At the peak of Dan Brown’s popularity, Deception Point was probably the novel of his that intrigued me the most, even more than The Da Vinci Code. However, while it is not the worst pop-fiction you will read, it is certainly not among the best.
Think back if you can to those heady days of 2003 when everyone who was talking about books was talking about The Da Vinci Code, both in enthusiastic praise and vitriolic frustration. Those were also the days of large bookseller chains whose mid-city stores were as large as some department stores. And they stocked the Dan Brown quartet – The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, Digital Fortress and Deception Point – in stacked piles and full shelves. Struggling independent book stores, where the true book lovers browse, certainly did not display Dan Brown prominently and were not proud to stock him at all though they could not afford not to.
Those chain stores have all but disappeared, damaged by the GFC but ultimately defeated by Amazon. While the independent stores are enjoying a new era of clientele who still prefer browsing without a browser, enjoy the weight and texture of paper to the synthetic heat of powered plastic and glass, and don’t necessarily miss the chain store discounts or are tempted to deal with Amazon.
But the old days were not so long ago that I don’t remember them. I would hedge between the chain stores and independent sellers. I’d go to the independent stores to browse in the hope I may find a gem or at least discover a book or author I had never heard of before, willing to pay a bit more for the ambience, the range of stock and the excellent knowledge of the staff. I’d go to the chain stores not to browse, but only to pick up something I knew was readily available for a price that couldn’t be beat.
As for Brown, I was fond of saying that if it were not for the deafening buzz around The Da Vinci Code, and I had to pick one of his four novels to read, I would probably pick Deception Point. Compared to a historical conspiracy story (The Da Vinci Code), a power-play at the Vatican (Angels and Demons) or a security threat to the NSA (Digital Fortress), Deception Point sounded like a much more interesting story than the rest. Although, at the time I was not aware of John Campbell’s novella, Who Goes There?, the story on which The Thing films were based. If I were, my interest might have been severely deflated.
A little strange that it ended up being the last one I read. But then again maybe not that strange.
I succumbed to the hype and read The Da Vinci Code first. Despite the clear flaws I have to admit I found it entertaining. I do not necessarily agree with those who say that fiction must commit to the same high level of integrity to historical or scientific fact as non-fiction. Obviously, good fiction will get the facts right and a story’s ability to get it right can be one criterion by which it is judged. But I would not deny a fiction writers right to speculate, alter or fudge the facts in pursuit of a good story. Again, if they get it very wrong, we can include that judgement in a consideration of the work as a whole. We should not forget that many classic novels have made errors of fact, but we seem to forgive this on the basis that the rest of the work is of a high quality. Also, plenty of non-fiction books are based on theses whose interpretation of facts do not survive criticism well, but again we are more forgiving because of the type of work it is and its objectives. It is the style of writing in The Da Vinci Code that I have the greatest problem with and it is probably that deficiency that makes the errors of fact harder to forgive.
I was given Digital Fortress as a birthday present at the height of the Brown buzz and read it not long after. Although I did not find it as entertaining as The Da Vinci Code, I found it better written. It is a shorter novel and has perhaps been edited better.
Say what you will about hype – deserved or not – it does give you extra motivation to read a work, even if you only want to qualify your derision of it. When that hype fades, so does your motivation. Life is too short to read books you suspect would not be worth your time.
As time went by and reflection set in, I lost any motivation to experience any more Dan Brown. In 2009, the news that a film of Angels and Demons was soon to be released nudged me reluctantly into second-hand book stores to grab a copy from their ample stock of discarded Brown’s. That same year The Guardian reported that Brown’s novels were the most frequently given away to charity shops. I’m picking EL James will be the next of note in that regard. I didn’t mind Angels and Demons, in some ways the story is more tightly controlled, better thought out, than The Da Vinci Code.
Despite the waning motivation, I could not forget my first impression that Deception Point sounded the most intriguing of the four and needing a light read while on holiday, I tracked down a second-hand copy of Deception Point and headed overseas.
In Deception Point, NASA scientists have discovered an object buried in Arctic ice. The meteorite, once extracted and analysed has the potential to be the greatest discovery of human history as it bears evidence of extraterrestrial life.
The American President, wary of another potential NASA error, dispatches Rachel Sexton to the Arctic to investigate the evidence first hand. Sexton is a trusted Intelligence Analyst, as well as the daughter of his biggest political rival, and her confirmation of the finding will be received as an objective assessment.
Though astonished, Sexton is quickly sold on the authenticity of the find. A little too quickly and with barely enough scepticism for a real investigator, but then she is no expert and is relying on the opinions of the non-NASA experts the President has sent in addition to her. Sexton is now ready to participate in a television address and testify to veracity of the find.
Almost as soon as it seems the matter is all sown up, the evidence supporting the find begins to unravel. Only now do Sexton and the non-NASA scientists display the scepticism you would have expected of them from the start. Now their lives are in danger from a Delta Force team under orders to prevent the escape of any information or anyone that may disprove the find.
But who ultimately is behind the fake meteorite? Is it the embattled President fighting for his political future? Senator Sexton, the President’s main opponent, and Rachel’s father, a fierce critic of NASA in favour of privatised space exploration? Is it Lawrence Ekstrom, the besieged NASA Administrator, fighting to secure the future of NASA and repay the President’s faith in the struggling organisation? Or Marjorie Tench, the President’s fiercely loyal aide, who is eagerly anticipating the impact this discovery will make towards destroying their opponent.
It is the answer to this question that is one of the weaknesses of the novel, because whichever way the conspiracy runs, there are no winners. The story does not deliver the satisfaction of seeing the good guys win and the world surviving to be a better place. Instead the fallout will be considerable. This alone would not necessarily make Deception Point a bad novel if the way the plot unravels is a part of the authors attempt to tell us something about corruption, mass deception, political machinations, accountability, integrity versus the greater good, the public versus private selves, etc. But it is not that kind of novel. Like any trashy pop-fiction, Deception Point is mostly about the plot. Powerful, arresting themes are non-existent and the characters are barely outlines; neither interesting, or relatable, and sometimes even cliché. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing for this type of novel, but without a satisfactory outcome it leaves little to enjoy.
There is much that could be said about Dan Brown’s ‘style’. Probably the aspect that annoys me the most is where he keeps repeating himself:
‘Two weeks ago,’ the President said, locking eyes with her, ‘NASA made a discovery.’
The words hung a moment in the air before Rachel could process them. A NASA discovery?
‘Suppose, Rachel, that I told you NASA has just made a discovery of such scientific importance… such earth-shattering significance… that it validated every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?’
Rachel could not imagine.
The President stood up. ‘Let’s take a walk, shall we?’
Rachel followed the President Herney out onto the glistening gangway of Air Force One. As they descended the stairs, Rachel felt the bleak March air clearing her mind. Unfortunately, clarity only made the President’s claims seem more outlandish than before.
NASA made a discovery of such scientific importance that it validates every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?
The italics are not mine by the way, they are in the text. Neither are the italicised pieces of dialogue, rather they are the characters thoughts. Brown’s intention in the repetition is probably to add emphasis but it just makes the reader feel like the author is assuming they are too slow to follow the obvious in his text. The character comes off a little dim as well.
Deception Point is not great pop-fiction. That it is still far from the worst is no compliment either. Of Dan Brown’s early quartet it is probably the hardest to get through, with the same weaknesses in writing of the others and, in the end, the least satisfying too.