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At the outset, I must confess one thing; I love mysteries. Many of my literary friends consider mystery a genre deserving the label of trash. But I love a good whodunit. I love the suspense, the passion gone awry, the unearthing of clues, and the final resolution, in a good mystery. The best type of mystery is of course a psychological one; like the kind Hitchcock was famous for.
So when I heard about a bestseller called The Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I bought a copy and took it with me on summer vacation. I found within its pages an argument so persuasive and of such global dimensions that I could hardly resist it. Unlike many Western readers, however, I had no idea of the novelty of its plot. I did not know much about the early life of Jesus, nor had I cared to read the Bible or wondered if he had ever had a romantic relationship with a woman. To be honest, the story of the resurrection had not even dawned on my consciousness until controversy began to brew over the movie The Passion of the Christ.
But from the outset, I could tell that The Da Vinci Code had all the necessary ingredients of a potboiler. There was the larger-than-life character of Jesus Christ, and there was Mary Magdalene, his alleged lover and founder of the early church. There was also Leonardo Da Vinci, orchestrating the biggest conspiracy ever conceived. I could tell that the story would be of immense appeal to New Agers who believe in Goddess worship and who want women to be accorded more power in organized religions like Christianity and Islam.
And I knew that the book would attract all those puzzle solvers like me who can’t wait to walk out to their front yards on a Sunday morning just to open the crossword page in the paper.
Alas, half way through the book, The Da Vinci Code got on my nerves. Its puzzle-within-a-puzzle-within-a-puzzle began to be repetitive and irksome. It was as if the author, in true bestseller fashion, was trying to milk his one good idea way past the point at which it had begun to lose its allure.
But I stuck to the end just to find out who had done it.
Afterwards, I returned the book to Barnes and Noble, and got my refund, thinking, “What a load of *$&#!” Still, I began to wonder about Christ’s life. Could the early church have sabotaged and discounted Mary Magdalene’s contributions in order to further its patriarchal control? The idea was compelling.
Then the controversies began to brew. People started to point out that little of Dan Brown’s thesis was based in historical fact.
The literary quality of the book had been in question from the start, but few people seemed to notice it, perhaps because most people don’t read, period, let alone read good literature.
Let’s face it, the writing in The Da Vinci Code is pretty sophomoric.
So why is it so successful?
It turns out that to a large extent the book’s success can be attributed to the publishing industry, which put a lot of its advertising resources into the marketing of the book.
But now that the tome has become a phenomenon, the tide has finally started to turn. The New Yorker recently concluded that the book and movie were both “bologna.” Anthony Lane of that esteemed publication even wondered if people were simply reading the book like lemmings following each other over the cliff.
Even The New York Times, which originally gave it a rave review, thereby guaranteeing millions for Dan Brown and the publisher, was tongue-in-cheek as it reviewed the movie, contrasting the book’s “prose” to the movie’s banal dialogue.
Yet, nearly every week, I meet someone or the other who, upon learning that I am a writer, asks me when I am going to write a book like The Da Vinci Code. And therein lies my frustration with the book.
Every week, I see someone reading the novel on BART. I run into people who are heading out to see the movie, even though, thankfully, I haven’t yet met anyone who actually liked it.
For many writers like me, The Da Vinci Code has been a major de-motivator, if not a creator of a massive writer’s block. I cannot help but wonder if I should shut down my computer forever and sit on the beach instead till kingdom come.
In moments of levity, I concoct in my head a blockbuster plot of equally epic proportions. How about the allegations of Christ’s burial in Kashmir, I wonder. Alas, it turns out that that idea is already being talked about on the net. Chances are Dan Brown is already busy whipping up the next multimillion dollar blockbuster on that very topic.
Then I come upon a brilliant idea. How about the hypothesis that Hitler was not really a fascist dictator but a man manipulated by the Catholic Church to conduct his evil deeds against the Jews in revenge for Christ’s death? How about Tom Hanks as an American soldier on his tail who unearths the plot only to be buried somewhere in Germany? And how about a Julia Roberts character set in modern times, who goes out to unravel Hitler’s secrets? Now, wouldn’t that be a plot worthy of a potboiler?
I bet that even though I just made up this idea there is probably someone out there who has a book on the subject and who will be willing to vouch for evidence in support for such a theory. So let’s make the swastika the carrier of some ancient messages and we will be in business.
See what The Da Vinci Code has done to all of us?
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com