Angels and Demons

by Kieran Healy on April 11, 2006

Continuing my tradition of being several years behind (I find it easier as time goes by), someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons to read on a flight. I knew about the Da Vinci Code and all that but hadn’t read anything by him. The result was very nearly as painful as my attempt to read Cryptonomicon last year. Cryptonomicon consisted of nerdish Mary Sues afloat in a sea of Cliffs Notes for popular science books. Angels and Demons retains the nerd protagonists but adds a layer of cack-handed James Bond stuff. I mean, can you believe this shit:

Descending from the chopper in her khaki shorts and white sleeveless top, Vittoria Vetra looked nothing like the bookish physicist he had expected. Lithe and graceful, she was tall with chestnut skin and long black hair that swirled in the backwind of the rotors. Her face was unmistakably Italian—not overly beautiful, but possessing full, earthy features that even at twenty yards seemed to exude raw sensuality. As the air currents buffeted her body, her clothes clung, accentuating her slender torso and small breasts.

“Ms Vetra is a woman of tremendous personal strength,” Kohler said … “She spends months working in dangerous ecological systems. She is a strict vegetarian and CERN’s resident guru of Hatha yoga.” …She turned to Langdon, holding out a slender hand. “My name is Vittoria Vetra. You’re from Interpol, I assume?” Langdon took her hand, momentarily spellbound by the depth of her watery gaze.

I imagine it was the air currents from the chopper that were making her eyes water. My own eyes were doing the same by this point. I didn’t get much further, but I suppose it was worth it for the image of Harvard (the protagonist is “professor of religious iconology” there) and CERN (much like Dr Evil’s Island, apparently, except for being in Switzerland).

{ 64 comments }

1

ogmb 04.11.06 at 10:12 pm

I envy authors who can type whole books with their weak hand.

2

Chris 04.11.06 at 10:13 pm

Dan Brown has depth. He writes crappy books made up of crappy sentences made up of crappy words; positively fractal. He deserves a line-by-line commentary like the one slacktivist’s doing on the Left Behind series. He deserves to have every line submitted to the Bulwer-Lytton awards.
Which does leave soething to explain.

3

Bernard Yomtov 04.11.06 at 10:23 pm

Why does a physicist need to work in “dangerous ecological systems?”

4

Doctor Slack 04.11.06 at 10:31 pm

Ouch.

Just… ouch.

Cryptonomicon consisted of nerdish Mary Sues afloat in a sea of Cliffs Notes for popular science books.

Best single-sentence description of that book I’ve ever seen. I almost didn’t make it past the dinner-table confrontation between the computer programmer Marty Stu and the Coterie of Snide Arts Majors. Later, I wished I hadn’t.

5

eudoxis 04.11.06 at 10:49 pm

The Da Vinci Code was the worst book I ever finished.

6

Laura 04.11.06 at 11:15 pm

Now seems like a good time to float my vision splendid: I want to have a global Blog Against the Da Vinci Code Day next month to roughly coincide with the release of the movie starring Tom Hanks and his new sex murderer haircut.

Or is this a stupid mean idea?
What is a symbologist anyway?

7

Christopher M 04.11.06 at 11:27 pm

My favorite part was the ambigrams and how the plot turned on the idea that there was a certain word (I don’t recall what) that people had been trying, but failing, to make into an ambigram for hundreds of years. Those of us who were drawing the damn things while bored in middle school after a few too many late nights reading Doug Hofstadter were, to say the least, amused.

8

Christopher M 04.11.06 at 11:31 pm

Sorry, I see that I’m repeating myself.

9

Tim 04.11.06 at 11:33 pm

I hope you’re wrong about Angels and Demons; my general rule is that anything featuring the Illuminati is great, and I’d hate to find a counter-example. I thought the Tomb Raider film was bound to break the rule, but it’s surprisingly not awful.

10

Tim 04.11.06 at 11:37 pm

I’ve just seen the Wikipedia plot summary:

Angels and Demons features Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, as he tries to stop the Illuminati, a legendary secret society, from destroying the Vatican City with the newly-discovered power of antimatter.

