Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In the Penny Press! New Yorker, 28 September 2009

It's an Adam Gopnik double-feature in the 28 September New Yorker! First, in the "Talk of the Town," he adds his voice to the deafening chorus of writers all tackling the same question this month: what IS it about Dan Brown? Since The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any other book in the history of the collected worlds of the Federation, writers have tended to shy away from actually bothering to review the book's kinda-sorta sequel, The Lost Symbol (surely this will qualify as the most boring title ever to sell one billion copies?). After all, what tight-prised booby would stand there, reporter's notebook in hand, jotting down "predictable downhill action ... resonant rumbling ... convincingly sweeps away trees ..." while a full-blown avalanche descends upon them?

So instead, critics of all stripes have taken the occasion of The Boring Book's publication to try figuring out what this phenomenon is, what it says about US. Gopnik puts it rather typically:

But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This is what they read for fun?

Gopnik eventually decides the heart of the Dan Brown literary mystery is that his books are, indeed, fun: kiddie fun, full of easily-solved puzzles and problems. That conclusion's been reached elsewhere, in similar terms: that Brown's popularity rests on his relentless flattering of his readers, his endless solicitude for their self-esteem. And while it might be true that he feels something like that (I've only met him once, when he was still just an ordinary writer doing bookstore walk-ins to sign copies of Angels and Demons, and he was affable and normal, back then - so there's a hope he's stayed that way), it's immaterial.

There IS a solution to the riddle of Dan Brown, but it isn't literary, and it certainly has nothing at all to do with the actual contents of his books. The solution is cultural, viral: he's the hula-hoop. It isn't that people are buying his books because something in those books answers a gigantic communal need - it's just that everybody is now buying his books, that's all. It's not often you see cultural fads in book-form, but it does happen, and that's all the Dan Brown phenomenon is. The middle 180 pages of The Lost Symbol could be Ikea instructions for cabinet assembly, and there wouldn't be one single documented return at any Barnes & Noble in the country, because the people buying the book aren't buying it to read it - they're buying it because everybody's buying it. This doesn't "say" anything about current American culture - all it says is that Dan Brown is one Hell of a lucky guy, God's blessing upon him.

Gopnik gets one more shot at your attention in this issue (after a scattershot article on the future of bio-engineering and a very, very irritating article on the fad of bored, rich Americans raising chickens at their country properties), with a very entertaining review of the celebrated Dreyfus Affair, about which he writes:

If the beginning of the Dreyfus story is Maupassant, and the middle Kafka, the end is Victor Hugo, a victory of the romantic, progressive imagination: wrongs can be righted; in the long run things work out for the best.

And then there was a brief, curiously enheartening little squib by Anthony Lane, a "Critic's Notebook" listing of the showing of "The Lord of the Rings" at MOMA. I've been curious to know how "Lord of the Rings" would start to lodge in the collective critical consciousness, and Lane is an early indicator worth quoting at length:

Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy is still a novelty of sorts, released in the first years of the new century; has it really earned its place beside the monoliths of the last? If so, it is precisely because the whole saga, for all the newfangled flourishes of C. G. I., harks back so unashamedly to older fanglings. The visual grammar of the assault on Helm's Deep, in the second film, switching from majestic long shots of siege ladders to details of individual defiance, is barely changed from the way in which D. W. Griffith mounted the fall of Babylon in "Intolerance," almost ninety years before. Epic, in short, demands its own style, and sets its own traps. Where the modern film wins is in the marshalling of sound; we need an orchestra to cover Griffith's silent action, but Jackson, requiring a wrathful army for Helm's Deep, bravely ventured onto a cricket pitch, during a break, and asked twenty-five thousand fans to roar in unison. They obliged.

Lane's our second-best working movie critic, and here in embryo is the very highest praise - so I think "Lord of the Rings" will fare pretty well in the century to which it gave an almost unbeatable cinematic high-bar. We shall see.

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