November 07, 2004

Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence

I promised to supply here from time to time a few more of the points about Dan Brown's writing that I didn't have space to talk about in the article I contributed to Secrets of Angels and Demons. So here's one. It is truly strange that Dan Brown began his first novel with exactly the same construction that made the opening of his better-known The Da Vinci Code so weird.

I can be quite precise about the description of that construction: an occupational term is used with no determiner as a bare role NP premodifier of a proper name. (The name is borne, moreover, by a elderly Catholic man speaking a Romance language, who has just suffered an excruciatingly painful attack and will be dead within a quarter of an hour.) This odd formula makes the openings of Dan Brown's two novels about Catholic skullduggery eerily similar. Here's the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code (which I wrote about before):

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.

And here's the first sentence of Angels and Demons:

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

This use of a person's name preceded by the name of a job, without a preceding article (an anarthrous NP, as we grammarians say when chatting with our own kind in the secretive cabals that we sometimes hold) is odd because occupational descriptions like "fertilizer salesman" aren't normally used as titles. "Cardinal" is a title; selling fertilizer is merely a job. It is true that noun phrases like fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson are found in newspaper articles (in fact John Cowan points out to me that it is a well-known feature of the style associated with Time magazine), but I have never yet found anyone but Dan Brown using this construction to open a work of fiction. The construction sounds to me like the opening of an obituary rather than an action sequence. It's not ungrammatical; it just has the wrong feel and style for a novel.

I didn't really begin to worry about Dan being stuck in a rut, though, until I took a look at the first chapter of yet another of his novels, Deception Point, which is reproduced at the end of Angels and Demons as an advertisement, and found the same construction used yet again right at the beginning of the first chapter, albeit with one short sentence preceding it:

Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.

Once again the strange anarthrous use of an occupational noun. And of course, Geologist Charles Brophy is dead meat. The simple fact is that if you are ever mentioned on page 1 of a Dan Brown novel you will be mentioned with an anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier ("Renowned linguist Geoff Pullum staggered across the savage splendor of the forsaken Santa Cruz campus, struggling to remove the knife plunged unnaturally into his back by a barbarous millionaire novelist"), and you will have died a painful and horrible death by page 2, along with several curiously ill-chosen clichés and mangled idioms.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 7, 2004 06:08 PM