Da Vinci Turns Two: The Fiction of Historical Accuracy
'All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,' screams page one of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, now settling in for it's third year on international bestseller lists. Glenn Michael McDonald explores the functions and effects of this proclamation in light of the book's enduring success.
The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
March 2003, 454 pages, $24.95
Dan Brown's mystery/thriller The Da Vinci Code is the kind of phenomenon for which the words "mammoth" and "blockbuster" were seemingly invented. Every now and again, an author manages to find the cultural sweet spot with surgical precision, and many trees are felled to print the billions of pages demanded by hungry readers.
In fact, the book has been at or near the top of the sales charts for more than two years now -- the first printing hit shelves in March, 2003. At one point, Da Vinci was selling around 100,000 copies per week. Two years later, and it's still hovering in the top five of the New York Times bestsellers list. To date, it has sold more than 18 million copies and has been translated into at least 44 languages. Everyone I know has read this book. Everyone you know has read this book.
Indeed, Brown's efforts have spawned a kind of pocket industry -- a movie is forthcoming next summer (Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard are attached), and countless TV, radio and magazine specials on the book have already come and gone.
Da Vinci's success has also had the effect of spinning off dozens of "response" books by historians, quasi-historians and trivia-peddlers hawking insights into the secrets of the mothership tome. A quick Google of Amazon (O glorious technobabble!) returns several titles: Secrets of the Code, Da Vinci Code Decoded, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, Unlocking Da Vinci's Code and Decoding Da Vinci. I am dead serious when I say Da Vinci for Dummies is on shelves now.
Of course, it's not uncommon in the book industry for a massively popular piece of work to generate companion titles looking to cash in on the action. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon is somewhat different, however. The relationship of these books to the source work is not as overtly parasitic as in other cases. (Does the world really need New Clues to Harry Potter, Book Five? No kidding, you can look it up.)
Instead, several of these response books are written by scholars and historians who take umbrage with Brown's claims to historical authenticity within the fictional framework of The Da Vinci Code. (Soon, the Catholic Church will be involved in all the factual hand-wringing, too: Seventy-year-old Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa, was selected by the Vatican to officially pen their official rebuttal to Brown's novel in March.)
They are academic works, primarily, often published by a university press and crammed with the kind of obsessive footnoting that makes textbooks so much fun to read. The authors of these particular works aren't looking to attach their books, barnacle-like, to the hull of the mighty S.S. Da Vinci. (Although the association probably doesn't keep them up nights, either.) Instead, they have scholarly bones to pick.
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Da Vinci begins with a seemingly blunt declaration concerning the factual accuracy of historical artifacts referenced and described within the stories:
All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.
Brown's preface, sort of the opposite of a disclaimer (a "claimer"?), is actually very canny. This one simple sentence has proven to be incredibly effective at coloring the experience of reading the book that follows. Many if not most of Da Vinci's readers seem to have interpreted the preface to mean a lot more than it actually does.
Look carefully, and you'll see that Brown employs some rather dexterous sleight-of-pen in that preface. At first glance, it seems very bold and compelling. Reread it, though, and you'll see that Brown is quite specific about the elements of the book he claims to be historically accurate. His descriptions of the artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in Da Vinci are, indeed, accurate. The story that surrounds them, however, is conjecture; a puzzle assembled from historical jigsaw pieces that have been rearranged to present another picture. It's a neat trick.
A big part of the reason the trick works so well is that the story itself is carefully researched -- it's apparent that Brown put a lot of effort into the details. The book proceeds from accepted historical subject matter. (As accepted as can be reasonably demanded -- there's a whole 'nother epistemological conversation here on what we think we "know" about history.) And the central "mystery" uncovered in Da Vinci is actually a fairly well-worn theory that's been floated in conspiracy circles for a very long time.
Brown naturally uses quite a bit of selective editing and convenient rearranging to power the revisionist histories he describes, and his characters come to conclusions that are wildly inventive, from a rigorous scholarly standpoint. In fact, it's clear that Brown takes creative license throughout the book, in regard to what's fact, what's fiction, and whatever's in between. The academicians can point you to many of the specifics, if you're interested (I recommend Bart Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code). But even the modestly attentive reader will conclude after reading Da Vinci that the story is, as they say, too good to be true.
Well, of course. Da Vinci is a fiction novel, and what's more, it's a thriller -- a page-turner designed to provide a hook on every page, and a cliffhanger in every chapter. The book's preface serves the same basic function as title cards in movie that read, "Based on a true story," or even more vaguely, "Inspired by a true story." It's for effect.
This is a familiar trope in cinema, and storytelling in general. You can rest assured that Mr. Brown knows exactly what he's doing. His preface statement heightens the wonder and excitement that Brown so effectively summons from the rich topic he explores. The book suggests not just an alternative history -- this could have happened! -- but a deliberately concealed actual history -- this is what really happened! The effect plays into what is perhaps the greatest strength of Brown's pop literary formula -- he writes efficient thrillers that make you feel smart.
Because Brown's fact/fiction misdirections are so subtle, and the "mystery" he reveals so astonishing, a massive readership has been incidentally (or perhaps skillfully) nudged into an interesting vantage point on history itself. For the first time, many readers are reflecting on their history classes and books, religious and secular, and on the nature of received wisdom. Who do you choose to believe? What do you want to believe? How do we know what we think we know?
Times being what they are, several parties are cleaning up by trolling this strange ancillary market. Brown suggests a massive cultural conspiracy that is historically actual. The more scholarly response books are falling over each other to tell you otherwise. The savviest critics are not actually responding to historical discrepancies in the fictional The Da Vinci Code, but to a readership that is taking the story literally. Meanwhile, the evangelists and trivia-peddlers assemble quickie books to mine the areas in between.
And everybody's winking, just a little bit.