Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
read by Richard Poe
I read in fits and snatches of time; ten minutes at breakfast here, twenty minutes at the doctor here, a glorious half-hour before bed. So whenever I have huge swaths of time to plunge into a book, it sticks with me. The Da Vinci Code was one such experience, back in the Wombat Years. I must have been twelve or thirteen, slowly wobbling towards bibliophilia. My mother had either borrowed from or been given the book by a friend. It had been left out with the rest of the books that swamped the house, so I nicked it and sequestered myself in my absent brother’s room during a rainstorm. I remember that reading very fondly. It was one of the first times I grabbed a great fistful of time for myself with a purpose.
Pity I didn’t spend it on a better book.
We’ve soured on the symbologist techno-thriller in recent years, haven’t we? There was a few years in the aughts where you couldn’t get away from the things—between the years that The Da Vinci Code became a bestseller and then a film, National Treasure became, well, the kind of film Americans watch on the Fourth of July to get pumped. (Optional alternative viewing: the last edition of “Get In the Cage”, featuring Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage and the actual Nicolas Cage.) It was the briefest of cultural moments, but it was enough for Dan Brown to become one of the most successful novelists of our times through The Da Vinci Code. Naturally, the sales of his other books increased, which is probably how I read Angels and Demons in the first place. I remember being exactly the kind of child who would pride herself on being able to say, “Well, his first novel is better,” when anyone mentioned The Da Vinci Code within five yards of me. (I was a particularly insufferable child.)
Angels and Demons is the first outing of Brown’s Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. Summoned in the middle of the night to investigate the brutal murder of a CERN physicist, Langdon discovers that an enormous amount of antimatter has been stolen. The calling card is that of the supposedly defunct Illuminanti, who want to use the antimatter to destroy Vatican City during the current Papal election. When the physicist’s daughter, Vittoria, joins forces with Langdon, they travel to the Vatican to find the antimatter and thwart the Illuminanti. But how can they succeed when the Illuminanti are always one step ahead?
Thrillers, especially those who hew more baldly to a formula than others, are not exactly my cup of tea. However, around the time I was listening to this on audiobook, I saw The Hunt for Red October, which is an argument against my distaste. Despite its quiet nature, it manages to make the more traditional aspects of a thriller hit home by humanizing its characters. Ramius is parting ways with the Soviet Union and Jack Ryan is just trying to follow orders, even if he’s being asked to step outside his comfort zone. In fact, Ryan is handled particularly well, with enough flaws and back story to explain exactly why he’s the man for the job.
My main problem with Angels and Demons and, indeed, the whole Robert Langdon series, is Robert Langdon himself. Obviously, if you don’t like him, you’re not going to read about him, unless you’re a masochist like me who can’t put down a book (or audiobook). As Dan Brown himself says, “There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else.” To each their own and all that. But, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Robert Langdon is the protagonist of this novel.
A lot of this may be riffing the audiobook while doing chores, but I quickly came to the conclusion that Bobby (as I christened him) really isn’t that helpful. The symbology in the book is engaging, if occasionally dubious, but this guy’s only qualifications for “man of action” are his degree and the fact that he’s a runner. Watching Bobby slide into action as if he’s blessed with the Frankenstein’s Monster-esque physique of Daniel Craig as Bond is such a stretch that it utterly broke the suspension of disbelief for me. Ex-Marine CIA analysts struggling to execute maneuvers they once knew by heart? Believable. Bobby proclaiming everything in melodramatic tones and fighting off trained assassins? Not believable.
That’s exacerbated by Vittoria existing anywhere near him, since she’s infinitely more interesting, invested, and qualified than he is. I mean, she’s an expert in yoga and a scientist who works with whales out to avenge the death of her father. She’s the kind of woman who wears shorts into the Vatican and makes good, quick decisions. Of course, she’s captured by the mysterious assassin, who wants to rape and murder her at the same time, because that raises the stakes for Bobby, whose emotions are more important. I’ll have you know that manpain must be left at the door when one visits the Literary Omnivore.
I think a lot of my reaction is probably just burn out on books that don’t take their characters seriously, be they of any genre. Langdon is only the hero of the story because the narrative is telling us he is, and the artifice of that is what makes supposedly fun, turn-off-your-brain books such a slog for me. The rest is a poor reaction to the audiobook’s narrator, Richard Poe, who coats everything in gritty, melodramatic tones. I imagined Bobby as a shorter Clint Eastwood, given his (and everyone else’s) growling, guttural voices.
Bottom line: Angels and Demons is one of those supposedly fun, turn-off-your-brain books that are just a slog for me: thin characters, telling instead of showing, and one unbelievable protagonist. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.