“Origin” and the Demise of the Dan Brown Formula

Tom Hanks is Dan Brown’s #ManCrushMonday every day. All rights © FlynetPictures.com, May 3, 2009

Apparently Dan Brown might as well be the Elizabeth Gilbert of grocery-store thrillers. Book lovers and literary snobs alike seem to relegate him somewhere between Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks, dismissing his novels like they’re Twilight for adults who romanticize European art and architecture, historical mystery and diet political intrigue.

While Brown is much maligned for his formulaic plots, it turns out that I like that formula. A lot. Or at least I did until I read Origin.

On a scale of Meh to Why Isn’t This Required Reading, Origin is definitely a Where’s The Gas Leak.

It reads like someone kidnapped Dan Brown and only had 24 hours to write a Dan Brown-esque novel using only his well-worn formula or the world will irreversibly find itself … without a new Dan Brown novel. It is painfully slow while trying to be fast-paced. I would say deliberately withholding but I don’t know that Brown actually intended to offer anything this time.

It plods along so slowly I started to believe in the possibility of a rip in time, that I could emerge through a shadowy portal and materialize, all my particles intact, in a Costco in San Clemente last year and shake my Uncle Frank by the polo shirt and implore him not to buy this book, not the hardcover, and not to loan it to my mom. But the truth is that I would’ve found my way to it no matter what. Because I loved everything that came before it, tropes and all.

This time our smarter-than-thou protagonist Robert Langdon is called upon once again in a race against time to save humanity from yet another impending global crisis. The clock is ticking and the consequences, if he fails, have pandemic implications.

Brown’s man-crush manifestation is joined yet again by a brilliant but unwittingly implicated European brunette who is prettier and brainier than any American woman you’ve ever solved crimes with. And together they will take on another ambiguously bad bad guy (who righteously believes he’s the good guy) with a bizarre and tragic, though barely developed, back story. The bad guy is always the operative of an even badder bad guy shrouded in anonymity with motives unknown until the swan-dive end of the story.

Robert Langdon as a character reads like the one who got away — the six-foot dreamboat Brown once fell in love with or always wanted to be. But he too is a poorly developed character. His traits and ticks are tacked on like an afterthought rather than fleshed out in a way that lets us get to know him. He is a professor-shaped bachelor with little carbon-based humanity and almost no personality. For five books we’ve watched Brown stack the same Jenga blocks to fashion either the man of his dreams or the man he wishes he were: The Harvard Professor block is on the bottom as it is strong enough to support the lesser weight of the other components: six feet tall, lanky swimmer, eidetic memory, suffers from claustrophobia, contented bachelor. That he wears a Mickey Mouse watch to “remind himself not to take life too seriously” is more of a subtraction than an addition of character in Brown’s heavy-handed attempt to make Langdon seem real.

Like a realtor who stages a home before the open house, Brown slaps together precious few details to fan out on an end table. The story offers the occasional generic landscape painting on an entryway wall, some empty vases on the mantel, a Harris tweed draped over the back of a dining room chair and some Ferragamo flats kicked off by the bed. But everybody knows that nobody lives here. And no one reading this book will see themselves in this story or feel themselves living this experience through our tall, dark and handsome hero. This is a classic case of the lights are on but no one’s home.

Everything this book lacks, however, critic Ron Charles makes up for in this exasperated but hilarious Washington Post review. Because Origin is such a colossal disappointment I will leave you with some literary crumbs, bullet points from Charles’ outstanding critique. And on the off-chance that you were still planning to read this book anyway: Spoiler Alert.

  • This time around, the requisite earth-shattering secret is a discovery made by Edmond Kirsch, a computer genius with a flair for dramatic presentations and infinite delays. Kirsch has called the world’s intelligentsia to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where he plans to reveal his findings to the world because that’s the way complex scientific discoveries are announced by quirky billionaires. (emphasis mine)
  • But then, when Kirsch finally quiets the crowd at the Guggenheim and begins to reveal his secret, some Roman Catholic zealot shoots him in the head. Why couldn’t it have been me? (It’s unclear if Charles wants to do the shooting or to be shot.)
  • For 100 pages, Brown talks like the pilot on a grounded airplane, assuring us that we’ll take off any minute now.
  • Brown may not have discovered a secret that threatens humanity’s faith, but he has successfully located every cliche in the world.
  • Darwinians, fundamentalists, atheists and believers: Pray that this cup pass from you.

twitter @h_m_edwards unsplash @heathermedwards

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store