I refuse to believe that this book is anything other than a work of genius. The Illuminati! Vatican City! The newly discovered power of antimatter!

11

stuart 04.11.06 at 11:39 pm

Ahh, a friend used to work at CERN for a year or two, I’ll have to ask him if he got to see the sharks with frickin’ lasers while he was there next time I see him.

12

KCinDC 04.12.06 at 12:05 am

Well, it’s not quite line by line, but you might want to read what Language Log has been saying.

13

John Quiggin 04.12.06 at 12:57 am

I particularly liked the way the lame puzzles in the book were all in English, even though the characters who supposedly set them were not. The lame explanations of this were even better, much more so than having the French characters speak English with the occasional “Sacre bleu, mon ami!”

14

Andrew 04.12.06 at 1:56 am

This is why I plan my flight reading list well ahead of time: so I can be sure I won’t have to read books I can guess well in advance are terrible. Though it does seem convient anytime someone admits to reading such awful books their story always involves long flights and gifts from friends. No one ever seems to actually purchase these books for reading at their own leisure.

15

Kawika Pierson 04.12.06 at 2:35 am

While I agree that the writing in Angels and Demons leaves quite a bit to be desired, the plot actually makes a good effort at twisting into difficult to predict paths towards the end (the beginning and middle I cant be so nice about)… however, I’d hate to have this experience keep you from reading The DaVinci Code. Sure the writing isnt Hemmingway (It doesnt even rise to the level of a decent “Law and Order” episode). But the book was very readable, and some of the riddles were genuinely interesting.

My advice: skim it.

16

david 04.12.06 at 4:27 am

Man, you bait people on Cryptonomicon, and get nothing. Slow Tuesday.

17

ajay 04.12.06 at 4:47 am

Man, you bait people on Cryptonomicon, and get nothing. Slow Tuesday.

That’s because we’re all sitting there in our black trenchcoats thinking “Ha. Typical Hobbits. Beneath my notice.”

I talked to a fiction editor once about Dan Brown. She said that, though the writing style, descriptions, dialogue and characters are all rather pants, the structure is fantastic: in terms of when exposition comes, when new characters are introduced, when the cliffhangers happen and so on, he is an exemplary thriller writer. Hence, readers get hooked.

18

almostinfamous 04.12.06 at 4:55 am

_She said that, though the writing style, descriptions, dialogue and characters are all rather pants, the structure is fantastic: in terms of when exposition comes, when new characters are introduced, when the cliffhangers happen and so on, he is an exemplary thriller writer. Hence, readers get hooked_

that justifies a&D and the da vinci code being the same damn book how?

i;m no genius and i’m generally too deep in suspension of disbelief while reading works of fiction but if i can figure out the whole story well before i am halfway through a book, it’s not worth reading.

19

almostinfamous 04.12.06 at 4:56 am

PS: i second the call for blog against the da vinci code movie day

20

goatchowder 04.12.06 at 4:57 am

” Hence, readers get hooked.”

Just say no.

21

yabonn 04.12.06 at 4:59 am

Her face was unmistakably Italian

And i spent all these year without knowing how to unmistakably recognise an Italian face.

22

Ronald Brak 04.12.06 at 5:12 am

I thought the first paragraph was brilliant. Right up to the point where I found out she had small breasts. Then I sort of switched off. But I suppose her small breasts and slender torso could be due to spending too much time being a strict vegetarian in dangerous ecological systems. I also wonder how she managed to be lithe graceful and tall while getting out of a helicopter. You’d think a physicist with long black swirling hair would be smart enough to keep her head down near whirling helicopter blades?

23

Barry 04.12.06 at 6:08 am

“Why does a physicist need to work in “dangerous ecological systems?””
Posted by Bernard Yomtov

You obviously don’t know many physicists. There’s a 100% reliable test for physicists. If there’s something that they don’t think that they can do better than anybody else, then they’re not physicists. In this case, somebody decided to reduce the number of physicists in the world by commenting that they couldn’t handle dangerous ecosystems.

