Book Review: “ORIGIN” by Dan Brown.
(Please be Advised – if you plan to read and have not read the book ‘Origin,’ it is heavily suggested that you not read the following book review)
It was the first Dan Brown book I ever read.
I passed this one on the shelf at least three times and really had no interest in reading it, or of knowing anything much about it. Brown’s reputation was tarnished during the ‘Da Vinci Code’ book debacle, which resulted in lawsuits by authors he reportedly plagiarized. Which genuinely appeared to be simply an editorial mistake involving quoting the source, but there’s a whole story behind that. (Brown was also denounced by the Vatican.) Since then, many critics have not been kind. Some even laugh within the context of their reviews. And those critics have spent volumes of their energy attempting to persuade every human soul on this planet not to read a Dan Brown book. And all of this has led to a never-ending, cascading snowball-headed-for-hell controversy that symbiotically attaches itself to every book Brown writes, happily ever after. ‘Ya gotta feel for the guy.
But to be honest, I did not want to read anything written by a writer who simply had a bad reputation for … bad writing. Garbage in, garbage out.
I was looking to avoid that pitfall commonly associated with mainstream, mass-produced works of fiction found in stacks and piles in what few brick and mortar stores remain, just around the corner. Along with the electronic or traditional hard or soft cover copies sold on-line. And in ‘Big Publishing,’ Dan Brown is big business. A big chunk of that market belongs exclusively to Dan Brown’s chosen Publisher, whenever he releases a new book. (In this case, Double Day.) And when he does release something new, his name brand does the same business as any Stephen King novel. King’s own formula isn’t as pretentious as Brown’s, but it is still a dependable genre-centric parking spot that has made King a name brand. Meanwhile, Brown’s own formula seems to be an amalgamation of Michael Crichton, curious Wikipedia-like factoids on art and history and science (including a fair amount of speculation,) and a sort of revelatory spirit that whisks the reader away into an escapist journey that promises forbidden or secret knowledge somewhere at the end of the rainbow. And we all know, we love that. It may be pure fantasy, but it’s still basic storytelling 101. ‘Gimme me pot of gold,’ demanded the Leprechaun.
But for many years, I knew none of this. My personal reading choices lie elsewhere. Yep, I dutifully did as I was psychologically conditioned by the word-on-the-street, and avoided reading a Dan Brown book. Seen the movies. But never read the books. In fact, I was one of the few who really enjoyed the film, ‘Da Vinci Code,’ directed by Ron Howard. With the obvious understanding that the core plot was essentially bullshit. Very entertaining bullshit, but pure B.S., in any case. The film of ‘Angels & Demons’ looked promising, but underwhelmed and wasn’t really very engaging, and in the end, degenerated into a mess of plot contrivance and bad Computer Generated Imagery. And I got through around 20 minutes of that embarrassing shaking camera, NASA-like-stress-test that calls itself a movie, ‘Inferno,’ before walking out, nauseated. To this day, I still have no idea what it was about or how it ended, and I could care less.So back to ‘Origin,’ after my third pass (saw it at a Wal-Mart,) I got curious and later Googled ‘Origin Dan Brown Review.’ First thing that got my attention: book critic ‘Ron Charles’ with the Washington Post referred to ‘Origin’ as “moronic.” Several hits down, I found another review wherein book critic Beejay Silcox, with The Australian, simply quoted the Washington Post’s “moronic” accusation in its entirety, with: “Another thriller so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff,” declares The Washington Post.”
I read each review in its entirety and remained generally unclear as to just why they each felt the book was moronic. Especially in light of the traditional level of intellect and quality of writing featured in most mainstream novels, today. The two critics made various other criticisms. But much of it sounded sneakily generic, when placed among other reviews available on-line, so that’s really not what got my attention. No, what stunned me was the word, “moronic.” Let me say it another way. They practically called the author a moron. Stop reading and think about that for a moment …
Once I had read it (and I’ll get to that in time,) it was almost as if they didn’t actually read the book. Or if they did, they didn’t read the same book I did. Or they came to the book with a predetermined opinion of the book, and it’s author. Or they only gave half of their attention to it, while they were reading it. Perhaps multitasking with Steve Harvey on Family Feud. I imagined each of these two book critics cribbing notes for their reviews from various critiques of their peers. And possibly utilizing some sort of galleys synopsis of the actual novel, which got passed around by the Publisher weeks before the novel was offered, for early criticism. Why would they do this, you ask? I have no fucking idea. And to be fair, I also have no proof because it’s unlikely that it actually happened. And in their defense, it’s only their professional and personal opinion of an author’s work. State secrets were not sold to the Russians, here, ladies and gentlemen. They are entitled to their opinion.
