I love words

This post at the Language Log makes me feel much, much better for not having read Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”:

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically.

The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. Here is the paragraph with which the book opens. The scene (says a dateline under the chapter heading, ‘Prologue’) is the Louvre, late at night:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don’t do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.

But Brown packs such details into the first two words of an action sequence — details of not only his protagonist’s profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn’t work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre.

The writing goes on in similar vein, committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph (sometimes every line). Look at the phrase “the seventy-six-year-old man”. It’s a complete let-down: we knew he was a man — the anaphoric pronoun “he” had just been used to refer to him. (This is perhaps where “curator” could have been slipped in for the first time, without “renowned”, if the passage were rewritten.) Look at “heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” We don’t need to know it’s a masterpiece (it’s a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven’s sake). Surely “toward him” feels better than “toward himself” (though I guess both are grammatical here). Surely “tore from the wall” should be “tore away from the wall”. Surely a single man can’t fall into a heap (there’s only him, that’s not a heap). And why repeat the name “Saunière” here instead of the pronoun “he”? Who else is around? (Caravaggio hasn’t been mentioned; “a Caravaggio” uses the name as an attributive modifier with conventionally elided head noun “painting”. That isn’t a mention of the man.)

My apologies for the long quote from the original article. It’s just that I love words, and especially well-crafted words, words used in the service of snark.

And if you give me well-crafted words used in the service of snark about other people’s poorly-used words, well, sir or madam… I am delirious.

So, yeah… Dan Brown’s a hack. I’m glad to have had that confirmed.