24

KCinDC 04.12.06 at 6:34 am

Ronald, when it said “descending from the chopper”, I figured she was doing it on a rope. It’s much more Bondish.

25

duane 04.12.06 at 6:55 am

The Da Vinci Code was the worst book I ever finished.

Funny, that. A&D is the worst book I’ve ever finished. Needless to say, I won’t be reading any of his others. I had to put it down every few pages because I kept getting so pissed off. I wouldn’t have made it past the first page if I didn’t have to read it (don’t ask). Chris is right, the awfulness is fractal. It is so bad in so many ways that it astounds me.

26

Ronald Brak 04.12.06 at 7:24 am

I think the best part of the Da Vinci Code is the passage where he explains the divine ratio and we must logically conclude that that having long legs moves your belly button down on your torso and having short legs moves your belly button up. Which suggests that dwarfs + pygmies must have their belly buttons somewhere near the centre of their chests.

27

garymar 04.12.06 at 7:35 am

I was intrigued by the adjective Kieran used, cack-handed, so I looked it up in the OED. It means left-handed, awkward, clumsy. OED suggests it might come from cack, meaning excrement. This sets up a perfect resonance with Kieran’s opinion of the book.

28

Tom Scudder 04.12.06 at 8:19 am

I’ll admit to actually having spent my own money on THE DA VINCI CODE – I was hoping for something like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL with a smear of dumbed-down FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM on top. Never again.

29

Kieran Healy 04.12.06 at 8:36 am

I thought the first paragraph was brilliant. Right up to the point where I found out she had small breasts. … I suppose her small breasts and slender torso could be due to spending too much time being a strict vegetarian in dangerous ecological systems.

I’m pretty confident her small breasts are Brown’s concession to feminism.

30

aquinas 04.12.06 at 8:53 am

I thought the best part was that a minor plot point in the Da Vinci Code, as I recall it, was that you had to *smuggle* food from France into the UK – you couldn’t just transport it within the EC.

Fortunately, I think it turned out that if you bribe UK customs officials they’ll let you through without trouble. I did wonder whether someone had cannily told Dan Brown all this to make money off him…

31

Danny 04.12.06 at 9:10 am

32

decon 04.12.06 at 9:47 am

Geesh, you guys sure seem to know a lot about TDC and A&D. They are very good beach reading, but not really worth remembering. So why is it that ya’ll are obsessed with, and remember in such detail, books that you detest?

33

pp 04.12.06 at 10:37 am

These books don’t hold a candle to a piece of mindless drivel based on the same premise called “the da vinci legacy” by lewis perdue. it was originally published in 1983 and features a renegade scientist, beautiful girl, scientific mystery, set in Italy. It was re-copyrighted in 2004 to take advantage of Dan Brown mania. It was clearly re-written at that time to update the technology etc and makes the book so anachronistic that you cant read a whole page without wanting to annotate and edit the whole thing. Somehow it was popular enough to make a rack at the airport, and since it didn’t feature any bodice ripping cover, I read it. I kept going back to it to consume time and kill the boredom just as you might read the back of the bleach bottle if you are stuck on the toilet for too long.

34

nick s 04.12.06 at 11:23 am

So why is it that ya’ll are obsessed with, and remember in such detail, books that you detest?

The way that the lyrics to bad chart-toppers stick in your head like a brain tumour?

I haven’t read either Brown novel (I value my time a little higher than that) but I would like to know whether it’s possible to read Foucault’s Pendulum beforehand as a kind of literary aperitif.

35

Rasselas 04.12.06 at 11:32 am

It’s always the Illuminati this, the Templars that. Where is the due regard for the villainous potential of the Thule Gesellschaft? Did the Ahnenerbe rob all those graves and distort all those archaeological discoveries for nothing?

36

tylerh 04.12.06 at 1:37 pm

Nice to see the Our Better Educated ™ sneering at a popular author who actually tried to convey some (slight) erudition to the B and C students of the world. Is it any wonder the Right so successfuly uses you boys and girls for a political punching bag?

…and if the dreck is so base, so obvious, so poorly crafted, why aren’t all of ya’ll knocking off this kind of crap in your spare time and getting rich? Perhaps there is more to this turgid prose the meets the well-schooled eye.

-signed,

An engineering Ph.D. who makes a point of NOT sneering at people who struggle with even the simplest of differential equations.

37

Steve LaBonne 04.12.06 at 1:43 pm

And the prize goes to tylerh for the best parody of the anti-intellectual reverse snob, complete with the inevitable insinuations that popularity = quality and size of bank account = worth. Well done!

-signed,
A science Ph.D. who knows the difference between good books and crappy books.

38

Kieran Healy 04.12.06 at 1:46 pm

Yeah, the insinuation that tylerh is not only a man of the people but also actually smarter than the Better Educated (viz, differential equations) was an especially nice touch. The introduction of spurious left/right stuff was the icing on the cake. Bravo.

39

KCinDC 04.12.06 at 2:10 pm

Does tylerh’s abstention from sneering apply even when the person having trouble with differential equations is being paid to be an engineer?

Why do tylerh and decon misspell y’all the same way?

–signed,
A former Ph.D. candidate in science who spent some time as a copyeditor.

40

morinao 04.12.06 at 2:36 pm

What hacks me off about A&D is that Brown has clearly gone out and done enough research on esoteric topics like papal election mechanics and Swiss particle accelerators to have picked up the terminology…and then blithely perverts it to fit his own storyline. So a great elector becomes a conclave president, a camerlengo is not a cardinal, a CERN physicist can run antimatter experiments in the particle accelerator in secret, etc. He might call it literary license; I call it mendacious and lazy. Fiction should not actively make its readers stupider.

As for the Da Vinci Code…that same exact book hits the bestseller list at least once every decade, usually as nonfiction. So if you’ve read any of the previous incarnations, you already know what the religious revelations are going to be…and then all that’s left to attend to are Brown’s plot and character development, which are awful, awful, awful.

41

decon 04.12.06 at 3:14 pm

Ya’ll is southern for y’all. At least according to the expert.

42

Mike 04.12.06 at 3:32 pm

I read (read=read about 20 pages and then skimmed) Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, and I thought it was absolutely terrible. That guy can’t write at all. The plots are hairbrained, and have too many events with not enough cohesion. The writing style is about the opposite of smooth. I’ve read better writing from my 4th grade cousin.
Despite this terrible experience, I was somehow convinced to pick up The Da Vinci Code. It was about as bad.

I can’t begin to understand what the hype is about this book…it just isn’t good.

43

Ronald Brak 04.12.06 at 4:09 pm

Actually, reading the Da Vinci Code convinced me that we need to do more as a society to convince albinos not to become assassins. Perhaps some sort of free counselling could be provided where they could learn that inability to blend in and poor eyesight make it a bad career choice?

44

decon 04.12.06 at 4:26 pm

… still waiting, by the way, for someone to explain to me why it is that ya’ll recall so many details from books you don’t like? Perhaps there is a social scientest in the room that can explain?

45

pp 04.12.06 at 5:00 pm

Okay decon,
I’ll bite. Why do you remember the day you were laughing so hard you farted in class but forget the grade you got on the paper you turned in. It is because memory is linked with emotion. Both good and bad emotions make memories stand out. It is actually more hard science than social science. It is watching the proverbial train wreck. That is why a detail in bad book is as clear as a good ook.

46

Travis 04.12.06 at 5:02 pm

If you think A&D was the worst book you ever finished, I double dog dare you to attempt completion of Dan Brown’s true masterwork, “Digital Fortress.”

That said, I’m a sucker for Stephenson’s fiction. I actually like the long-winded and straight-as-a-coil-of-rope digressions on science, history, economics, cereal, etc. Great literature it is not, but I have a feeling I was the target audience anyway.

47

KS 04.12.06 at 5:23 pm

decon,
It doesn’t seem like people are really talking about very many details here. More just general bashing, which is understandable. I can almost always remember whether I liked or disliked a book or a movie, long after I’ve forgotten the details.

48

garymar 04.12.06 at 5:42 pm

The DVC, as a best seller, has had a huge impact on discussion about Christianity in the popular culture, so much so that RC church spokesmen have debunked the book, and there’s a whole cottage industry of books about it, pro and con. When people talk about the book and its ‘impact’ on them, it’s always about the same tired nonsense: Jesus didn’t die, instead he married Mary Magdalene and they went on to found the Merovingian line of French kings.

I read it on a trans-Pacific flight and it was a perfect time-killer, with chapters barely one page long, a nonsensical “Harvard professor of religious symbology” as protagonist, and sentences that, when read aloud, sound like fingernails on a blackboard. But its influence all comes from its ideas, and it is worth discussing as a pop phenomenon and manifestation of the ever-recurring fascination with alternatives to the Jesus of the Gospels.

49

radek 04.12.06 at 6:14 pm

Yikes. I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with an entire comment thread so much.

50

Alex Earl 04.12.06 at 8:01 pm

I’ve managed not to read the Da Vinci code. I’ve been told to read it by many people (even friends!), but from what I can tell, it sounds like Foucault’s Pendulum without the point.

51

Lewis Perdue 04.12.06 at 9:29 pm

PP:

Yes, but Da Vinci Legacy is, at least, an ORIGINAL piece of mindless drivel as opposed to plagiarized mindless drivel like AD and DVCode.

And no I didn’t update any of the technology. When the newest edition was printed, my editor wanted me to do an update of the 1983 original. But the time was very short and a number of things did not get properly updated.

However, NOTHING substantial was changed, nothing that affects the plot, the action etc.

What else was done in this hasty update? A few things, like people pay in Euros now and not in Lire like they did when I wrote this in 1983. The Last Supper has been restored. Stuff like that.

The Hero’s name was changed (too many sssss’s Curtis Davis … say it aloud… the change was to Vance Erikson, but the name change didn’t get transferred to the cover on the first printing. The change was made on the second and third printings so maybe the first ones will be collector’s items.

And at least having something on the back of the Clorox bottle to read serves some kind of social good, I think.

PP said: “These books don’t hold a candle to a piece of mindless drivel based on the same premise called “the da vinci legacy” by lewis perdue. it was originally published in 1983 and features a renegade scientist, beautiful girl, scientific mystery, set in Italy. It was re-copyrighted in 2004 to take advantage of Dan Brown mania. It was clearly re-written at that time to update the technology etc and makes the book so anachronistic that you cant read a whole page without wanting to annotate and edit the whole thing. Somehow it was popular enough to make a rack at the airport, and since it didn’t feature any bodice ripping cover, I read it. I kept going back to it to consume time and kill the boredom just as you might read the back of the bleach bottle if you are stuck on the toilet for too long.”

52

dr ngo 04.12.06 at 10:22 pm

Ya’ll is southern for y’all. At least according to the expert.

The “expert” in question – Larry the Cable Guy – was in fact born and raised in Nebraska. The accent (and attitude) are completely bogus.

This is not entirely off topic, by the way. Like Dan Brown, Larry the Cable Guy has taken to heart the dictum of H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

53

tzs 04.12.06 at 11:53 pm

Frabjous joy! I thought that I and my roommate were the only ones who couldn’t stand the Da Vinci Code because the writing was so putrid.

And I rolled on the floor when reading Angels & Demons–the description of CERN is priceless (doesn’t the protagonist also get whisked over there in a Concorde or something like that?)

And heck, I could come up with a better conspiracy theory myself. In fact, I’ve got one, pulling together the occult, Freemasons, the Russian Mafia, Petrarch, hedge funds, trust law as implemented in Jersey law, and faked statues. Oh, and a hurricane and mistaken identities. That’ll show them.

