UK paperback

Cradled in his palms

The genius of Dan Brown

Oh, so apparently some guy named Dan Brown has written some new book? The extract soon gets to the point:

The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms.

Mmm, beautiful. “Cradled in his palms”. One can feel the reverence with which the initiate is delicately holding this human skull. But tell us more about the skull, Mr Brown!

The skull was hollow,

That is useful information, for now I am no longer visualizing one of those solid skulls?

like a bowl,

Even better — hollow like a bowl, not hollow like, I don’t know, a syringe, or an asteroid hollowed out by aliens. The image is now irresistibly vivid! A human skull, hollow like a bowl!

But wait, Mr Brown, why are you telling us that this particular skull is “hollow, like a bowl”? Are you subtly setting up the idea that the skull contains some liquid?

filled with bloodred wine.

Ah — now this is why Dan Brown is Dan Brown. A lesser author would have been satisfied with a lesser liquid — having the human skull (hollow like a bowl) contain, I don’t know, some gazpacho soup or Ready Brek. No one but Dan Brown could have thought of filling the human skull (hollow like a bowl) with “bloodred wine”.1 It is an image of menacing ingenuity, through which Mr Brown is really beginning to establish a kind of superior Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom atmosphere.

The author then types on with some description of a big room, but it is no shame for us to admit that his best work is already accomplished: the concept of an initiate holding a human skull (hollow like a bowl) filled with bloodred wine and cradled in his palms is a kind of chorus that insists on being heard again, and it is not long before the reader is thus pleasured:

The initiate had been told every room in this building held a secret, and yet he knew no room held deeper secrets than the gigantic chamber in which he was currently kneeling with a skull cradled in his palms.

A skull cradled in his palms. Imagine! Almost as though it were a human infant. I must admit my eyes glazed over again after this at the further description of the big room and whatever, but only because I was aching to see what the author would do with his inevitable third treatment of the concept “skull cradled in his palms”. I was not disappointed:

Steeling himself for the last step of his journey, the initiate shifted his muscular frame and turned his attention back to the skull cradled in his palms.

Only a second-rate writer would vary such a winning formula. The first-rate writer knows the true value of incessant repetition. Indeed, I suspect this stunning symbol-sequence, “skull cradled in his palms”, must owe its majestic power to some actual black sorcery, because when I had finished reading the entire extract, I found myself cradling my own skull in my palms?

  1. Later on we are told that “The crimson wine looked almost black in the dim candlelight”, but that’s the lighting director’s problem, so fuck you.
36 comments
  1. 1  Mark Davison  September 16, 2009, 10:10 am 

    “The cruel hand slapped my nice face.” Brown is indeed a writer of huge. . .massive. . .errr. . .stuffs.

  2. 2  sw  September 16, 2009, 12:22 pm 

    I think I would say that Dan Brown’s writing is so bad it is “morally akin” to Holocaust denial.

  3. 3  Alex  September 16, 2009, 1:15 pm 

    In Dan Brown’s defence, his talent lies not in glowing prose, believable characterisation or factual accuracy but in writing a compelling read. Which is why I think he missed a trick here. Red wine in the skull is bog standard – EVERYONE puts wine in skulls, and almost always red. White or rosé would actually be quite a surprising twist. But gazpacho! Gazpacho would have the reader desperate to get to the next page, to find out WHY that particular refreshing dish was contained in a hollowed-out cranium, why it was tomato and not cucumber or red pepper, and why, suspiciously, whoever it was was serving cold soup in an underground chamber which was already rather chilly.

  4. 4  ejh  September 16, 2009, 1:58 pm 

    That would be Terry Pratchett, surely?

  5. 5  Mira  September 16, 2009, 3:30 pm 

    Your article reminded me of this!

    http://amuchmoreexotic.livejou.....html?nc=16

  6. 6  richard  September 16, 2009, 3:45 pm 

    Yesterday I read a screed that included the observation:
    It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
    I guess he’s talking about what you’re talking about, for which I don’t have a good term ready to hand. Prose-craft? Wordsmithing? Yuk. Handling? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether you’re read, to the great good fortune of Brown and Rowling.

    I love the gazpacho idea, though: adding Brown’s apparent penchant for product placement, I vote for Martha Stewart Kirkland Signature Minestrone.

  7. 7  judith weingarten  September 16, 2009, 5:37 pm 

    Steven,

    That bad writing is why you didn’t sell a zillion copies of Unspeak and why my Zenobia book ended up pulped.

    Sorry.

  8. 8  Alex Higgins  September 16, 2009, 5:54 pm 

    Steven, I presume you’ve read Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log on Dan Brown?