But still … I got curious. And I kept thinking about their use of the word, “moronic.” And I grew suspicious. Where was the apparent prejudice of these two literary critics coming from? Was this a hit job, aimed squarely at author Dan Brown? I knew if I emailed these turkeys they would likely never respond, and if they did, they would lie about their motives for labeling the book and/or author as essentially stupid. So instead, I simply Googled more critical opinions of Brown’s book. And I’ll get back to that, eventually … but first, you should know that the “moronic” comment is ultimately why I purchased and read the book. After all, if two somewhat prominent literary critics refer to a single work by an author as “moronic,” it damn well better be, or their street cred as is in serious jeopardy.
So … I sat down to read ‘Origin’ exactly three evenings ago. And I was genuinely hooked after around 30 pages or so.
[I reiterate, don’t read the following plot description if you plan to read the book, and haven’t yet.]
In a nutshell: Robert Langdon is attending an extremely elaborate press conference at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in Spain. His former student, a genius named Edmond Kirsch, wants to reveal to the world a scientific discovery he has made which somehow involves the big questions of where we came from as a species, as well as where we’re going. An announcement, which he has already informed certain Religious Leaders, will shake the foundations of their faith, and possibly begin the gradual process of dismantling their religions. A bold claim. Both for the character of ‘Edmond,’ as well as for author Dan Brown himself. Who now has to deliver, and again accept the inevitable consequence associated with this kind of thinking and writing: controversy. Fortunately for Brown, it’s all very compelling. And ironically — and in spite of his critics — it’s thanks mainly to the quality of Dan Brown’s skills as a storyteller, that it works.
But before Robert Langdon’s former student, Edmond, can make his announcement (an elaborate power point presentation,) he is murdered by an assassin; right in front of the museum audience in attendance and the three million people live streaming the ‘event’ on the internet. As expected, confusion ensues, and as a direct result Robert Langdon is quickly a suspect and on the run again; with museum director and future Queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, at his side. The two of them have taken Edmond’s phone, and race around Spain attempting to retrieve a 47 character line of poetry Edmond intended to use as the password to launch the power point presentation from his cell phone. And there’s a good chance that if they don’t discover that password, they will be murdered by Religious zealots who want Edmond’s discovery to remain a secret.
They are assisted by Edmond’s advanced Artificial Intelligence creation, ‘Winston.’ A very helpful computer with the voice of Hugh Grant and a burgeoning sense of humor. The lives of Langdon and Ambra Vidal are in constant danger, throughout, and in reference to the puppet master behind it all, red herrings are everywhere. And Dan Brown does a commendable job of diverting the reader’s attention into alternate areas of interest, plot-wise. But eventually, the storyteller has to deliver. And deliver he does. With Winston’s help, Langdon and Ms. Vidal make it to Winston’s central location to enter that coveted 47 character password, direct at terminal. The entire world is watching as Edmond’s posthumous power point presentation is launched — and it’s a master class for the uninitiated. In essence, the guy duplicated the process of the birth of life at the microscopic level, on this planet. He performed an experiment utilizing the concoction of ingredients known as the primordial ooze, and with additional research and help from the most advanced computer on the planet, proved, unequivocally, that life simply came to be as a spontaneous chemical reaction. That’s right, the double helix itself, those three little letters, DNA, self-generated. And without any need whatsoever for God. A highly controversial scientific discovery. And one so exciting, it makes your heart race, regardless of what you believe.
“IN THE BEGINNING, MAN CREATED GOD…”
But Edmond wasn’t finished. In addition to discovering where we had come from, he had also discovered where we are going. He had then tasked the world’s most advanced computer with creating a model for life expectancy on this planet. He gave the computer all the required information, and then simply said, ‘extrapolate.’ And a disturbing thing happened. As humankind took over from the dinosaurs and blossomed into the largest dominate life form on the planet, another form of life began to emerge, and it got larger … and larger, until by the year 2000, it was MASSIVE. And by extrapolated prediction … it overtook the human race in the year 2050.
There’s so much more to the story. Langdon makes an additional point that includes the possibility of God’s involvement in respect to the chemicals needed to create life, the entire world responds as expected to Edmund Kirsch’s discovery: not with indifference, but with an unending series of varied opinions about what it all means. It’s revealed Edmond had pancreatic cancer and had 9 days to live. There is a Catholic Bishop and a dying King, and their secret, platonic love for one another. There is the Prince and his on-the-rocks relationship with his future princess, Amber Vidal, who both get caught up in it all. And of course, the assassin. Who turns out to simply be a wounded warrior who got invited to the wrooooong church. And all of it seems tailor-made for another Robert Langdon movie, with Tom Hanks. One that will hopefully see Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot playing the part of Ambra Vidal.
