I recently came up with an idea for a conspiracy theory thriller novel, so I read these two famous examples of the genre (plus Richard Condon's 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, which isn't as good as the 1962 movie version, but is better than the 2004 remake).
I'm inclined to believe that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is an intentional attempt to dumb down for a mass audience Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. This 1989 bestseller (although hardly on the same scale as TDVC, which has sold at least 40 million copies) tells of three bored editors at a vanity publishing house who synthesize the occult manuscripts submitted by pay-to-publish cranks into the ultimate conspiracy theory amalgamating every obsession of European crackpottery for the last 600 years, only to have the authors come to believe the editors really do know the secret of the Knights Templar and pursue them murderously to get it.
Eco, for example, is a "professor of semiotics" while Brown's hero Robert Langdon is a "professor of symbology." And the subject matter of the books overlap: Knights Templar, Masons, Mary Magdalene as Mrs. Jesus Christ, Rosicrucians, etc.. Of course, Eco's treatment of these hermeneutic obsessions is brilliantly ironic while Brown's is credulous.
On the other hand, it's clear from trudging my way through The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown doesn't so much understand the common mind as have the common mind. I've never read a less confidence-inspiring author, one who radiates so obviously that he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. It's not just the clunky prose style -- that's forgivable in well-informed authors like James Michener and Tom Clancy -- it's the small mistakes of fact and judgment that pop up every couple of pages in the narration. It's impossible to take the giant conspiracy theories seriously when he gets so many little things wrong.
After reading The Da Vinci Code, the campaign by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to rename the anti-religious as "brights" (on the model of how homosexuals got themselves renamed "gays") seems particularly hilarious.
Umberto Eco, on the other hand, turns out to be a fine fellow, much more admirable than you'd expect a European postmodernist academic to be. "Foucault's Pendulum," which is named after the 19th Century physicist rather than the 20th Century philosopher, is an immensely long book (I confess to having skimmed some of the later sections without feeling shortchanged), but Eco has his head squarely on his shoulders.
Toward the end, Eco's narrator sums up the kind of thinking underlying the popularity of The Da Vinci Code:
A plot, if there is to be one, must be a secret. A secret that, if we only knew it, would dispel our frustration, lead us to salvation; or else the knowing of it in itself would be salvation. Does such a luminous secret exist?
Yes, provided it is never known. Known, it will only disappoint us. Hadn't Aglie spoken of the yearning for mystery that stirred the age of the Antonines [second century AD Rome]? Yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right worlds at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of win into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle? ... And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp -- do-it-yourself salvation -- turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge, of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
Someone -- Rubinstein, maybe -- once said, when asked if he believed in God: "Oh, no, I believe ... in something much bigger." And someone else -- was it Chesterton? -- said that when men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything. [p. 620]
"Umberto Eco" is a blatantly Nabokovian name, echoing the narrator of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, and the obsession Vladimir Nabokov shared with Jorge Luis Borges (who shows up in Nabokov's science-fiction novel Ada as "Osberg, the author of The Gitanilla, the AntiTerran Lolita") with reflections and doubles.
Eco's mock-scholarly foreword to his first bestseller, The Name of the Rose, reads as if the fictitious foreword to Lolita by "John Ray Jr., Ph.D." had instead been written by the mad, self-absorbed, coyly homosexual literary scholar Charles Kinbote of Nabokov's great Pale Fire:
On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbe Vallet, Le Manuscrip de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en francais d'apres l'edition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l'Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842). ... The scholarly discovery (I mean mine, the third in chronological order) entertained me while I was in Prague, waiting for a dear friend. Six days later Soviet troops invaded that unhappy city. I managed, not without adventure, to reach the Austrian border at Linz, and from there I journeyed to Vienna, where I met my beloved, and together we sailed up the Danube.
In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.
On the next page comes Eco's pitch-perfect tribute to Borges:
"... then, in 1970, in Buenos Aires, as I was browsing among the shelves of a little antiquarian bookseller on Corrientes, not far from the more illustrious Patio del Tango of that great street, I came upon the Castilian version of a little work by Milo Temesvar, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess."
And in the main part of the story, we find a blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos. The main character, played by Sean Connery in the movie, the insightful and commonsensical friar-detective William of Baskerville, is a tribute both to an old favorite of the Anglophile Borges (who wished he'd been born Anthony Burgess), Sherlock Holmes, and to the English philosopher William of Ockham, whose Razor pointed the way out of the luxurious but impenetrable thickets of medieval thought.
So, I went to look up what the real name of "Umberto Eco" actually is, only to find out that it is his real name. Which, now that I think about it, is more Nabokovian/Borgesian than a pseudonym would be.