November 04, 2004

Dan Brown still moving very briskly about

Despite having endured the pain of reading The Da Vinci Code (I wrote about it here), I have to confess to the (doubtless very surprised) readers of Language Log that I have been reading another Dan Brown novel. Only this time, with a purpose: I was invited to contribute a short piece about the use of language in Angels and Demons for a forthcoming companion book, Secrets of Angels and Demons: The Unauthorized Guide to the Best-Selling Novel (ed. by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer, CDS Books, due to be published on December 1, 2005).

Dan actually wrote and published Angels and Demons earlier than The Da Vinci Code, in 2000 — it was re-released to enjoy a new life after Code made him a literary superstar. (He surely is; he is selling so many books now that he need never work again.) Angels and Demons is by no means a disappointment for those seeking a feast of ill-chosen word combinations, unintendedly bizarre similes, unnoticed self-contradictions, and occasional good old-fashioned sentence-mangling. In fact my only disappointment has been that in the 2,000 words I'm allowed for my article I simply can't use all the choice examples that I amassed in my notes as I went through the book. But I could share a few with you here from time to time, if you'd like. Would you like that?

Most of the cases I dropped from the article are a bit more subtle than the ones I kept in. There are some crashing failures of ear, for example. When Vittoria Vetra learns of the death of the adoptive father who nurtured her interest in science, Dan Brown writes:

Genius, she thought. My father . . . Dad. Dead.

"Dad. Dead." Just as one should be feeling her pain, one winces instead at the ineptness of the jingle created by these two phonetically similar adjacent monosyllables. But it's hard to explain that to someone who just doesn't see it.

And it is harder still to explain briefly one utterly unintended literary allusion that made me smile. I didn't attempt to do it in the published piece for the book, but let me try and explain it to you. Early in the novel, Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor of religious symbology, has been whisked across the Atlantic to visit CERN, the great high-energy physics research laboratory near Geneva, and is shown into the main lobby. Dan Brown writes:

A handful of scientists moved briskly about, their footsteps echoing in the resonant space.

Now, you might see nothing wrong with that. But "moving briskly about" is a cliché, and it immediately put me in mind of another place I had seen it. In the 1950s, Stephen Potter produced a set of four or five inimitably British books on "gamesmanship" and its extension into everyday life, "lifemanship". They were mock-serious how-to books in rather academic style, purporting to tell you how to be one up on everyone else you came in contact with, whether in games and sports or in ordinary social interaction. A whole imaginary world was created: a headquarters and college at Yeovil in Somerset, and a slew of imaginary expert one-uppers: Gattling-Fenn, Pinson, Odoreida, Carraway, Offset, Brood (and sometimes one or two real people slipped in amongst them; for example, Potter's hardback publisher appears as "R. Hart Davis"). Potter catalogs minutely and hilariously their subtle techniques for making other people (including each other) feel socially at a disadvantaged. Often those techniques are linguistic.

In Some Notes on Lifemanship (Rupert Hart Davis, 1950; Penguin paperback 1962) Potter speaks of "that great Lifeman Harry Gattling-Fenn, and his opening remarks": Gattling's remarks were designed to make people uneasy, to create "distrust, uncertainty, and broken flow" in conversations:

Gattling seemed permanently in the off-guard position. It was only by his opening remarks, his power of creating a sense of dis-ease, that one realized, as one used to say of him, that Gattling was always in play.

To a young person, for instance, who came to visit him he would say, genially of course, "Sit you down." Why was this putting off? Was it the tone? Then if the young man nervously took out a cigarette he would say, "Well, if you're smoking, I will."

He would say, "You want a wash, I expect," in a way which suggested that he had spotted two dirty fingernails. To people on the verge of middle age he would say, "You're looking very fit and young." To a definitely older man, of his still older wife he would comment that he was glad she "was still moving very briskly about."

The remark was of course intended to be deeply unsettling if not shattering: to say of someone that they are "moving very briskly about" implies that they are extraordinarily old and infirm, and it is a wonder they can even take a step without their walker. It simply isn't something you would normally say about ordinary people who have a spring in their step, or about scientists walking from one office to another in the foyer of a research center. It's a wonderful example of Dan Brown's knack for coming up with exactly the phrase not to use.

I'll post a few more of these little points that occurred to me from time to time. Or not: if you don't want to see any more, just think negative thoughts. I can't actually pick them up myself, but luckily I have a telepathic parrot who can.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 4, 2004 05:35 PM