I have read all of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books, of which origin is the recent. Origin is a fully standalone tale, with no impact or characters carried over from its prequels.
After his last outing with Inferno, which gave us a tour of Italy and explored Dante’s Divine Comedy, Brown is back with the Mickey Mouse-watch wearing Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon.
Amidst the highly positive reviews of Dan Brown’s latest bestseller “Origin”, shadows of denigrating criticism are also floating around. It appears Brown’s critics are flexing their wit in who does the better job at deriding the book as a whole.
Disparaging reviews allude to the book’s language, narrative style, characters, and composition, topped by acrid remarks in regards to historical and cultural references, acquired from “cheap”, all-available online sources, like Wikipedia and dictionary.com. Australian writer, Beejay Silcox even labeled the novel as “Wikipedia infected”.
Obviously, Dan Brown is not Michel Butor, Julio Cortazar, or Charles Bukowski. And yet Brown is the best selling author of all times, running his own show within his own genre and its in-built aesthetics, attributed to a thriller, a mystery novel, or a mix of various types of fiction. Let’s leave standards for “high” poetics out, for in reference to Brown’s thrillers they are simply irrelevant.
Here to Fore
For eons of times, humanity has been trying to find questions to these fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? At the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Spain, computer genius, futurist and billionaire, Edmond Kirsch, is going to unveil his groundbreaking theory of the origin and destiny of humanity.
One of the invitees is Harvard Professor of symbology, Robert Langdon. Edmond Kirsch happens to be his friend and a former student.
However, Kirsch’s meticulously arranged avant-garde style presentation explodes into pandemonium as Kirsch gets brutally murdered. Edmond’s video file, saved on his cell phone, is encrypted. World’s powerful guardians of the status quo will stop at nothing to keep their established worldview and the order of things rock-solid.
Robert Langdon embarks on perilous quest to find the device and release to humanity what his friend died for.
One of the main characters, Winston, is not even human and yet runs through the very end like a vital generator of this mesmerizing show of suspense.
As spiraling events unfold, the author escorts us to cultural landmarks of Spain: Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Antoni Gaudi’s cathedral “La Sagrada Familia”, famous Montserrat Abbey, and the rest. Religious symbols, historical flashbacks, William Blake, and modern art also have a lot to tell and the role to play.
In this novel, Dan Brown enacts deeply archetypal topics. Controversial and thought provoking, they bring up from the depth of what Carl Jung termed “Collective Unconscious” universal archetypes. We all want to know who we really are and in what direction we head as we evolve technologically.
These are global, ontological, or existential questions. But “Origin” has its epistemological aspect as well. How does technology redefine a post-modern civilization in terms of getting hold of information?
With Origin, Brown’s story is exploring the two existential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Protagonist and maverick scientist and researcher, Edmond Kisrch, who also happens to be a former student of Robert Langdon, has an important announcement to make. This announcement, according to him has the power “to not only shake, but shatter the very foundations of modern day religions”. The grand reveal is supposed to happen inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. If you have read Brown novels, you already know what is going to happen during the grand announcement.
Now, about the story the story. I felt there were slightly too many threads of the narrative to be juggled in the latter half; it could have been simplified a bit, to eliminate some supporting characters who have virtually nothing to do, but were clearly dear to the author. It happens. It’s not a big deal.
One of the best bits about The Da Vinci Code was the fact that it jumped straight into action. Every few chapters had some code that needed to be unlocked and it held your interest. In Origin, for the first 100 odd pages, Brown is just building the nut graph before coming to the actual point. As you are reading the book, you know that the revelation cannot happen so soon but the alternative narrative you have in its place seems more like a drag, than the taut quest that was experienced in The Da Vinci Code and even Angels and Demons. This book could have easily been a 100 pages shorter. And, as is expected, just when Kirsch is about to make the major announcement, he is shot to death. It is then up to Langdon and museum director, Ambra Vidal, the token smart beautiful female side-kick that is a hallmark of all Langdon featuring novels, to join the pieces of the puzzle and ensure Kirsch’s discovery is presented to the world.
There are essentially four main questions. The primary question is used to perfectly and relentlessly taunt the reader along the way, and really pulls you through the story. Ultimately, the resolution feels like it doesn’t quite deliver on its dramatic promise, but it’s intellectually satisfying — if a bit over-egged during the opening 90% of the book. The first half of the question is answered more completely than the second. Both prompt further thought once you’ve finished, probably more so than any of the other Langdon books.
