're out-of-touch elites for doubting this is really American.

Ah yes, and Nancy Grace, that whore of victims' rights. She screeches endlessly about how obviously guilty Scott Peterson or any of her evil sinners du jour are, and we're supposed to sympathize. They obviously deserve execution, they deserve to die at the hands of the state. I'm out-of-touch for feeling otherwise.

And Terri Schiavo, whose own physical body the Republican hordes view as their personal property. Pay attention to their arguments: allowing her to die is 'murder,' even had she had a living will or had her family been united. It's still an innocent human life with sanctity. The state should protect it. Remember that autonomy over one's physical body from government interference is the grounding principle of liberals everywhere. Remember that liberalism grew up in opposition to slavery, to serfdom in Europe. Personally (and with help from Winthrop) I'm a positive liberty kind of guy, but these people are too much. So maybe when abortion is discussed sovereignty over the body is abrogated by the presence of another human being. That's acceptable (in fact, I agree with it). But with Terri Schiavo, the forces of reaction recruit the government to swoop down and take a woman's body away from her.

And let's be frank about where this all comes from: it comes from torture and inequality, the two happy brilliant values whose earthly presence has grown under Bush. He told us that torture isn't torture, that it doesn't violate the judicial support structures for the culture of life (which we call the Geneva Conventions). So he withholds his discretionary gift of human status from Terri Schiavo, from criminals, from illegal immigrants or otherwise at the border, and from our captures in Iraq. Who is human in his eyes?

This is the brutality of Republican America, and against this we celebrate 'universal values' as though our most sacred trust is not under threat. What does this have to do with reading high brow or low brow literature? Just that we have no obligation to these people who say we're out of touch. I read high brow and low brow just as I've always done. The moment we accede to the cultural falange, we're done.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 4, 2005 11:59:43 AM

What was the rant all about? Mr. Baldwin wrote a book review of a besteller (not one to my taste, but so what?), that's all. And this prompts Marshall to spew at the "brutality" of Republican America? Marshall, calm down, it was a book review. What are you going to do if Mr. Baldwin decides to take another look at, oh, "Mein Kampf" or "Das Kapital?" Or, in fact, the collected works (to date) of Danielle Steele? And where does Nancy Grace come into this? Are you so lacking in verbal outlets for your anger that you thereby misdirect them? Dan Brown is merely a best-selling, and very wealthy by now, author of pop novels. And his books hardly presage the onset of fascism, a new world religion or anything else of import, as I believe Neil Baldwin made clear. Now go toddle off to "Sesame Street" and calm yourself down before it's time for milk and cookies.

Posted by: cathar | Apr 4, 2005 1:01:52 PM

We're done with Dan Brown.
Too much attention given to his undeserving books.

Posted by: textwoman | Apr 4, 2005 1:13:52 PM

I have no problem with Brown's books, other than that they're bad. My problem is that it's somehow incumbent upon us liberals to assimilate the so-called values of so-called mainstream America, in part by paying attention to bad books as though that is somehow enobling. The Republican Brutality to which I refer is in no way mainstream--that's the danger we should be heeding rather than preening ourselves. By extension, the genre of book that talks about "America's Common Values" and such is to my mind demonstrative of the problem.

And yes, I am lacking in verbal outlets. I'm here at school outside term without anyone to talk to, just finishing my thesis. So excuse me if I unleash on you people.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 4, 2005 1:23:03 PM

Barista -

You mentioned to Neil the thick skin requirement of his new job before he took it, right?

Posted by: MiloG | Apr 4, 2005 1:57:00 PM

Hey, how come I have to be fair and Marshall doesn't? Just because he's at Oxford, I'm not intelligentsia enough is it?

I mean Neil's book is in the extremely long tradition of nation building through mythologizing. Plutarch did it, JFK did it, why not Neil Baldwin? No harm in it that I can see.

And I would hazard that just as many liberals as conservatives enjoyed and took as fact-based Brown's libel of the Catholic Church; it's not like we have a lock on common sense. I see people in the local Manhattan Barnes and Noble looking at pictures of the Last Supper and saying "do you think it's a woman?" "I don't know, do you?" as if the feeble fantasy of Jesus running off and siring the Merovingians could be resolved right then and there. I mean, you'd think the fact that Clovis had to convert from paganism would say something to the average reader, wouldn't you? Unless you believe it was just youthful rebellion on his part:

Childeric: What would great-grandpa Jesus do?
Clovis: I don't care, I'm going out with my friends to worship Apollo! Can I have the car keys?

But, then, I've read books based on stupider suppositions, and I don't mean just those by Ann Coulter and Kurt Vonnegut. I agree that we could all read Eco to greater effect and satisfaction, but I'm willing to give Mr. Baldwin the benefit of the doubt and assume he felt it better to keep it light for the first week. I think we should wait until next week, when he's feeling more comfortable, to savage him.

