The Da Vinci Code 17-20: Phi Is For Phlashback

Please excuse the brief hiatus. I’m currently in the process of moving house and a lot of things are going on, including the nervous twitch I’m developing every time I hear someone tearing at a reel of parcel tape. You know how it goes. However, I have queued a bunch of posts to see you all through while I traverse the cardboard box laden hellscape that is my life for the next few weeks, so check back on Mondays and Thursdays to wallow in the unbelievable silliness of the book that – paradoxically – is keeping me kind of sane in the middle of current chaos.

Is that weird? No, don’t answer. I know it’s weird. Anyway, avanti.


I may as well come clean.

I’m enjoying this book. I know. It’s sick and wrong and dirty, but it’s fun. I’ve read some bad bestsellers in my time but at least this one isn’t boring yet. And I know boring. I read the whole first chunk of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And the entire Twilight series. I’ve survived monolithic lumps of exposition about Swedish financial journalism, and watched crap vampires stare at mopey teenage girls for four whole books, all in the diminishing, desperate hope that something would finally fucking happen.

There’s no such problem with The Da Vinci Code. Everything is happening and everything is stupid. It’s actually quite refreshing.

Anyway, where were we?

Langdon is currently still lurking in the loos at the Louvre, and Sophie is not answering her phone, much to the chagrin of our favourite nosy French policemen – Collet et Fache.

Chapter Seventeen

Someone calls from the station to say that they have no idea about draconian devils and lame saints, and did Fache know that they didn’t send Sophie Neveu? They then discover that Sophie is the last scion of the happily demented House of Sauniere, but have no time to ponder this information because an alarm goes off in the Grand Gallery and according to his GPS dot, Robert Langdon has just jumped out of the toilet window.

Chapter Eighteen…

…picks up exactly where we left off, with Fache and friends running around like poulets sans tetes trying to follow the GPS dot. At first they think Langdon has killed himself, but then the dot starts moving and the only other thing in the vicinity is a truck, which leads Fache to believe Langdon leapt aboard out of the window like Indiana Jones or something.

Sadly we know Robert – who almost certainly wouldn’t know what to do with a bullwhip – is far too much of a wuss for that. It’s actually Sophie who takes control of the situation by embedding the GPS dot in a bar of soap, smashing the window with a trash can and then tossing the dot onto the back of an idling truck. I like Sophie. She’s obviously all kinds of peculiar but at least Dan is giving her something to do, unlike Langdon, who has spent the last handful of chapters hanging out in a toilet feeling sorry for himself, like Eeyore in Harris tweed.

Langdon decided to not to say another word all evening. Sophie Neveu was clearly a hell of a lot smarter than he was.

I give him points for self-awareness, although currently Sophie’s far-flung bar of soap is coming off brighter than Langdon. I’ve yet to see any evidence of the man’s blistering intellect.

Chapter Nineteen

Oh dear. We’re in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, with Silas. That probably means that nice, harmless nun is about to get horribly murdered.

As he followed Sister Sandrine down the main aisle, Silas was surprised by the austerity of the sanctuary. Unlike Notre Dame with its colourful frescos, gilded altar-work and warm wood, Saint-Sulpice was stark and cold, conveying an almost barren quality reminiscent of the ascetic cathedrals of Spain.

I’m consistently impressed by how bad Dan Brown is at describing places and things. He does so in such banal terms that the gorgeous backdrops of his settings may as well not exist at all; whole setpieces feel like they could just as easily be taking place in bland, square white rooms as the Grand Gallery of the Louvre or the Church of Saint-Sulpice.

Silas asks Sandrine if he can pray alone for a moment, and she goes up to watch him from the balcony.

The sudden dread in her soul made it hard to stay still. For a fleeting instant, she wondered if this mysterious visitor could be the enemy they had warned her about, and if tonight she would have to carry out the orders she had been holding all these years.

It turns out Sister Sandrine also has a dark and mysterious connection to something bigger than herself, but that’s The Da Vinci Code for you. And then the chapter ends, which means she doesn’t get murdered.


 Chapter Twenty

While the police are chasing them, Langdon and Sophie are somehow still mooching around the Louvre.

Langdon felt like he was trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the dark. The newest aspect of this mystery was a deeply troubling one: The captain of the Judicial Police is trying to frame me for murder.

Goddamn, Robert Langdon is a badly drawn fictional character. And Dan Brown is horrible at conveying human emotion. If I were Langdon I’d be screaming by now, demanding to know what the fuck is going on and thinking that this whole thing would be much, much easier if only I could find a strong cup of coffee somewhere. But no. Instead he’s thinking about jigsaws and the best he can muster is a beard-stroky ‘Hmm, deeply troubling.’

