Some while back I posted a blog about a novel I was writing featuring alchemy, Arthurian legend, the foundation myths of Mont St. Michel, and all manner of convoluted but oddly compelling tosh that I was struggling to conjure into a coherent narrative. The aim was to weave together natural philosophy, mythology and theology into a story that can best be described as Umberto Eco plotted by John Fowles. This was a tad ambitious. I am not Umberto Eco or John Fowles. But I flattered myself that I was a cut above the other model my material suggested, Dan Brown. Turns out I am a cut below Mr. Brown. The book has been rejected twice after serious consideration by two serious publishers. I have a problem.
The main issue is that, parodying the mental acrobatics of paranoiacs and people obsessed by conspiracy theories, I constructed a riddle veiling an occult mystery that was to function as the book’s principal McGuffin. Riddles don’t greatly interest me, so I kept on elaborating this thing, on the assumption that the more complicated it got, the more it would resemble a ‘real’ riddle. As it happened, it just got more complicated. It made some readers quite queasy. And they were positively nauseated when the denouement revealed that the riddle they had been struggling to digest was a meaningless bit of hokum concocted by one of the principal characters. In fact, the only readers who really enjoyed the book were those who skipped the riddles.
Rule Nº10 of Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing fiction: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I’ve now got to see if I can salvage something from the mess I got myself into. There’s good stuff in there, I know, characters, ideas, dramatic situations etc. But what am I to do about my McGuffin? Everything was triggered by the riddle. Now I need a less off putting trigger that will tie in with all the threads I've already put in place. It's a bit like taking a body and trying to find a skeleton that will fit. You remove the original frame and everything just sort of flops about the place, but stick something new in and it ends up jutting out at odd angles with the head back to front. Or so I would imagine.
Since the book was conceived as a counter to the plethora of Dan Brownesque alternative history novels on the market (you know the sort of thing, take the name of a famous historical figure, prefix it with the definite article, then bung ‘code’, ‘riddle’, ‘matrix’, ‘enigma’, ‘cipher’, 'key' or some such on the end, to give ‘The Beethoven Cabal', ‘The Caravaggio Conspiracy', ‘The Scooby Doo Conundrum’ et al), I decided I ought to check out how Dan Brown did it.
I’d fought shy of this before because everyone says his books are very badly written and very badly written books get on my wick, but I was getting desperate. So I surreptitiously pocketed a second hand copy of The Da Vinci Code and, in the spirit of a conscientious student doing his homework, buckled down to the onerous task of reading the thing.
My sources were right. It is very badly written. Not as badly written as I had feared, but still. The man needs an editor, one with a red pen and an antipathy for copywriters' adjectives (the first word of the book is ‘Renowned’ for God’s sake) and an aversion to pulp fiction verbs (a driver can ‘gun’ the motor of his car once, but not twice in two pages, and certainly not three times in a single book) and a passing familiarity with the conventions concerning the use of adverbs in English. But no matter. Brown's not interested in fine writing. The language is functional. It does the job he wants it to. Not very well, but it does it.
More seriously, the narrative is stunningly laborious (it’s a hundred and fifty pages before the story even begins to build up a very modest head of steam) and, for a book promoted as a thriller, it is singularly unthrilling. I’m not an avid fan of thrillers, but I do know how they are meant to work. I can remember reading Robert Ludlum (not the story or the characters or events, but the process of reading) and being compelled to turn the pages with the rapidity of an ATM rifling through a wad of notes. As for James Ellroy, I don’t reckon much on his longer work, but the novella Dick Contino's Blues was one the most exciting pieces of fiction I have ever read. These guys know how to thrill. Dan Brown does not. And his story is preposterous.
But he’s a clever man. The esoteric claptrap that underpins the book is brilliantly plotted, the last fifty pages are as neatly put together as the first 150 are ramshackle, and the central message is gratifyingly feminist. Above all, though, the riddles (apart from one blindingly obvious cipher for sofia) are superbly thought out, which mine manifestly were not. Transpires that this is not because Dan Brown is peculiarly gifted in this direction, but because he spent a large part of his childhood decrypting riddles set for him by his father, a mathematician. He must have been a slightly peculiar child. He did, after all, grow up wanting to be Barry Manilow. But we won’t hold that against him. Not when we are about collaborate.
Dan needs a man who knows how to wield an adverb. Better still, one who knows how to cut them out altogether.
I need a man who can piece together a riddle.
This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
What do you say, Dan?
What do you mean "Piss off"?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace