Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Dan Brown's The Mysterious Thing


Now, I quite like a Dan Brown book, I do. Oi, come back. I haven't finished yet. Put your snarky snobbery over there on the side for a moment and read on. There will be amusement and mockery, do not fear.

As I was saying, I do quite like a Dan Brown book. I like the mysteries and the riddles and the stuff about the weirder bits of history. I even don't mind the bits about art and architecture, providing they're heavily laced with references to hidden clues and secret passages of course.

And sometimes the books have cool visual puzzles like the ambigrams in Angels & Demons and the map thing in The Lost Symbol. I actually sat down and decoded the map thing before reading any further, yes I did. I am that sort of a person. I also used to translate alien languages in comics, and for those of you who do likewise, what about that issue of Smalsh Yegger, eh?

But I diverse. I do like a Dan Brown book. I will freely admit that the writing, whilst perfectly competent, ain't great literature. But that's fine. I'm not after great literature, just an engaging mystery/adventure. And yes, the characterisation's non-existent, but who cares? I just wanna figure out the puzzles along with (and hopefully ahead of) tweedy protagonist Robert Langdon.

BUT. I am halfway through the audio version of the latest effort Inferno and I've figured out which aspect of Mr Brown's writing bugs me. It's the padding. My god, the padding. The endless pages of nothing much happening and nobody getting anywhere. I swear he uses a template much like the following to bump his page count up every other chapter...

* * *

The Mysterious Thing

Chapter nn

Robert Langdon glanced down at the Mickey Mouse watch that served as his personality. His age-nonspecific brow wrinkled in concern. Too fast.  They were moving through the plot too quickly. He had to slow things down somehow.

But how? Perhaps some internal monologue, debating his choices. Or should he? The threat of the Unusual Killer finding them was ever present. Could he afford to spend time reviewing the story so far and considering all the clues and puzzles for the convenience of the reader? Could he afford not to?

His mind wandered back to a lecture he had given about the Famous Dead Guy some time ago. Rehashing the deceased genius' life and achievements would not only serve to remind everyone that this story Could Actually Be True, but would also pad out a few pages with some judicious keystrokes from the Famous Dead Guy's Wikipedia page. And it would make an ideal flashback scene for the movie adaptation.

He paused in his reverie, suddenly aware once more of his surroundings. They were in the Fascinating Real Place, with its unusual architecture and collection of weird stuff. Tourists will come to visit this place after they've read this; I should get a royalty, Langdon mused. Though he did not muse wryly, as that would have suggested some sort of personality.  And in any case, he did not need the money, as his flashback lectures on Art History For Dummies seemed to provide him with a healthy income. Enough to keep him in tweed jackets and comfortable loafers, at any rate.

Running a hand through his brown hair, his only notable feature apart from the watch, he glanced over at his companion on this strange journey. The Helpful Young Woman was looking at the Intriguing Object she held in fascination.

'Robert', she began 'You were telling me a little about the Helpful Thing before we had to run away again. While we're hiding here from the Unusual Killer, could you continue for the benefit of myself and the reader?'
Langdon smiled. But not patronisingly, as that would have shown some sort of personality.

'More than a simple MacGuffin, the Intriguing Object is a device to guide the protagonist on his journey, revealing clues one by one. And by extension, the reader too is fed background on the Famous Dead Guy and the Mysterious Thing which we seek in maddening, bite-sized morsels. Just enough to keep them interested through the padded bits.'

'Like this one?' the helpful Young Woman said, peering out from their hiding place, bravely.

'Precisely.' Langdon was pleased. Under his paternal tutorship, she had rapidly adapted from the role of wrong person in the wrong place into a useful expository foil and capable companion, much like a Bond Girl or Dr Who assistant, though with neither the sex appeal of the first or the personality of the second. No matter, he reassured himself, she would disappear in between books anyway.

They went over the next clue again. Discussing it over and over, to give the readers a chance to work it out themselves and feel clever. Was it an anagram? Or an acronym? Perhaps a homophone or a translation? Fortunately, as the world's premier symbologist and explainer of things, Langdon was well qualified to unravel the secrets of the Mysterious Object, one tedious layer at a time.

He repeated the next part of the puzzle. If they could stretch this out for another paragraph, he would be able to use his jammy eidetic memory to solve the riddle. Perhaps if he went over the story so far just one more time, with the Helpful Young Woman asking lots of simple questions. But already he could feel the onset of another narrative shift, and with it another frustratingly oblique chapter from the perspective of the Unusual Killer and the Friend Who Is Actually The Main Baddie. Langdon checked his watch again and ran his fingers through his brown hair. But not nervously, because, well, you know.

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