His fake leap out of the bathroom window was not going to help Langdon’s popularity with Fache one bit. Somehow he doubted the captain of the French police would see the humour in chasing down and arresting a bar of soap.

I think this is the closest thing I’ve seen to a joke in this book so far. While The Da Vinci Code is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, it’s probably safe to say that none of the characters have much of a sense of humour. So far the book has taken itself very, very seriously indeed, which ironically is what makes it absolutely hilarious.

Anyway, Sophie and Langdon are still chewing over the significance of the cryptic squigglings at the murder scene. Yay.

“Using the Fibonacci numbers was my grandfather’s way of waving another flag at me – like writing the message in English, or arranging himself like my favourite piece of art, or drawing a pentacle to catch my attention.”

Sophie, while we’re hanging around recapping shit we’ve said five times already, it bears repeating; your family is very, very strange. How did you used to send each other Christmas cards? Write out a bunch of prime numbers and hack off a finger?

Sophie then reveals that the pentacle has special significance for her, because she and her grandfather used to play Tarot cards and her card was always pentacles. Langdon immediately starts musing on the female figures in the Tarot in a way that I’ve already come to dread, because I know that mansplaining will surely follow.

Originally, Tarot had been devised as a secret to pass along ideologies banned by the church.

Not true. Tarot was originally nothing more than a card game. Apparently the suits most commonly known in the English-speaking world – clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades – are the French version, but Italians still play with the swords and cups we now associate exclusively with the Tarot. Never knew that until now, which just goes to show that this book will teach you things, so long as you’re not prepared to take anything it says at face value.

And I’m not, because Langdon is demonstrably full of shit.

“Your grandfather,” Langdon said, hurrying behind her, “When he told you about the pentacle, did he mention goddess worship or any resentment of the Catholic Church?”

Sophie shook her head. “I was more interested in the mathematics of it – the Divine Proportion, PHI, Fibonnaci sequences, that sort of thing.”

Langdon was surprised.

Very surprised. In fact he’s so surprised it sends him into a flashback. No, really. They’re trying to get out of the Louvre before the police realise they’re on a wild soap chase, neither of these supposedly brilliant codebreakers have figured out that there are anagrams scrawled all over the floor, and it feels like there’s been no progress on this front forever. Every time someone mentions the words ‘Fibonacci sequence’ I now have the whole cast of Monty Python and The Holy Grail roaring “GET ON WITH IT!” in my head.

Clearly this is an excellent time for a flashback.

Harvard. Langdon writes 1.618 on a board and turns back to his ‘sea of eager students’. A student named raises his hand and correctly identifies the number as PHI, pronounced ‘fee’, spelled Φ.

“Not to be confused with PI,” Stettner added, grinning. “As we mathematicians like to say: PHI is one H of a lot cooler than PI!”

You know what I was saying about the lack of jokes in this book? Turns out that’s a good thing.

As Langdon loaded his slide projector, he explained that the number PHI was derived from the Fibonacci sequence, a progression famous not only because the sum of adjacent terms equally the sum of the next term, but because the quotients of adjacent terms possessed the astonishing property of approaching the number 1.618 – PHI!

Okay. I only had to look up the term quotient to understand that, which is interesting, because I don’t understand maths at all. I’m so dyscalculalic that if someone asks me to remember a three figure number – say 656 – I’ll struggle to remember it and then, when asked to write it down, I’ll write 565, stare at it wondering why it’s wrong, delete it and then write 565 again. My brain does not number. It can’t, it won’t and it refuses to try, which is probably the result of the anxiety caused by spending much of my school days sobbing into my maths books. Even thirty years later I look at a page of figures and it’s like a metal grille comes clanging down in my head. Forget it, fuck it, lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate. It’s just not going to happen.

Yes, I am a mathematical idiot. I am the closest thing you can get to a totally amathematical reader unless somehow you taught a grilled cheese sandwich to read. And even then, I can’t be sure that the hypothetical grilled cheese sandwich wouldn’t be able to remember π to more decimal places than me. (0, in case you were wondering. Is it 3.17 something? Maybe? I don’t know. See what I mean?)

In other words, I’m the target audience for this bit.

“PHI’s ubiquity in nature,” Langdon said, killing the lights, “Clearly exceeds coincidence, and so the ancients assumed the number PHI must have been preordained by the creator of the universe. Early scientists heralded one-point-six-eight as the Divine Proportion.”

