[23 February 2006]
“He never said or did anything in high school to indicate that he was into secret societies… He was just a normal, happy guy with a stable home life whose dad worked on campus.” So says Susan Ordway, one of 250 students to graduate from Phillips Exeter with Dan Brown back in 1982. This is one of the many supposedly revealing insights into Da Vinci Code author Brown in Lisa Rogak’s new biography. Sure, 20 years after he graduated, Brown hinted, through his books, at an interest in the NSA, the Vatican, NASA, the Freemasons, and Opus Dei. But it’s not like these interests were kept secret in some great decades-old conspiracy. Unless they were… ohh, there’s a story. What did that pimply 18-year-old Dan Brown know that we didn’t, eh? What was he hiding? Why didn’t he converse daily with Ms. Ordway about his lust for underground factions? Sheesh. Thank god she didn’t take calculus with Thomas Harris.
This is the kind of pseudo-journalism to be found in The Man Behind The Da Vinci Code: An Unauthorized Biography of Dan Brown. Shock, right? Rogak’s work reveals as much about Dan Brown as a basic Internet search. Brown has famously backed away from the spotlight following the mammoth success of his fourth novel and he has little to fear that Rogak will spill his secrets. Instead, the ifs, maybes, and perhapses run rife through 130 pages of guesswork. A friend or colleague chimes in here and there with some piddling insight or other, but, largely, this is a bio of a man known for his overindulgence in research that reveals almost no real investigation at all.
The problem here is a lack of focus. The book appears, at first, a simple blow-by-blow account of Dan Brown’s rise to power. As such, it works. Rogak’s account of Brown’s childhood at Phillips Exeter through his short-lived pop career and onto his struggling novelist days is genuinely interesting. Did you know, for instance, that Brown released two pop records and married his publicist? Or that his dad was recruited by the NSA? Or that young Brown averaged Cs in his creative writing class? That stuff—if true—is revealing. It’s in those moments that Rogak attempts psychoanalysis of her subject that her reporting reveals its shoddiness.
Take Brown’s songwriting. According to Rogak, his predilection for big words and complex phrasing—referencing “a Kuhlstihl berth” in his track, “Angel of Love”—is a factor of Brown’s impeccable schooling. Even as a lyricist, Brown finds it hard to free himself from his own intellect. This is a problem, Rogak notes, because educated prep schoolers weren’t music industry desirables in 1992. In reality, the motivations of a 20-something songwriter penning tracks some 15 years ago are impossible to decipher. And the notion that Brown had to hide his education qualifications in order to make it in music is ridiculous. This is page filling—something Rogak falls back on a lot, especially when channeling Jung. There’s a paragraph or two containing daring speculation as to why Brown fell in love with his much-older wife. There’s even a paragraph devoted to the revelation that Brown once gave his old suits to a friend. If that weren’t enough, there’s a long paragraph in which Rogak tells us that if Brown wished to complete 12 Robert Langdon (Da Vinci‘s protagonist) books and wrote one every three and half years, he’d be 80 when they were completed. Fascinating. This, though, isn’t nearly as pointless as the number of pages Rogak spends pondering the plotline of Brown forthcoming The Solomon Key. She even goes so far as to suggest if Brown can’t finish his book for one of the few reasons she considers, Doubleday might just “hire a ghostwriter to complete the manuscript that would closely approximate his style and tone”. She follows this up with “... but it’s hard to imagine that Brown would ever consent to this.” It’s hard to imagine that thought made it through this book’s editing process.
It’s frustrating that Rogak doesn’t put her amateur psych evaluating to use on Brown’s various contradicting statements—all from the horse’s mouth, revealed in interviews and quoted in Rogak’s text. Why does a guy who lives to promote his works suddenly coyly label himself “just a guy who wrote a book” when celebrity comes knocking? What does it mean that Brown began Da Vinci with a statement that his theological speculation was true, only to state in a promotional interview that only 99 per cent was factual? How does Brown explain his statement that he never meant to open a “hornet’s nest” when choosing Da Vinci‘s subject matter, yet all but boasts elsewhere that he wrote the book with a firm formula in mind that included picking a potentially controversial subject to generate interest? Why is he hiding his chick-lit past? Or, the most bizarre—how did a man who admits to reading two novels a year become the biggest literary phenomenon of our time? Rogak mentions all of these things, but stops short of untangling them and seeking answers.
Then again, this isn’t a book looking for answers. It’s simply another volume in an ever-growing library of coattail-riding tomes released to generate a few more Da Vinci dollars. Rogak can’t honestly believe her addition to the library is in any way necessary, especially considering her best sources for Brown info are a former colleague and that woman from Brown’s graduating class. And surely she can’t be serious when making statements like the one about “scholarly books” on Catholic history and theology “rarely captur[ing] the attention of the world as much as a tautly written thriller than unfolds over the course of 24 hours”. Rogak freely discusses just about everyone to poke holes in The Da Vinci Code, while disregarding her own propensity for unsubstantiated bulldust.
Will it ever stop, this riding Da Vinci‘s wave? The end isn’t in sight just yet. Perhaps a Brown-like conspiracy is at work keeping that new novel off the shelves until publishing companies and two-bit writers have reaped as much reward as a hungry and undiscerning public will allow? That’s my theory anyway—it’s unfounded, but so goes the current trend.