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl.....00844.html

    Can I ask if the new book features the murder of an academic within the first few pages? Or is Brown trying out a new opener?

  9. 9  Hey Zeus  September 16, 2009, 6:16 pm 

    Yo, Dan, I’m happy for you, imma let you finish, but JK Rowling already wrote the most over-rated book of ALL TIME. (shrugs)

  10. 10  Gregor  September 16, 2009, 9:04 pm 

    ‘The first-rate writer knows the true value of incessant repetition’

    I suspect that it is an allusion to parallelism: a poetic device used in many a Psalm, which of course is an anagram of…

  11. 11  Steven  September 16, 2009, 11:09 pm 

    Lamps?

  12. 12  Hey Zeus  September 17, 2009, 4:32 am 

    No, parallelism.

    Llama pliers.

  13. 13  Daniel Simpson  September 17, 2009, 7:36 am 

    Realism pall? I’ll sample Ra. Ar, a limp sell.

  14. 14  JemC  September 17, 2009, 8:24 am 

    Steven,

    Surely Brown is only paying tribute to one of his key influences, D H Lawrence, who wrote about his own critics:

    “In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination.”

    Does Brown’s hollow skull pulse in a frictional to-and-fro? Or does yours?

  15. 15  Steven  September 17, 2009, 10:31 am 

    Alex —

    In Dan Brown’s defence, his talent lies not in glowing prose, believable characterisation or factual accuracy but in writing a compelling read

    This is the usual defence of Brown’s crimes, but it won’t wash as long as there are (which there are) plenty of commercially successful novelists who can concoct a “compelling read” and also actually write? (It’s unfair to lump eg Rowling in here — Brown makes her look like Ford Madox Ford.)

    richard —
    I do like that screed, and intend to link to it from now on whenever someone asks me to read their dissertation/ebook/whatever.

    I guess he’s talking about what you’re talking about, for which I don’t have a good term ready to hand. Prose-craft? Wordsmithing? Yuk. Handling?

    Writing?

    Alex H — yes, Pullum’s piece is brilliant. I can’t actually remember if the opening of the new one features the murder of an academic. All I can remember is the potent tolling of a phrase about someone with a skull cradled in his palms?

    Judith —

    That bad writing is why you didn’t sell a zillion copies of Unspeak and why my Zenobia book ended up pulped.

    Er, no, I don’t think it actually is!

  16. 16  Gregor  September 17, 2009, 11:35 am 

    ‘It’s unfair to lump eg Rowling in here — Brown makes her look like Ford Madox Ford’

    Interesting concept. Dan Brown, the Pavlova of parallelism, looks like Aeschylus compared to James Axler for instance (‘women asked for it and women got it with Ryan Cawdor: easy as icing a stickie’*). It brings a certain Zenoesque/ Kafkaesque perspective to literary criticism given that any author can appear a genius or a hack compared to another.

    *for those with a limited understanding of the post-apocalyptic lexicon, that means killing a mutant.

  17. 17  richard  September 17, 2009, 12:13 pm 

    Writing?
    That’s what I would call the whole endeavour, from thinking up a story to typing and editing.

    I’m reaching for a term for this bit of writing because, much as I hate to use the word, I wonder if we could “unpack” what Brown does and try to identify the part that sells so many books. I have a feeling most critics resort (in bafflement) to plot through a process of elimination: they know it’s not the prose or the characters. The thing is DVC’s plot isn’t any better: if thrillers are rollercoasters, DVC is a peculiarly limp one, lacking even the audacious ricketiness that makes you fear that it might, actually, come apart while you’re on it. And I wouldn’t employ him as a puzzle designer.

  18. 18  Alex  September 17, 2009, 12:19 pm 

    This is the usual defence of Brown’s crimes, but it won’t wash as long as there are (which there are) plenty of commercially successful novelists who can concoct a “compelling read” and also actually write?

    True, although what I like about Dan Brown is it’s so easy to see how he does it. Aha! The chapter’s ended on a cliffhanger. Well I tell you what, why don’t we check on one of the other characters who we left in comparable peril exactly three chapters ago, and check back on this one in exactly three chapters’ time? Meanwhile, here are some interesting facts about something mystical that I bet you didn’t know and could one day save your life in a pub quiz.

  19. 19  Daniel Simpson  September 17, 2009, 12:32 pm 

    At the risk of coming over all Aaronovitch, isn’t it the “mystical” twist and cod conspiracy theory?

    What the Bleep, it’s The Secret of Zeitgeist…

  20. 20  Steven  September 17, 2009, 12:47 pm 

    I wouldn’t employ him as a puzzle designer.