(Just kidding about that last part, Neil.)

Posted by: MiloG | Apr 4, 2005 2:37:38 PM

What's wrong with the "so-called values of so-called mainstream America?" They're the values of FDR and JFK as much as they are of the Bushes and Reagan, after all. And, at least onscreen, of both Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart (who were lifelong best pals despite their political differences). So Marshall, if you'd like to suggest some alternative values for us mainstream Americans (I'm proud to be one, lad), go right ahead. Just do it in temperate language that sticks to the point. (In other words, be glad I'm not reviewing your thesis, because the blood in your eyes is unnecessary.) I even hope Neil Baldwin does review Danielle Steele or my personal groaners, Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter (both of the "she gasped" school of suspense), soon. What students too oft forget or aren't taught in the first place is that you really can learn as much sometimes from bad writing as you can from "good." And then there are those writers where it's hard to tell which is which, such as Faulkner at times, Updike, Melville, etc.,.....

Posted by: cathat | Apr 4, 2005 3:00:01 PM

I'd have thought Oxford, of all places, would teach their "supposed intellectuals" that it is good to actually read a book prior to penning foaming and sputtering rants based on their supposed contents.

Boy, Marshall, get out that blow-dryer and evaporate that moisture to the posterior of your aural lobes and settle down.

There have been Republican Administrations before.

Be careful or you'll end up a member of A.N.S.W.E.R or some such.

Posted by: Right of Center | Apr 4, 2005 4:03:00 PM

Oh, Melville's a great writer indisputably. Anyway, the point is that in the midst of radical brutality, fetishization of supposedly justifiable violence, etc, we're being asked to submit to pablum about "common values". Republican values as exemplified by the minutemen, Nancy Grace, and the anti-Schiavo forces not to mention endless torture are not mainstream values. I'd rather spend my time pointing that stuff out and resisting it then looking for faux "middle ground". The truly mainstream values of community and human rights are under assault. Yet I'm somehow the unreasonable one.

I don't suppose you two would understand. After all, you're the ones leading the attack.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 4, 2005 4:12:18 PM

To quote from "Lilly's Plastic Purse," "all I can say is Wow, just WOW!"

Posted by: Jessica | Apr 4, 2005 4:22:22 PM

Nah, Marshall, "we" wouldn't understand. We're just uneducated peasants out here, Republican proles, hardly privy to the inside info you clearly have even if we could understand the big words and complex sentence structures. I don't quite know whether this makes you "unreasonable," but it certainly makes you sound pompous, all puffed full of yourself. (And also, yep, rather young chronologically, maybe even emotionally.) Kind of like Elmer Fudd were he a 20-ish graduate student. Warmth you assuredly do not convey for anyone who doesn't seem to agree with you. Whatever your own value system may be, because from your posts I can't tell.

Posted by: cathar | Apr 4, 2005 4:22:58 PM

Hey, come on guys, can't we all just get along? Let's do something constructive since a less entertaining bunch of curmudgeons I've never seen.

Just for fun, let's put down the values that we can agree are peculiarly American. Off the cuff, I nominate

1. Freedom of expression
2. Separation of Church and State
3. The balance of powers (meaning Executive, Legislative and Judicial and denoting general distrust of those in power)
4. Self-sufficiency
5. Equality of opportunity (as distinguished from equality of result)

The criteria isn't what we do but what we believe about what we should be. Others?

Posted by: MiloG | Apr 4, 2005 4:35:16 PM

... peculiarly American:

6. Curmudegeonly sniping about politics on internet blogs.

But Milo I think your lists sounds a little conservative. I think most liberal readers would have to amend your items with alot of "buts" and "only-ifs".

Posted by: Right of Center | Apr 4, 2005 4:57:31 PM


1. Freedom of expression, but Republicans are terrible.

2. Separation of church and state, only if Republicans are in power...

In seriousness, I'm not such a fan of the separation of church and state myself. Because the state would be well served if it imported some divinity and actually took a role in bringing about the City of God here, now, on Earth. But in the absence of decency certainly in the state and a bit in the church as well, I'd rather keep em separate.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 4, 2005 5:02:45 PM

Well at the risk of sounding "brutal", I too think the government could use a little believing....

The constitution prohibits governmental interference with religion not the reverse.

Posted by: Right of Center | Apr 4, 2005 5:06:53 PM

Good try, Milo, good try, It's not a "value" per se, but I'd add irreverence. Americans are much more prone (and able) to call wankers just that. At all levels of society, whiuch isn't how it works in much if Europe, Asia or South America. So that comes in as a subset of freedom of expression, at which someone above claims Republicans are terrible. Yet if Republicans were as bad at this stuff, as stiff and humorless as Marshall claims, we might have far looser libel laws than we do now. Perhaps like they do in the UK or France.

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