I’ve read somewhere (in more than one place, I think) that all stories, or almost all stories, are variations on one story, treasured across cultures and eras, the Quest. The most successful epics are based on it—Rama’s quest to get his wife Sita back from Lanka, Odysseus’s quest to get home to Ithaca, Arthur’s knights setting out for the Grail, etc., etc., etc., all the way to the protagonists of Harry Potter spending all that time looking for horcruxes. The Quest story is everywhere you look.
It’s in this context that I want to discuss the success of the plot in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. This book (which has followed the fate of such bestsellers by going absolutely viral for a few years, then languishing unread—more of that in a moment) strikes me as multiple Quest stories told simultaneously. First there is the obvious Quest, with the protagonists trying to figure out a trail of clues to get the Grail (cf. the Arthurian legends, mentioned above). But there’s also the story of their being chased by people (the French policeman Bezu Fache). Now a chase story, if you think about it, is actually just a Quest story told from the perspective of the goal. So in this way The DaVinci Code contains two Quest stories and doubles its appeal. A nearly identical double-Quest plot can be found in a different movie about the search for the Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There the overall goal is still the Grail, but the Nazis are hunting the Joneses even as the Joneses are hunting the Grail. The Nazis are also hunting the Grail, just as the Opus Dei/Silas/Teabing group are also hunting the Grail, to use it for nefarious purposes (the Nazis to rule the world forever and ever; Teabing to undermine Christ by proving a carnal connection with Mary Magdalene). So both of these movies add a third plot—the Race—which is itself a variation on the Quest plot—being a simultaneous Quest between good and evil for the same goal. So the plot in both works has actually engineered three Quests in one plot. Irresistible! Add a love story—the most basic human Quest of a male for a female, or vice versa—and you could engineer a quadruple Quest plot! Irresistible!
Now, about the pattern of bestsellers that spike and peter out. Why aren’t more people reading The DaVinci Code right now? Is it that all the people who would read such a book have already read it? Probably not; the sum pool of readers of that kind of novel is constantly increasing as more readers, every year, grow into a taste for thrillers. If that were the case, we could expect a periodic rejuvenation of sales as successive generations rediscovered the thrill ride. No, the thrills go stale. The book loses appeal over time. That book was written in 2003. It hasn’t been a decade, and it already feels like, well, old news. That isn’t likely to change.
I think this is because of the Principle of Replaceability. The DaVinci Code offers something replaceable to the point of ubiquity: The Quest Plot. Notice this 2003 novel bears striking structural similarities to a 1989 film. You can get your Quest Plot just about anywhere.
“Permanent” or “high” literature deals in the irreplaceable. This is the secret to literary immortality: To offer something that cannot be replicated, to offer something so uniquely alive that people have to keep coming back to it. Meanwhile a thousand spike-and-fizzle big-ticket entertainments will flare and go out. That irreplaceable something is usually not “style,” or some display of linguistic prowess: Such a thing is merely difficult to imitate. The living thing is, essentially, the individuality of a human life. Whether it’s the poetic mind of Emily Dickinson or the characters in a Tolstoy novel, life alone lives forever. In Dickinson, the irreplaceable life of her mind happens to be cast in the irreplaceable style of her verse. In Tolstoy, the style is rather plain; he is easy to translate because there are very few pyrotechnics in the Russian; but his work lives because you can’t go anywhere else to meet Natasha and Pierre. His characters are contained in his novels as completely as Emily is in her poetry.
Lyric poets, if they are lucky, become characters in the history of poetry, speaking their poems as a single dramatic monologue. Allen Ginsburg has added no character to the world of literature except Allen Ginsburg. You could go down the list for most 19th and 20th century poets. Keats adds Keats, Wordsworth adds Wordsworth. Novelists populate that world with characters, the great ones add many, the lesser ones add a few: Consider Dickens, who added a whole crowd to that world, Oliver Twist and Scrooge as unique as living people. Consider J. M. Barrie, who added one.
These writers live, and their books keep getting revisited, because they trapped life in language. A human life is irreplaceable, and that is why “the great books” are, too. I myself am a writer of fiction and poetry, but I pursue both arts with a single motto: Life alone lives forever.