Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Oscurati: Dim Bulbs in Dan Brown's Angels & Demons

Part One:
Langdon was certain you had never heard of the name.
"Effluvium," Langdon said. "Vapors from decaying bone." He breathed through his sleeve as he leaned out over the hole, peering down. Blackness. "I can't see a thing." (Angels & Demons 269)

Quick question: how many of you have ever heard of an obscure Italian from the Renaissance named "Galileo"?

Ring any bells? Yeah, the proponent of the concept of heliocentrism. Essentially, the inventor of the solar system concept. Kind of important. Kind of famous.

So why does the noted Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon seem to assume that only other eminent scholars would know the name?
Langdon was certain Kohler [the head of a conclave of scientists] would recognize the name. Even nonscientists were familiar with the ill-fated astronomer who had been arrested and almost executed by the church for proclaiming that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the solar system. ... "His name was Galileo Galilei," Langdon said. Kohler looked up. "Galileo?" (32)
Thank you, Basil Exposition.
Dan Brown, pardon me, but I ask you: "Langdon was certain Kohler would recognize the name."--Are you kidding me? Why not mention, say, Thomas Jefferson and insinuate that a character would have heard the name because of his high level of education? Who, I ask, has never heard of Galileo? Certainly, in some areas of the world the name would be less familiar, but then these people are similarly less likely to be reading a novel about European Renaissance culture.
Anyroad--Kohler is a sharpie, for sure. He even has heard of the Masons--who, Langdon assumes, are total mysteries to you and to me.
[Langdon explained to Kohler that the Illuminati] "...were taken in by another secret society...a brotherhood of wealthy Bavarian stone craftsmen called the Freemasons."
Kohler looked startled. "The Masons?"
Langdon nodded, not at all surprised that Kohler had heard of the group. (38)

For a learned scientist, Langdon seems to be quite unaware of just how well known much of his arcana really is to the general public. I kept expecting him to explain:
"The Catholic church has existed literally for centuries," Langdon remarked. Vittoria stared at him blankly, even moronically. He went on, speaking patiently as he could. "It's a group of people that believe in God. And for most of that time," he continued, licking his lips with enthusiasm, for he loved to surprise people with his penetrating discussions of virtually unknown trivia of the Western world, "the Catholic church has been led by a single office. Oh, just as with the Maytag Repair Man, the office has been held by various people--sometimes Jesse White, sometimes Gordon Jump--but always by a man with an all consuming desire to control his people! And he has been known as. . .The Pope!!" Vittoria gave a startled jump into the air, bumping her shimmering hair against the nave of the church. She choked on a bit of ham sandwich and then exclaimed in a rush of incredulity, "The Pope? You mean, The The Pope?" I thought he was dead. . ."
However, perhaps Langdon is too much of a specialist. Like school kids in America, Landon
"...knew [that the Big Bang] was the scientifically accepted model for the creation of the universe. (68)
Ironically, unlike most adults who have finished high school,
He didn't really understand it. . . "(68)
These assumptions that these common-knowledge topics need to be exposited by the narrator make me wonder who in fact is the intended audience for these novels. Are these in fact children's books? Unlikely, as the books feature lots of insinuated sex and murder and mutilation (as opposed to the Road Runner cartoons, in which we see the injuries happen).
But who would assume that adults--grown people who are assumed to be intellectually capable of following the intricacies of the Langdon novels--would be that unfamiliar with Galileo or the Big Bang--or even supercolliders? Langdon finds it hard to believe that the scientific organization would have dug a huge donut out of the earth, deep underground, only to make subatomic particles crash into one another (57); as for myself, I learned about supercolliders in, I think, middle school, and have no trouble believing this.
Though I DID enjoy the stories of both Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown's narrator and Langdon's egobabble kept breaking me out of my suspension of disbelief--something a quality novel should never do. For the former narrative, I set out at once with my highligher and red pen, ready to mark the ludicrosities at once--and I couldn't put them down for the whole book.
For me, the forehead-smackin'est bit in the whole novel was when Langdon views the remarkable, ambigrammatic brand which can imprint the Illuminati's fabulous diamond on any body, cow or human. I don't know about you, reader, but I played with stamps when I was a kid. I even had a Fisher-Price printing KIT that I could use to print whole words. It wasn't hard, even as a child, to understand that to make an imprint properly, the stamp itself needs to look like its mirror image. Even carving potatoes and carrots in kindergarten, I got that idea adequately, though it was hard to execute the letters at that early age. But check out Langdon's bafflement as he views this g(l)orified stamp:
The metal still radiated heat. Grasping the wooden handle, Langdon picked it up. He was not sure what he expected to see, but it most certainly was not this.
Langdon stared [for] a long, confused moment. Nothing was making sense. Why had the guards cried out in horror when they saw this? It was a square of meaningless squiggles. The most brilliant of all? It was symmetrical, Langdon could tell as he rotated it in his hand, but it was gibberish. (467)
I was on a train when I read this applesauce. I wanted to shout out loud, "Langdon, you utter DOPE! Craphead! Fuzzdutty!" [and so forth]; I very nearly did. A few pages later, the payoff came, and it was rich: the narrator still feels he must explain to the readers (through the filter of Langdon's self-muttering) that
...the symbol now made sense. Perfect sense. The marking's awesome power hit Langdon like a train. ... They were in reverse. Langdon had been looking at the brand's negative! (472)
Not just its negative; it has to be its negative, thank you very much.

And by the way, readers, please give me a show of hands: who knew Madonna (the pop singer)'s surname before reading this novel? I am not a big fan of her work (aside from I'm Breathless) but I have certainly known that for decades. That's why I don't put the Madonna albums I might one day purchase (quite an unlikely idea) in the M section of my CD collection, next to the Ns, where the albums of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince would be found. (If you don't know, just Google it--Geez! some people are so lazy!)
More about putting things in their rightful places next time. Thanks for reading. Please comment with tact and poise so typical of, for instance, a YouTube commentator.

Chris O'Brien
July 2, 2009

Next post on Dan Brown will feature other, perhaps less-grievous inconsistencies, errors, and infelicities of expression.
Please note that I admire Brown's story-crafting ability; I just feel he needs a bit more judgment when it comes to certain areas of the narration and style; also, the judgment of a discerning editor. I am not here to hate Brown; I just want to point out that some of the things he wrote are quite outrageous and condescending, and I wanted to be the first to point some of that out and get the credit. Perhaps I am too late. I have been too lazy to Google it.
Citations refer to:
Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000.

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