“Hold on,” said a young woman in the front row. “I’m a bio major and I’ve never seen this Divine Proportion in nature.” 

Langdon then points out that in bee hives if you divide the number of female bees by male bees then you always get the number PHI, prompting the girl to capslock “NO WAY!” and Langdon to “Way!” like it’s 1994. We’re not worthy!

Now, I may be an idiot, but I’m a curious idiot, which led me to discover that the reason bees have Fibonacci-looking gender divisions is that female bees have two parents and male bees have only one, the male bees being the result of unfertilised eggs. I had no idea bees could do that. Consider my mind blown, although not quite as blown as Miss Capslock NO WAY up there. Wait – if she knew about bees wouldn’t she know that?

Fucking hell. Langdon, you’d better not be having these classroom flashbacks too often. The brown stuff is piling up in heaps already and we haven’t even reached the relevant section.

Of course, there are minds being blown to smithereens all over the room as Langdon goes on to explain that the shell of the nautilus, pine cone petals and the segments of insects all follow the golden ratio. (Most of this is not very true.)

“This is amazing!” someone cried out.

I love how the crowd is pumped like a Bieber concert.

“Yeah,” someone else said, “But what does it have to do with art?”

“Aha!” Langdon said. “Glad you asked.” He pulled up another slide – a pale yellow parchment displaying Leonardo da Vinci’s famous male nude – The Vitruvian man.”

He’s playing all the hits tonight.

“Measure the distance from your shoulder to your fingertips, and then divide it by the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. Phi again. Another? Hip to floor divided by knee to floor. Phi again. Finger joints. Toes. Spinal divisions. Phi. Phi. Phi. My friends, each of you is a walking tribute to the Divine Proportion.”

The crowd writhes in ecstasy. Floral tributes rain down and fall at Langdon’s feet. Someone throws a live baby on the stage.

Over the next hour he shows them examples of the golden ratio, from the works of Beethoven to the UN Building in New York and Stradivarius violins. Everyone presumably sucks this down eagerly and asks for more. Nobody, for example, hurries off to fetch a tape measure and test out his claims, because that’s why other characters exist in this book. Langdon is a knowledge hose and their role is to open their mouths and WHAAARRRGARBL like the dog in the ancient meme. This is also our role as readers, which is why it all falls down if you remove your mouth from the hose for a second and ask “Hang on, isn’t there a better way to do this?”

Remember this guy?

Finally we ramble to the laboured point, which is that the pentagram is a representation of the Divine Proportion.

“For this reason the five-pointed star has always been the symbol for beauty and perfection associated with the goddess and the sacred feminine”

The girls in the class beamed.

How very headpatty of you, Robert. Are we going to have a lady problem?

“Tomorrow I’ll show you his fresco The Last Supper, which is one of the most astonishing tributes to the sacred feminine you will ever see.”

“You’re kidding, right?” somebody said. “I thought The Last Supper was about Jesus!”

Langdon winked. “There are symbols hidden in places you would never imagine.”

Yeah, I’m told you can make a star by bending over and spreading your cheeks.

I’m sorry, but this guy is a total anus. I found him boring at the start of this chapter and now I’m lurching towards active dislike. It was a bad enough idea to stick a classroom flashback in a chase sequence, but the problem goes beyond pacing. It’s that Langdon is an embarrassingly bad wish-fulfilment character, and everyone around him has been dumbed down to make his erzatz intellect shine like gold instead of the iron pyrites that it so obviously is. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the same technique with Sherlock Holmes, but he was a competent enough writer to make Holmes look – if only within the realms of the world he had carefully constructed – like an absolute genius. Dan Brown has no such gift.

Finally we escape from this shitfest flashback and we’re back in the Louvre. It’s at this point that Langdon realises that the lines on the floor are anagrams. See what I mean? You’ve figured that out, right? Of course you have. Because you have more braincells than toes. But it’s taken our academic rock star over fifty pages to figure this out. The man is an idiot.

And yet he figures this out before Sophie, who is supposed to be a gifted cryptographer but instead just makes the baby Alan Turing cry. She’s supposed to have been able to solve cryptic crossword puzzles at the age of twelve, but I’m guessing for the intervening twenty years she’s been dining every morning on a hearty petit dejuner of lead paint chips and glue.

So we’re finally here, folks. Yes, the lines are anagrams for…wait for it.

Leonardo da Vinci!

The Mona Lisa!


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