On Why I Read Dan Brown’s “Origin”: Or My Adventures as a Consumer of Best-Selling Drivel

So I was recently having dinner with a best-selling writer—a bit of literary socializing before said writer gave a reading on our campus—and we had reached the point of small-talk detailing what books we’d been reading. This is often the moment in which it’s de rigueur to cite some obscure 18th century Japanese masterpiece or latest international gem such as Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (which is what said visiting writer mentioned).

I shocked the table by confessing I’d recently read Dan Brown’s Origin. Two of the women were quite simply aghast (a cool word I don’t get to use as often as I’d like). One asked, “You didn’t pay for it, did you?” (The book was No. 1 on the NY Times’s Best-Seller list when I read it, and yes, I did purchase an ebook.) Another woman seemed personally offended I would read such a thing, as if I’d confessed to having intercourse with a pig (consider Black Mirror’s notorious  ”The National Anthem” episode). She also maintained that she would not read such a book for fear of it contaminating her own prose. To which I say, “Well, la-dee-da.”

Their outrage at my having read Origin—or any other book, for that matter—smacks of literary snobbism and a lack of intellectual curiosity. It also seems rather funny, in a way: No, although I agree that Dan Brown’s prose can be laughably bad and flat-footed, I’m not afraid it contains some kind of bad-prose virus that might infect me, like the current flu going around (which on the contrary has).

So why did I read Origin? I was curious, for one thing. First I should mention I’ve read The Da Vinci Code, which I will defend with the backhanded observation: “It’s not as bad as the movie.” And I’ve read Inferno, which also involves technology run amok, and has some cleverness in its ending. Origin, in a similar key, promises a techno revelation, a scientific breakthrough of sorts, one that will “change the world,” and after which we’ll never be the same. I guessed rightly at least part of what that would entail, though I can’t say I received any satisfaction from that “guess,” as one does when you figure out the culprit of a murder mystery. Why not? The novel is so clumsy, half-baked, and slipshod that by the end, I was wondering much the same as my dinner companions, only with less literary snobbishness. Without giving everything away (granted: that doesn’t really matter), I’ll just summarize the ending of the novel as suggesting Computers are powerful and important. Yes, they are. And no doubt A.I. will continue to expand and affect our technology and our culture. But not in the silly, overhyped way Brown imagines. He seems a bit dim on how digital culture is affecting the world, and at one point imagines a world in which most of the population is glued to their gadgets 24/7. Some people certainly are, but not everyone. The whole plot line is too meaningless to explain, but I will mention my favorite character was Winston (named after Churchill), a kind of A.I. male (but do computers have gender? can they go trans?) who steals the show from the “human” characters who seem like badly stitched together  mouthpieces for fairly humdrum “ideas.”

Ah well. Ultimately I’ll defend my lively literary curiosity to read such books, but Origin was, as my dinner companions guessed without reading it, pretty awful. Spectacularly? No. I’m sure there are many worse, that I just haven’t read yet. (I’ll try to get around to them soon!) It was just awful. Which makes me wonder about many of the novels on the best-seller lists: It’s an achievement we (writers) all yearn for, but often the books on the list are considered “awful” in one way or the other. One observation: Origin, in keeping with most of the other Dan Brown books I’ve read (at least I can make statement with some kind of authority, as opposed to those who think these best-sellers are so beneath them that they refuse to peek inside the pages), is 1) easy to understand, 2) fast-paced, and 3) comforting, ultimately, in its vision of a digital future. We should all be so lucky.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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