How Dan Brown turned my parents into QAnoners
If you haven't heard of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon by now, perhaps it's irresponsible of me to tell you about it. Essentially, a member of a sketchy Internet forum alleged that he is a high level government official with secret information about a satanic cult run by Democrat pedophiles and their sex-trafficking associates. It's the same old antisemitic dogwhistle all over again, but with a fun new twist: President Donald Trump has surreptitiously dedicated his career, not to shady business practices, but to taking them down. And you can help him, if you can find and figure out the unspecified clues, such as the "strategic" spelling errors in the President's tweets (covfefe!). Despite being widely regarded by experts and intelligence officials as at best baseless and at worst a source of domestic terror, the QAnon movement continues to accrue members at an alarming rate. A recent article stated that roughly one-third of Republicans who had heard of QAnon believe it has merit.
How can so many disregard the clear and obvious facts printed in mainstream media in order to believe in an improbably vast conspiracy? For the same reasons that they fell in love with "The Da Vinci Code" 17 years ago. A palace intrigue of epic proportions. Codes and puzzles hidden in plain sight, with a a mysterious man acting as the augur. A shadowy organization involved in dark rituals with global stakes. And you, reader, are breathlessly tasked with solving the riddle in real time, using the clues, your natural intuition, and perhaps your internet search engine of choice.
When "The Da Vinci Code" was published in 2003, it f**king blew my 13-year-old mind. I was dazzled by Dan Brown's ability to create elaborate, heart-racing puzzles that were self-contained and yet felt like they reframed the world around me. Dan Brown also pioneered short chapters and constant cliffhangers, analogous to the techniques later used by social media companies to hopelessly addict us all (endless scrolling, intentionally delayed notifications, etc.).
Beyond that, Dan Brown asked plausible questions about familiar aspects of Western culture. Take, for instance, the lady on the iconic cover: I dare you to name a more renowned painting than the Mona Lisa. With a few pieces of obscure trivia or alleged historical interpretations, he could make compelling arguments that "things aren't always what they seem," especially when it comes to Catholicism. This struck me hard: a teenage boy trying to reconcile my own lack of faith within a pervasively theistic culture, as well as a burgeoning alienation from a power structure that seemed so self-serving. As my fiancée put it, "I think . . . I think Dan Brown taught me critical thinking."
And Dan Brown was successful by any given metric. "The Da Vinci Code" received a glowing review in the New York Times, sold 80 million copies worldwide (outsold that year only by "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"), and launched an immensely lucrative film franchise. Dan Brown himself earned spots in the Times 100 Most Influential People and Forbes Celebrity 100. The book exceeded traditional notions of literary success in a way that few do. You can probably find a copy of an "unauthorized guide" to "The Da Vinci Code" on all of your parents' bookshelves, with a title along the lines of "Decoding Da Vinci" or "Secrets of the Code" (I found two!). In fact, it's hard to think of a book that necessitates a compulsory explainer companion book outside of Ulysses, widely lauded as the best book of the century. "The Da Vinci Code" was an Important Book.
This is why I was shocked to find upon revisiting the book as an adult that it is absolute, unadulterated trash. Just really poor, from top to bottom. Let's start with the basics: the actual quality of the writing. Not plot (we'll get there), the words themselves.
"The Knights Templar were warriors," Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.
Teabing reminded . . . Teabing reminded who? REMINDED WHO? Who is he reminding in this space that is so reverberant, it has echoes?
I am not the first to point out what a clumsy, awful writer that Dan Brown is. I am just maybe the last and most surprised to realize it. Unsophisticated 13-year-old me did not notice. I didn't have a frame of reference. I had not read the Pulitzer Prize winner that year (Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"), or maybe from any year. I had not even read other less literary, but nonetheless well-regarded books published that year, like "The Kite Runner," "The Time Traveler's Wife," and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." Maybe the book that I missed that year that would've been the most useful to reassessing my opinion of "The Da Vinci Code" was Lynn Truss's humorous take on grammar, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves."
Reading the book as an adult, I couldn't wrap my mind around the success of the book. Presumably, many of the adults who kept "Da Vinci Code" a bestseller for 20 weeks in 2003 and well into 2004 had read some of these books, or really any book not for sale at the supermarket, and decided to look past the truly awful quality of the writing because of . . . the plotting?
Let me remind ("He reminded…") anyone who hasn't picked the book up in several decades, the plot is . . . also bad. Spoilers ahead. An art curator is murdered in the Louvre. With his dying breath, he leaves a long, long trail of clues to lead his granddaughter to her long-lost grandmother in order to find out *gasp* that she's a descendent of Jesus Christ and that her grandfather and his freaky sex cult have been hiding her! Robert Langdon, our everyman hero, but also an expert in . . . symbols . . . is enlisted to solve the "historical" and "challenging" riddles along the way. For instance, Langdon determines that the code to open the first safe is . . . the granddaughter's first name! Revealing that inside that safe is a slightly smaller safe. Riveting.
This isn't a knock on Dan Brown, or at least this isn't his greatest fault. He built a clumsy labyrinth based on half-heard conspiracy theories, well known hoaxes, and misunderstood speculation that came up in his most cursory of research to form the basis for a very modest pulpy thriller. He initially described the book as just "an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate." Many authors have made more money doing less.
