Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Conspiracy Artist

Matt Taibbi
"The most irritating Harvard-educated, mullet-wearing, sexless pedant of all time."
09/25/09 at 16:30

The funny thing about this whole Dan Brown exercise for me is that I agreed to do this thinking that I was going to end up writing a passionate defense of him. Two ideas guided my thinking. One is that I strongly believe that mediocrities are entitled to make shitloads of money. This is America, after all. The other is that I never thought Dan Brown deserved his fame as a terrible writer. Pretty much every potboiler novel writer out there is just as bad, and certainly most of us journalists aren’t much better. It’s true that Brown frequently descends into Thomas Friedman–level figurative absurdities (He learned the ropes in the trenches is probably my favorite Brown-ism), but hell, if I were writing 8,000 pages a day like Brown apparently does, I’d make some mistakes, too. And despite the appalling stupidity of his plots, people seem to like his books a lot, so he’s clearly getting away with whatever scam he’s pulling — which is something no writer should ever begrudge another writer, especially if we’re talking about the fairy-tale business.

So there was that. Then I actually started reading The Lost Symbol. I just have a couple of really basic observations to make about this book, and how it fit in with my own personal reading habits:

As a general rule, if before the fourth or fifth chapter I’m already fantasizing about driving a railroad spike through the skull of the main character while he’s still alive, squirming, and screaming, “Wait! Jesus! Let’s talk about this! Wait!!!!” then I usually don’t continue reading. And I have to say that although I tried to keep thoughts like this about “Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon” out of my head, I couldn’t. I had never read The Da Vinci code and had only seen the movie, so most of my prejudices about the Langdon character were centered around that weird Ivy League mullet Tom Hanks was wearing.

But in book form, Langdon is just intolerable. First of all, he spends all day thinking in italics. Even with the most banal shit, he’s adding the italic drumroll. What the hell is this smell? He thought. Maybe I just farted. Then when he wants to really emphasize, he gives his italo-thought its own line:

That was a silent one.

And I have to agree with Professor Pullum. Langdon is always shoving our noses in some encyclopedic minutiae. He’s the most irritating Harvard-educated, mullet-wearing sexless pedant of all time. The breaking point for me was at the beginning of chapter 41, when Sato asks Langdon to tell her “the meaning of these icons.” To which Langdon answers, in italics, in its own line:

They’re not icons, Langdon thought. They’re symbols.

It was at that point that my fantasies took a turn. “Please! Take that giant razor-edged pike out of my ear!” Langdon screamed.

It’s not a pike, Taibbi thought. It’s a gaff hook. Dripping with strychnine and donkey shit.

Langdon … there’s this weird trend with the heroes of American thrillers. Maybe it started with Tom Clancy, I’m not sure. But none of them have senses of humor (especially about themselves), flaws, or sexual pulses. They’re all androidlike achievement machines with stacks of diplomas, eight years of intense jeet-kune-do training with the Navy SEALS, fluency in at least a dozen ancient hieroglyphic languages (this one is particularly weird to me, since most Americans don’t even speak English), and a burning desire to give their lives to save the president. The only thing missing from Langdon’s profile is the pair of Adorable Children sitting at home whose abduction triggers the psychopathic revenge instinct raging inside of him. But Langdon doesn’t have children, because he has no penis, at least not one that has been erect outside of a library in the last 30 years, which is interesting because his villain counterparts often literally have no penises. I can’t quite figure out what this says about the audiences who eat up these characters, but I’m sure it’s pretty upsetting.

2. Brown’s ear for names is pretty bad, which is no big deal, because this is something that most fiction writers struggle with (only a few that I can think of, like Saki and Gogol, really have fun with it), but having to swallow 500 pages of G.I. Joe names like “Capitol Police chief Trent Anderson” got to be pretty hard after a while. Brown sort of reminds me of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose character names always make me think they wrote the Left Behind books in a Home Depot (Rayford and Chloe Steele, Steve Plank, Bruce Barnes, Jonathan Stonagal, Nicolae “Jetty” Carpathia — the last one being interesting because the word “Carpathia” comes from an Albanian word for “Rock”). Brown’s characters don’t sound like building materials, but more like medical disorders — rare forms of autism or something. One can imagine giving money to child sufferers of Turner Simkins Syndrome, or Fludd’s disease, or Langdon’s Crouch. And I nearly spit Diet Coke through my nose when I read the name Elias Ashmole. It sounds like A Liar’s Ass Mole.

3. At least in The Da Vinci Code the villain was a lying-ass bureaucracy bent on maintaining power through any means necessary, which is always somewhat believable, and in the case of the Catholic Church, extremely believable. But this Mal’akh guy, all he does is run all over Washington gushing over his tattoos and cackling Mwah-hah-hah! all the time for no freaking reason that I can discern. I have to say, though, I was nearly roaring with laughter at the beginning section, when he sneaked out of the Capitol with the “disguise” of an arm in a sling, a slight limp, and a green surplus jacket. Did anyone else remember that this is pretty much exactly the CIA-inspired “disguise” that Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt used when they broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office? Remember how they thought they were being “inconspicuous” by fitting themselves with prosthetic attachments that made them limp and wearing absurd wigs? Brown’s “disguises” are about that corny.

I dunno. I guess I have more impressions, but this is a start …