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The Conspiracy Artist

Sarah Weinman
"Brown's predecessor in reality-based thrillerdom."
09/25/09 at 09:30

I'm really glad that Boris and Sam have moved the subject back to Brown's didactic streak, because that's yet another Dan Brown–related topic I can't quite shake off. When I read The Da Vinci Code in advance of my review after having scoffed at the book for years, deterred by the prologue (which I still think ought to have been excised, but 80 million book-buyers can't be wrong ... ). I kept twitching at Brown's obvious flashbacks to his own teaching days. Scene after scene of expository dumps delivered in the guise of professor-to-student interactions, with the students transforming from skeptical turks to eager beavers lapping up the secrets and surprises imparted by Brown ... er, Langdon.

He left Phillips Exeter behind way back in 1993, long before he became famous, but, at the risk of inferring too much, I wonder if, when things got bad the backlash by critics and the Church, the lawsuit by the Holy Blood, Holy Grail duo he entertained the fantasy that he was just Dan Brown, teacher, who measured success by turning one prep-school student away from sardonic disenchantment to wonder-filled enthusiasm. And so Sam is absolutely right that there are skeptics in Dan Brown's world. But remember, too, that Langdon is the biggest skeptic of all, his Scully-like instincts ready to morph into Mulder-like belief in the world's greater mysteries. Geoff, it's true that Dan Brown doesn't trust the reader enough. But then, consider how much Scully didn't trust Mulder, despite what was so clearly in front of her. And as long as there are unbelievers, Brown can keep pointing the finger to say "See, see? I told you!" to those who dare not be earnest and hopeful.

All this talk of educating the reader brings me to one of Brown's predecessors in reality-based (or reality-shrouded) thrillerdom, the late Michael Crichton. After his sudden death, I dug out a copy of one of the collected Paris Review author-interview books and excerpted what Crichton's original editor, Robert Gottlieb, had to say about working on The Andromeda Strain after they went through several painful rounds of edits: "Somehow it occurred to me that instead of trying to flesh out the characters further and make the novel more conventional, we ought to strip that stuff out completely and make it a documentary, only a fictional one." To which Crichton clarified: "He thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece." Now, I don't think The Da Vinci Code or The Lost Symbol quite fulfill Gottlieb & Crichton's aimed-for criteria, but without that dramatic shift away from conventional elements in crime fiction and thrillers violence, character development, innermost thoughts to fictionalized documentary with a strong narrative hook, there'd be no Dan Brown, not to mention the airport thrillers, good and bad, published in the intervening 40 years.

While we're talking Utopian fantasy, what if Gottlieb, whom I wish would stop dithering and publish his memoirs already, had been Dan Brown's editor instead of Jason Kaufman? One immediate answer is that all the "Jonas Faukman" cameos, which amuse me to no end for their inside-baseball look at publishing in the most cornball, over-the-top way possible, would never have come to pass ...