What confused me is how "The Da Vinci Code" became a cultural phenomenon in its own right, even transcending Dan Brown himself. Take "Harry Potter," for instance. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a primer on traditional English magic practices with any of your friends' copies of "Harry Potter." Of course "Harry Potter" spun up a cottage industry of its own, but these were all dedicated to the world J.K. Rowling built, not the one she referenced. If "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" didn't feature the guy's name in the title (and a very liberal writing credit to J.K.), there would have been as much interest in it as in any "Harry Potter" fan fiction, which is to say, marginal and within a very specific community of "Harry Potter" fans. Yet the lowercase "Da Vinci code" became a standalone icon – the very idea that the art and institutions around us are filled with clues that have secret meanings (look at the eye on the dollar bill!). Dan Brown was just a cipher. He revealed that everything was connected, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton to Jesus Christ (to the Illuminati, *gasp*, in the prequel), in a huge global conspiracy that is actively being covered up by the Catholic Church.
This idea was so pervasive that it overshadowed any attempts at objectivity. It didn't matter that "The Da Vinci Code" was actually Dan Brown's fourth book (not including the Boomer humor marriage books he wrote with his ex-wife), with themes generally including conspiracies, shadowy organizations, assassins, and sometimes aliens. It didn't matter that Dan Brown had none of the qualifications of his surrogate, Harvard University professor of "symbology," and had in fact been making children's music prior to his big success. It didn't matter that expert after expert chimed in, disputing every element of Christianity, art, history, and even some very easily verifiable geography. We still bought into the idea that Dan Brown's book revealed some sort of truth.
It appears that there were two drivers at work here: the first was great marketing. Dan Brown wrote "The Da Vinci Code" on the basis of some interesting idea he'd maybe heard or read in a conspiracy book that fit neatly within whatever thriller plot was already boiling in his brain. It's nothing more than what Michael Crichton has done dozens of times (although "Jurassic Park" was more likely to lead a younger reader into a STEM career than to spark a manhunt for the secret lab where scientists are cloning dinosaurs). At some point during the burgeoning success of the book, however, the marketing team at the publisher decided it would be more lucrative to lean into the demonstrably false idea that maybe, just maybe the tiniest amount of actual research had gone into validating any of the "historical" elements underlying the plot. I think this probably resonated with Dan Brown himself, who now started telling reporters that "the background [of the book] is all true," including all the secret societies and rituals, and that "The Da Vinci Code" could nearly stand alone as a piece of nonfiction.
The second element that catapulted "The Da Vinci Code" was the advent of Google. By 2003, the internet had made its way into the majority of American homes, and I would imagine that a Venn diagram of "The Da Vinci Code" readers crossed with internet users had very little space outside of the union. Additionally, by 2003 Google was quickly becoming "the internet," with 200 million searches conducted every day by the time of its highly anticipated IPO in 2004. Google transformed our relationship with the published word. What was once the domain of research experts was now public domain. Anyone could investigate any topic to their heart's content. Simultaneously, what had once needed to pass through layers of gatekeeping (editors, publishers, etc.) could now be posted for millions to read with the click of a button. Due to the workings of mysterious algorithms, that self-published diatribe may be presented on the front page of Google search results, alongside other works of known and unknown repute. Not only was it hard to tell the difference, but older generations coming to the internet didn't have the learned skepticism of my generation, who were constantly reminded that Wikipedia was not a reliable source. And so Joe Public gained the resources of the experts without the critical eye and training.
The reader no longer needed to rely on the experts to determine whether the book was a gimmick (and maybe couldn't trust the experts either, if the conspiracies are correct!). The reader could go to Google and find articles of undetermined quality and unverified accuracy in order to form their own opinion. The ultimate genius of "The Da Vinci Code" wasn't in its bad writing or its poor plotting; it was in the book's ability to allow the reader to LARP being an investigator and religious scholar to uncover arcane knowledge that "they" don't want you to know. This intent was further evidenced by the Internet forum ready codes and puzzles hidden within the book dust jacket itself, and was further validated by the Google-led cross-promotional "WebQuest" advertising campaign designed for the movie.
The QAnon phenomen has frequently been referenced as a bad Dan Brown plot. In fact, it is more than that; it is exactly a Dan Brown plot, where dumb and obvious codes are meant to mimic intellectualism. Like "The Da Vinci Code" readers, QAnoners don't want to feel like they're being told what to believe, especially not by a media that would have to be complicit for the conspiracy to be true in the first place. Instead, they use the critical thinking espoused by Dan Brown, which is that veracity can be defined by the existence and confirmation of sources, rather than the credibility of sources. This time, our parents aren't going to Google to sleuth for political sex cults, at least not initially. They're finding their information on Twitter and Facebook, the modern bastions for fantasy "confirmation bias" bait that corroborates what they already know, which is that conspiracies can be found if you're "woke" to them and "savvy" enough to disregard obvious truths. By the time their heart-racing hunt leads to Google, it doesn't matter that they're only finding references within references to since deleted forum posts or Alex Jones videos about lizard people, they've already gotten the dopamine rush of being in the know, of solving the challenging, obscure puzzle.
Unfortunately, the stakes are now quite larger than a book series outperforming the skill of its writer. A person who is just mildly receptive to the QAnon ideology may find themselves disillusioned with their inability to reconcile fact and fiction, leaving them further exposed to dishonest charges of "fake news" and unable to trust any subject matter expert who has dedicated their career to approaching as closely as possible to an objective truth. Whereas a QAnon enthusiast may become further entrenched in a destructive fantasy far removed from any shared reality, a vicious cycle that alienates them from anyone with an opposing viewpoint.
I am by no means suggesting that Dan Brown is exclusively responsible for problems inherent to the Age of Misinformation. However, the parallels between "The Da Vinci Code" and QAnon are hard to overlook. It's high past time, looking at my collector's edition Mickey Mouse wristwatch that had been a gift from my parents on my tenth birthday (as mentioned every 10 pages of "The Da Vinci Code"), for Dan Brown to make a statement.
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