The Art of Fiction

Yes I know it’s New Years Eve. I’m heading out to party in a little while. In the meantime, I have been reading a Christmas present from my Mum – a book I had intended to read anyway, and which was a delightful surprise on Christmas morning – the top-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Like many products of the past decade or so, The Da Vinci Code (TdVC) seeks to demystify the connections between modern religious movements and those of the past. In particular, TdVC uses a version of the detective narrative to expose the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in oppressing pagan symbolism and thus, upsetting the balance of nature (equal importance of women to men) and the Divine Proporton of Phi.

While I am immensely enjoying the book, I am frequently reminded that this book is also written in code. As a student of literature, I have deconstructed texts and codes as a matter of course throughout my academic career, and many of the symbols, histories and artifacts referred to in the book are quite familiar to me. Indeed, a few months back at a staff meeting at BGSB, our Head of School fashioned a crude pentacle on the whiteboard merely as a means of illustrating a strategy he was promoting, saying that he really wasn’t trying to worship Satan, whereupon I interrupted, correcting him that the pentacle had never been a sign of devil worship, but rather a pagan symbol of protection. When asked how I knew that, some colleagues suggested I had read TdVC. In point of fact, it’s because I know several pagans, and have learned a great deal about Wicca, Druidism and other pagan belief systems. I would not align myself with pagan beliefs at all, but I have a great deal of respect for the beliefs of those who choose to follow these religions. So upon reading TdVC, most of the ideas presented as revelations about paganism are not new to me. But more to the point, most of the narrative instruments, designed to sustain the reader’s interest – discussed at length in Roland Barthes’ ideas on narrative striptease (1975) – are familiar to me. So Brown’s strategy of encoding the writing for decoding on further reading are laid bare to me on my first reading. And in metatextual terms, it’s obvious to me that Brown is emulating Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in his style, construction and narrative method. Only trouble is, that the characters in TdVC wouldn’t behave as he has made them act. There are several points at which the code is clear and they fail to recognise it, and where the code of the text itself needs a little more careful construction. In the end, Brown appears more like Kurt Vonnegut than Umberto Eco (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; I’m a big fan of Vonnegut, and completed my honours thesis on Representations of Reality in the Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut), rather clumsily inserting himself into various points of the narrative, instead of sending the reader off to find the source of the material (as occurred extensively in Eco’s Name of the Rose – most particularly Conan Doyle’s works relating to Sherlock Holmes; a rather cute in-joke).

The effect of the hypertextuality, the subject of the work – codebreaking – and the inevitably self-serving aspects of TdVC provide a useful starting point for a fictional series, but Brown needs to recognise that a sophisticated reader requires the kind of narrative striptease you only get at Vonnegut clubs, where the code goes beyond the text; characters, symbols and styles are replicated – perhaps echoing the order of the Divine Proportion – across all his literature. Only then does the code truly befit the post-modernist canon of fictional art.

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