Friday, July 24, 2009

Reading "Angels and Demons"

The book club we have at Holy Trinity will be discussing "Angels and Demons" in October. As a result, I couldn't simply take presvytera's warning that it is not a well-written book; I had to see it for myself. This post started out as a Facebook status and evolved through several comments. I'll try to expand on that a bit.

For starters, I am treating "Angels and Demons" as what it is - a work of fiction. With that in mind, I don't mind historical conjecture, reality-stretching, and even the occasional questionable belief or practice that would seem to be espoused by the author. In other words, I don't mind make-believe. I mind badly written make-believe. My current favorite example in that vein is Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I may not always agree with the way certain aspects of our lives are reflected and analyzed in Discworld. However, he actually develops characters, has good story lines, interesting plot twists... And he's just one example of a contemporary author who, in my opinion, turns plot into good book repeatedly.

A friend of mine made two comments. The first was about the portrayal of Italians and sex. I have to confess that I have not seen much of that so far (a bit over half-way through the book) - maybe it comes later, maybe it relates more to the DaVinci Code, I don't know. So far, the only even remotely sex-related intrigue consists of some rather puerile attempts at making the Langdon-Vesta whatever it is into a love interest. The whole attempt seems formulaic and trite, but fortunately it doesn't (up to this point) take up too much of the book.

The second comment referred to Mr. Brown's political inclinations and how they affect the book. As I hinted above, I don't think religious/political inclinations are necessarily deleterious to the quality of a book. I can disagree with ideas but still find a book good. This one just isn't. From the stand point of the writing itself, employing the same "cliff hanging" device to switch from one tableau to another becomes tiresome after, oh, the fifth time. Rather than tension-building anticipation, this becomes annoying interruption, especially since, if you're paying attention, you should be able to figure out what comes next in the story. Perhaps I am too picky, but I expect ingenuity in a book; not just in the plot, but in the way that plot is transferred unto the page.

My final comment about the writing is that good writing creates characters. There's something interesting - perhaps intriguing would be an even better word - in a character. Over the course of a story you tend to find out more about a character, watch the character develop (positively or negatively)... you may even get to a point where you start hoping the character makes certain choices and decisions. So far, at least to me, that is missing almost entirely in the book. To put this in terms of my former occupation, it feels rather like a race in which several machines (with competing goals programmed in) take place. It may make for interesting action, but not for a good book.

And I did reserve my final comment about the book to the research and thinking processes that went into writing it. There was a page and a half towards the middle of the book that, as an Orthodox priest and occasional user of logic, made me just scratch my head. In that page and a half space, Langdon claims that the Church got its idea of God-eating/Communion from the Aztecs. Um... because the Church, in its goal to keep everything secret, hid the fact that America had been discovered until Columbus got there? Followed right on its heels by the claim that the depiction of God as an old man with a long beard was inspired by the depiction of Zeus. That depiction in itself is rather new and Western in nature. The early Christians - in particular the Greeks who would have been most familiar with that representation - did not use it. The fact remains that (despite a number of unfortunate uses of the "new" representation in some churches) the only valid/canonical representation of the Trinity in the Orthodox Church remains an extrapolation of the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, where the three angels who visited Abraham are taken to be a representation of the Trinity. There were other howlers to be noted, but I think I've given my frustrations in reading this book enough of a voice. I can only hope that, as was the case when we read "The Shack," that the discussion will be better than the book.