Dan Brown’s work—as the world’s critics have by now clearly established—is spectacularly easy to insult. A complete list of its faults would be nearly as long (and as aesthetically complex) as the oeuvre itself: It is implausible, inaccurate, horrifically written, saddled with comically mechanical love plots, et cetera ad infinitum. The great unsolved mystery at the core of The Da Vinci Code is not whether Jesus had a child (of course!) or whether the Catholic Church is a deadly machine of transhistorical truth suppression (big time!) but something far more interesting: How did an artwork so objectively horrendous manage to conquer Planet Earth? What is the magically addictive spice in Dan Brown’s secret sauce? And is there any redeeming quality to Dan Brown’s work whatsoever?
I believe the power of Dan Brown is very simple: He exists entirely to make us feel smart. He is devoted to reader empowerment like Keats was devoted to euphony. Every clause, every punctuation mark, every plot twist, puzzle, and factoid is engineered precisely to flatter our intelligence. This isn’t necessarily something to sneer at; I don’t think Brown is a cynical panderer. It’s just that his “pleasure-the-reader” instincts (an unconscious authorial cocktail that every writer has) push him, very urgently, to satisfy one of our most primal human needs: the lust to be oriented, to master one’s environment, to recognize patterns, to process chaos into order. The Da Vinci Code is intelligibility porn: You get the satisfaction of understanding, over and over, without any of the real-world effort.
I have been pleasantly stymied, all of my life, by the most basic riddles and detective plots. When Sherlock Holmes explains a crime, or Waldo is revealed, I feel the same disoriented ecstasy a toddler feels the first time someone steals his nose—a glimpse into a parallel dimension of pure, inaccessible magic. But Brown, miraculously, has found a way to let me into the game. His characters get strategically dense at key moments, puzzling for so long over increasingly obvious clues that even the slowest reader is forced, almost accidentally, to solve the mystery. In the middle of The Da Vinci Code, two of the world’s leading experts on the Grail legend, who’ve just spent several chapters lecturing us about the visionary genius of Leonardo da Vinci, inexplicably take 35 pages to figure out that their next clue is written in Leonardo-esque backward script. (“This language looks like nothing I’ve ever seen!” says one of them. “A Sephardic transliteration, perhaps?” says the other.) I nearly gave myself a full-blown crypto-orgasm by solving the book’s climactic riddle 30 pages before the characters did. I felt like the president of Mensa. Only in retrospect did I recognize I’d been manipulated to feel that way, and at that point it didn’t matter: In fact, I felt even smarter to have figured out I’d been manipulated. Brown’s genius is so deep it’s recursive.
Brown’s work is effortlessly educational—it constantly either imparts new knowledge or rewards the reader for knowledge he already has. Factoids are streamlined for easy ingestion: the history of the prime meridian, the origin of the Olympics, the Fibonacci sequence, the etymology of the word pagan. The Da Vinci Code’s grand conspiracy theory (Jesus as “the original feminist”) might occasionally seem complex and esoteric, but its main effect is to radically simplify Western history: All the great brand-name geniuses, it argues—Leonardo, Newton, Hugo, Disney—were actually working toward the same goal, and their work tells the same story.
Even Brown’s blithe aesthetic incompetence can be seen as a testament to his gift. This is his final irony: Hating him is just another way of appreciating his genius. Ferreting out his literary blunders and stylistic clumsiness has (for a different kind of reader) exactly the same degree of difficulty as solving his clues and puzzles, and offers similar pleasures. Superfans and detractors are united in this: They leave the books feeling equally smart.