Sunday, November 01, 2009

reading dan brown.

Just as he had done for the past two times, he did it again.

I reluctantly pushed my nocturnal limits to an ungodly two-thirty in the wee hours of the morning, eagerly devouring the last few pages of Dan Brown’s latest novel The Lost Symbol. In the who’s who of bibliophiles, I don’t classify myself as a sprinter; but perhaps it merited some measure of braggadocio to have also wrapped up two of his other books in record time: The Da Vinci Code in ten hours, Angels and Demons in about twelve – apparently good enough response for someone whose writing has been dubbed by critics as clumsy, and whose works have been diversely labeled as inaccurate, fanciful, abstruse, slanderous, even sacrilegious.

The question is not what causes us to gravitate to the pull of his fiction, but rather, why we gravitate to them. Like millions of readers, I turn to Brown’s books for the primary purpose that he wrote them: entertainment. His masterful thrillers provide a sought-after adrenaline rush, and a much-welcomed change from the humdrum of deadened routines. Through his stories, he has concocted a delectable compendium of just about everything that piques my interest – history, geography, art, literature, science, mathematics, even religion – seamlessly crafted into one gigantic, smashing, rollercoaster ride. Best of all, he toyed a bit with my fascination about Harvard (although I more than duly content myself with being currently schooled in the Harvard equivalent of the Philippines.)

Reading Dan Brown is, in every sense, experiencing the inexperienced, expecting the unexpected, initiating the uninitiated. Villains become heroes, and heroes become villains. When I first plunged head-on into the then uncharted waters of the polemic The Da Vinci Code five years ago, I was instantly thrown into his clandestine world of arcane symbols, antediluvian legends, mystical phenomena – the plot thickening with every page, the secrets revealing themselves with every twist of the story. The thirst for unbridled momentum was infectious. As I picked up Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol later on, a hazy pattern began to emerge.

Somewhere that’s neither here nor there, Brown writes of a well-loved savant getting killed or kidnapped. He brews forth a terrifying madman, the unraveling of an ancient controversy, the pursuit to solve the mystery hurtling at full speed towards an electrifying climax. The meandering paths seemingly trail and coalesce downhill to an incredibly simplistic resolution, interjected with a handful of profound lessons that leave you thinking much more than just the way his fantastic tales ended. Because yes, there’s more.

In a world beset with societal woes and plagued with problems from every side, Brown’s irrepressible characters have given us hope that we can always be unlikely saviors of our own generation. With his protagonist, Robert Langdon, he successfully painted the image of a renaissance man, the embodiment of someone imbued with messianic potential without actually realizing it. Langdon is hardly the epitome of a perfect individual. A noted historian and cryptologist, he waxes idiosyncratic philosophical for the greater part of his presence, oftentimes bordering on being overly quixotic. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however. Langdon promptly springs to action at the flick of a finger, whipping up a plausible solution faster than you can mouth “Eureka!”

Fortunately, his moments of epiphany are as good as ours. Not content to sit back and let fate steer its sinister course, we gamble the odds with his every move, brainstorm with his every impediment, and silently rejoice with his every triumph. Indeed, Brown’s novels are thoroughly enjoyable not so much stark anthologies of facts as they are exercises in ingenuity. You exit his enigmatic world with no exact objects, locations, or explanations in mind; only the pleasant aftertaste of an enriching, gratifying, cerebral experience.

I should know. Once upon a time, I, too, sat down in Philosophy class blatantly asking for the moon and the stars. What is truth? What is man’s destiny? What’s after forever? In the end, much like Brown’s novels, I was trained instead to strip myself of any existential pretensions and focus on the intangibility of human inquiry, to proffer the questions without waiting for the answers.

In this regard, his novels incidentally helped me discover that hindsight can only yield so much insight. A stir of familiarity struck me upon mention of German painter Albrecht Durer, evoking unmistakable images of Humanities class as our professor engaged us to probe deeper and to scrutinize each artwork beyond what’s merely concrete and abstract. In between lines of an archaic riddle, in between elaborate depictions of The Louvre or The Washington Memorial, I surmise that this is what Brown tells us with overwhelming audacity: To look. Heightened observation, after all, serves as the very antithesis of perceptive mediocrity.

There are heaps to be learned in the minutest and most puzzling of details, in the most insignificant of entities. There is more than meets the eye in those picture-perfect postcard panoramas of St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey, or the soaring dome of the US Capitol. There is more than greets the mind behind the Mona Lisa’s captivating smile, the obscure markings on Raphael’s sculptures, or closer to home, the sacred texts of The Bible. Who knows? Our world is a world of possibilities.

Yet akin to the celebrated Holy Grail or the fabled Ancient Mysteries, Brown’s works have never been about claiming that coveted trophy of the ages or that proverbial pot of gold at rainbow’s end. The spotlight is always fittingly passed on to something of far humbler, far higher substance – a quest for prayer, an affirmation of belief, an attempt to rescue an honorable reputation. Most importantly, his novels have aptly demonstrated that it takes a person of solid, unwavering faith to effectively hold his own against the persuasive tides of crafty reasoning, against the evidence-based debates of logic and scientific thought. What is faith, as Brown candidly put it, but the “acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove”?

In literary context, I guess it takes a similar amount of faith, then, to keep the real from the unreal and still accept, albeit fleetingly, that which is imagined to be true, yet which cannot be proven. When all else stands unlocked and laid bare, Dan Brown’s saga of codes and secrets ultimately boils down to shedding light on the world as it is – rich, vibrant, unique – and being supremely thankful for it.

And just like that, just as he had done for the past two times, he did it again.