If anything, ‘Origin’ simply goes on too long, when truthfully, it should have ended when ‘Winston’ confirmed to Professor Langdon over the phone that IT was the puppet master all along, then Langdon would have hung up and called the University people who took over Edmund’s supercomputer after his death, told them to pull the plug IMMEDIATELY (which is only implied within Brown’s story,) and thereafter, the horrified Professor would have smashed Edmond’s cell phone to smithereens with a big rock.
As P.T. Barnum said, “Always leave them wanting more.”
Instead, Brown ties up numerous loose ends ‘after’ this happens, instead of ‘before’ it happens. But was it “moronic?” Shit, no. It was NOT moronic. In fact, it was an intelligent, well written book. And personally, I only had a few quibbles with it.
Brown does over explain things occasionally. For example, the descriptions of many of Spain’s more notable locations, while being key to the story and somewhat illustrative, nevertheless come off badly. Sometimes annoyingly enough to remind one of a grandmother who stops in the middle of a busy intersection to tell the complete history of the old building on the corner. And there are lots of unnecessarily italicized thoughts running through ‘Origin.’ Maybe that’s the editor’s choice. Some new trend among Editors, perhaps. I dunno. But many of these clearly should have been simply added to the end of the previous paragraph, without being placed in italics. And I would be remiss in not pointing out that many critics have mentioned that ‘Origin’ reuses various tropes from Brown’s earlier works. Which I have not read. So please take that into consideration, when gauging my own critique.
Speaking of critiques, let’s get back to that. I was critiquing the critics, remember?
So a quick glance of additional reviews of the book on the internet, revealed plenty of generally favorable criticism, even if often on the colder side rather than the warmer. But amidst them, was always the occasional pesky negative critique. Here are some general examples of both.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times criticized author Brown’s over-reliance on modifiers, but still offered that “Brown and serious ideas: they do fit together, never more than they have in ‘Origin,’” and added that “All that symbology [author Brown] and Langdon bring to the game is never without its gee-whiz excitement. Brown has told The Times (The New York Times) that he loved the Hardy Boys books, and it shows.”
Dissenters included Jake Kerridge with the UK-based Telegraph, who wrote, “Brown is a lousy storyteller and a very good communicator, never passing up an opportunity to share a fascinating historical or artistic factoid with the reader at the expense of building up tension, taking pains to frame complex ethical and scientific debates in a way that the layman will understand.”
Sam Leith with ‘The Guardian’ simply stated, “Dan Brown: novelist of ideas.”
And lastly, Brian Truitt with USA Today said, “Loyal fans of his globetrotting symbologist Robert Langdon will no doubt be thrilled with the fifth book in the series. But despite exploring some seriously big concepts about creation and destiny in its Spanish-set central mystery, Origin spawns a dizzying parade of scientific jargon, nonstop travelogues and familiar tropes that all lead to a fumbled ending.”
But most of these issues are familiar. Michael Crichton’s writing had similar, if comparable, issues. Issues which critics ignored, and often failed to take note of, altogether. But all of that is circumspect to the fact that two critics, called this book “moronic.” So what gives with the Dan Brown hate? Could LeCarre write it better? Probably. Could Crichton? Doubt it. So, let me get this right … judging by the accepted double-standard-NPR-snobbery of some critics, it’s likely that they would have considered this book less “moronic” if there had been more clever puns?? Or maybe if Dan Brown was a more universally praised or adored author like, say, Lee (Jack Reacher) Child; a favorite among the critics … Strike that, let’s start again, and say it this way: perhaps critics will no longer refer to Dan Brown’s work with such negative phrasing, when he simply begins writing down to them.
Someone once said, “A faster read, makes a happy critic indeed.”
By the way, that was me; I said that.
Because it is statistically accurate to say that literary critics are more kind to authors whose books are easier, and faster to read. Ron Charles of the Washington Post, and Beejay Silcox of The Australian. Remember those names. They essentially smeared a book that, while not a masterpiece, is no different than any number of other mainstream books on the shelf right now. I’m sure they read at least a handful of those, as well. And these two guys referred only to Dan Brown’s book as, “moronic.” Other critics gave the book negative reviews. But none of them crossed the line these guys did.
Maybe we make a rule right here that you don’t refer to a book as “moronic” unless Judith Krantz wrote it, how ’bout that, huh.
“Origin” was a thrilling read. Can’t wait to see the movie.