Of the remaining three reveals, one was entirely tangential and inconsequential to the story, completely un-telegraphed, happens around the 98% mark, and left me with a “Huh. Well… that’s nice, I suppose.” reaction. It felt like a box-ticking exercise in terms of liberal values, and I wonder if it was perhaps shoehorned-in quite late in the writing process. It doesn’t detract from the story at all; it just seemed like an unnecessary additional poke at certain conservative values. I think that in this book, Brown sees himself less as Langdon, and more as the other primary male character whose name you’ll hear every couple of pages.
The remaining two reveals are the classic “Who is the mysterious mastermind?” type, and I’ll be honest: I’m not the right person to assess how well they were done.
I knew exactly who was behind it all from within a couple of scenes of their first proper introduction in the story, purely because of the structure of the setup. Maybe you will, too, and maybe you won’t — but the journey is the thing, and Brown keeps that particular secret until literally the dying pages of the whole book. I still very much enjoyed waiting to have my conclusion confirmed. Langdon’s reaction to it is done very well, and in fairness there was no particular way for him to have made the deduction earlier.
Segmentation of the Novel
I was surprised to see that ORIGIN still needs a polishing edit. There’s at least one typo which constitutes a minor logical error, and various small awkwardness of style, especially repeated phrases within close proximity. There are also the tell-tale signs of scene-reordering without another due editing pass, such as successive chapters beginning in the same way. There’s also a minor error of procedural likelihood near the end. None of these detracted from my enjoyment, but I noticed them and I was surprised. It’s fine, but it’s not quite up to the editing standard of a book from a world-famous author with big-time publishers. I don’t expect any changes in future editions, though, the typo notwithstanding.
Authors Writing Style
ORIGIN is the ultimate expression of Dan’s liking for wide chapters, because there are only a handful of chapter breaks in the entire book. Few chapters are more than six to eight pages, and are commonly only one to three. You get used to it quickly. I wonder if it was to pad the page-count a bit, though, which is around 450 in hardback.
Brown has smartly incorporated every element in the book, which will lend itself well to a movie adaptation. Although unlike his previous work, the scale is limited to Spain. One is given tours of the Barca modernism favourites constructed by the genius Antoni Gaudi. Casa Mila aka La Pedrera and La Basilica de Sagrada Familia are prominently featured. Their architecture, which incorporates biomimetic design and the unconventional methods of Gaudi finds a resonance with the maverick researcher Kirsch.
As with most of his books, you will emerge smarter, thanks to the historical nuggets of information that are sprinkled throughout the book. Brown touches everyone from poet William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche to artists such as Joan Miro and architect Antoni Gaudi to the finer nuances of modern day artificial intelligence. But I would have loved the book if the delivery was a bit less Wikipedia-esque. Brown dedicates a good 20-25 pages to the ultimate announcement that was supposed to be given by Kirsch before being shot.
Character development is tepid. Yes, you have the smart and beautiful female protagonist in the form of Ambra Vidal, the director of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, who is also engaged to the Prince of Spain no less. Vidal is overseeing the announcement by Kirsch, which goes horribly wrong and sets into motion a series of events. The conflicted Prince Julian derives little sympathy, even though you know that he is being played to the whims of his adviser – Bishop Antonio Valdespino. Valdespino also happens to be one of the three religious heads with whom Kirsch consults before he decides to go public with his announcement and is representative of orthodox Christianity. The assassin has at least some semblance when it comes to a convincing back story. It’s 2017 and there can’t be a Brown book without featuring the current day technology. So the footage given to the AI assistant, Winston, is significant and that makes sense when seen from the plot angle. Although, at times it seems a tad too convenient. Imagine Winston as a 10th or 15th generation of Siri or Alexa or Cortana or Assistant.
Reaction to the book
ORIGIN shows that, even in the absence of much of the paraphernalia of ANGELS AND DEMONS and THE DA VINCI CODE, Robert Langdon can still get himself into an enjoyable bit of trouble.
Origin has a lot less action when compared to Brown’s previous books. Even the antagonist isn’t as layered as one would expect. But Brown has tried his best to keep up with the times, using AI and a ‘Wikileaks-type’ conspiracy website to take the narrative forward.
The Da Vinci Code, this is not. Angels and Demons, this is not. Hell, even Deception Point, this is not. As a Brown fans, this is a good one-time read.
What can you expect?
If you’re a Dan Brown fan, or like chase/mystery thrillers, you’ll enjoy ORIGIN. I wasn’t hugely keen on THE LOST SYMBOL, but I felt that INFERNO was a return to form. ORIGIN has the same feel, though it diverges from the formula in several ways that ultimately don’t detract from the story. It’s as Brownian as it can be without technically following the template of ancient riddles and codes, of which there are none; this is a story set firmly in the modern world. The reader’s experience is nonetheless the same, which is exactly what I was looking for.