54

lurker 04.13.06 at 2:28 am

Colin Watson (in ‘Snobbery with Violence’) long ago pointed out that the success of popular fiction has nothing to do with literary quality, intelligence or credibility and everything to do with appealing to the emotions and prejudices of your audience.
This can’t be faked just to make a fast buck: to create Bulldog Drummond or Doctor Fu Man Chu, you have to think, feel and prejudge like Sapper or Sax Rohmer.
Popular fiction is not usually original, it is highly derivative and full of stock characters and cliches that get worked to death.
The only thing that distinguishes Brown from countless earlier and future hacks is that apparently a lot of nonexpert people take his ‘ideas’ seriously.

55

Chris Bertram 04.13.06 at 4:31 am

The judgement in the Dan Brown plagiarism case is a great source of fun: the judge clearly had a fantastic time. (Warning 71-page pdf)

http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/images/judgment-files/baigent_v_rhg_0406.pdf

56

decon 04.13.06 at 7:04 am

Nebraska is southern. I drank sweet tea at a Cracker Barrel there once. QED.

57

Anna in Cairo 04.13.06 at 9:31 am

I have read 3 of Dan Brown’s books: Deception Point, A&D and DVC. I think Angels and Demons was much worse than the other two. I actually enjoy reading awful page turners, but even for a bad writer he is kind of special. His character descriptions had me rolling my eyes. The language log thing about how he always starts out with a person defined by their job getting whacked was very funny. (Link at comment 12.) However at least I could finish Dan Brown’s books. I could not get through Michael Creighton’s State of Fear at all. That has to be the very worst book I have attempted to read for the past several years, and I am counting harlequin romances, the phone book, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990.

58

pp 04.13.06 at 10:35 am

response to #51,
Mr. Perdue,
Thank you for responding. You are correct that your premise, plot, and charachters are original and as an action adventure story are entertaining. I also don’t want to be critical of the re-publication. People should get paid for their work and if it sells, good for you. For what its worth it would be a great screenplay. Best Luck.

59

yabonn 04.13.06 at 11:11 am

Please, please, someone collect these “author pops up in the thread” moments.

60

yabonn 04.13.06 at 11:12 am

Special tag maybe?

61

tylerh 04.13.06 at 1:05 pm

Kcindc:
Does [my] abstention from sneering apply even when the person having trouble with differential equations is being paid to be an engineer?

yes. First, there are plenty of engineering tasks that don’t require facility with D.E.s Second, there are far better responses to someone struggling at their job than sneering.

Why do tylerh and decon misspell y’all the same way?

Because there are strong regional variations in how that colloquial second person plural pronoun is pronounced. “Y’all” is reflective of how I grew up prounouncing that word, as in the shopkeepers’ friendly parting, “Y’ aall come back now, yehear!”

62

tylerh 04.13.06 at 1:45 pm

the insinuation that tylerh … actually smarter than the Better Educated (viz, differential equations) was an especially nice touch.

Good point. Because we all know that there is a single kind of smarter and that people can be easily ranked by that.

Look, I freely admit that I not as smart writing-wise as most posters around here, but I vaguely recall from my struggles in writing class the concept of analogy: I don’t sneer at people who aren’t as facile with the tools of my specialty, so why must others sneer at lesser users of the tools of their specialty? Maybe not the clearest analogy (metaphor?) but I hope you can see my point. I am certain my claim is not a straw man like claim the “insuation that Tylerh is a man of the people.” How does a declaration of posessing a Ph.D. even begin to raise such a claim?

To clarify: I am not saying Dan Brown wrote a good book. But is there any evidence that was his goal? Dan Brown appears to have set out to write a popular book and succeeded wildly. Given how rarely any popular book is considered a good book, most of the comments on this thread strike my ears as more akin to junior high students desperately trying to sound cool around the lunch table than useful literary analysis.

63

Ronald Brak 04.13.06 at 2:42 pm

Well tylerh, I love Dan Brown books. Except for the slender torso part. I like a bit of meat on my physicists. But I think this is definately a “sound cool around the lunch table” thread rather than useful literary analysis. I for one am rocking back and having fun here.

64

yabonn 04.13.06 at 6:59 pm

I am not saying Dan Brown wrote a good book. But is there any evidence that was his goal?

Ouch. Supporting Brown as the rope support the hangman, as they say.

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