    Intriguing! From what I’ve accidentally read about the new one, it does seem to be a rather inferior version of Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

  21. 21  richard  September 17, 2009, 12:59 pm 

    I think the comparison with Professor Layton is apt, although in Layton there’s an explanation for why most of its characters seem a bit wooden.

  22. 22  Steven  September 17, 2009, 1:00 pm 

    Nice.

  23. 23  Hey Zeus  September 17, 2009, 6:17 pm 

    http://img.4chan.org/b/src/1253206850858.jpg

    Also worth considering the practicalities.

  24. 24  Gregor  September 18, 2009, 9:44 am 

    ‘I wonder if we could “unpack” what Brown does and try to identify the part that sells so many books’

    ‘Sell’ is the word. I used to help out in a charity shop. We’d always have a row of Dan Brown books in the back so he is probably better at selling than being read and reread. Maybe one could say he is not actually a REALLY bad writer. Yes, it is cliched and repetitive but also descriptive without being too dense.

  25. 25  Henry Ayoola  September 19, 2009, 7:40 am 

    Alex, given Brown’s record on accuracy the “mystical facts” are only likely to be useful in a pub case if the question-master used Brown as a source. OTOH, maybe that’s not as implausible as one would wish.

  26. 26  judith weingarten  September 19, 2009, 8:36 am 

    For what it’s worth: The Lost Symbol and The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s 20 worst sentences:
    “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”
    .
    But I may be almost literally envious.

  27. 27  aeionic  September 19, 2009, 4:49 pm 

    Obviously you’re all just immensely jealous of Dan Brown’s canny ability to reiterate the obvious in such a casual and sly way.

    To wit: The jealous writer cradled the fat best selling Dan Brown novel in his darkly ink-stained palms. It was hefty, immense, and pageful like an immense opus.

  28. 28  richard  September 20, 2009, 3:34 pm 

    weirdly, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box begins with the mysterious death (probably the murder) of an academic. I smell a conspiracy.

  29. 29  ELBSeattle  September 21, 2009, 8:58 am 

    Dan Brown isn’t a writer. He’s a typist.

  30. 30  Catanea  September 21, 2009, 5:52 pm 

    I want the portentous hollow cradled skull to be full of that stuff Klaus Kinski didn’t want to eat, that the South American tribeswomen chew up and spit into the wooden trough…someone will know the cinema reference. Or minced brains with garlic and parsley. Too predictable? Gazpacho is good for the colour, but the refreshing quality just doesn’t strike the right note…

  31. 31  Sam  September 21, 2009, 9:40 pm 

    “I suspect this stunning symbol-sequence, “skull cradled in his palms”, must owe its majestic power to some actual black sorcery, because when I had finished reading the entire extract, I found myself cradling my own skull in my palms? “

    Oh, magnificent. Well done sir.

  32. 32  Morgan  September 22, 2009, 6:55 am 

    I think the redundancy may be part of the mass-market appeal. I’d bet that a large number of the large number of people who buy Dan Brown books skim-read. :) They may not even know they’re doing it. The redundancy, like error correction in computers, means that the imagery is still picked up. As much fun as it may be to rail against it, or even to snicker and criticize his writing and his readers, that’s the market.

  33. 33  Daniel Simpson  September 22, 2009, 7:13 am 

    The New Yorker says it’s just “sweet-tempered” all-American Hardy Boys for affirmation-deficient adults, and:

    Brown’s secret turns out to be the same as Oprah’s beloved “Secret”—you can have it all.

  34. 34  ch.  September 24, 2009, 6:03 pm 

    I guess the point was to bring the Foucault’s pendulum to the masses, but he somehow misunderstood the whole book … over and over again with each try.

  35. 35  Steven Capsuto  September 27, 2009, 6:26 pm 

    I recently compared some pages of THE DA VINCI CODE against the book’s Spanish edition. One of the man differences is that the translation benefited from the services of an editor who trimmed out much of the redundancy (you know, where Brown tells you over and over again things he already told you before in earlier parts of the book, in paragraphs you already read, earlier).

  36. 36  Robert  October 5, 2009, 1:03 am 

    In much the same way as the logo for French Connection United Kingdom artily worn can be seen at first glance as a vulgar term plastered across a t-shirt; I tend to read Dan Brown for the symbolic, rather than literal interpretation of the words, sentences and paragraphs he writes. After all, isn’t that the crux of his work?

    While you’re all mired in the missive, stuck in the sentence structure and construction techniques of his paragraphs, the allusion eludes you. Step back from the canvas, stop looking at the brush strokes, and the words will resolve into a Lost Symbol.



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