I’m not talking about the difference between literature and a beach read, or the finer points of a cheap, dime-a-dozen thriller versus a soul-wrenchingly unique narrative. I’m not talking about the boorish tastes of our popular culture versus the selective, often-translated preferences of some mythical elite. I’m talking about hack writing that attempts to ride the coattails of the zeitgeist or to coast by on a fast-moving, pseudo-intellectual plot that shrouds itself in cloaks and daggers so as to seem both smarter and sharper than it actually is. I’m talking, naturally, about Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, which succeeds only in that it is a decent through several levels of literary hell.
To begin with there’s the googly-eyed plot, which mixes Malthusian delusions about the human cancer with the mysticism of Dante’s (and Vasari’s) depictions of hell, and a good dose of chemical terrorism for good measure. Aside from the fact that this sort of righteous eco-terrorist willing to infect billions for their own good is a little too easy of a villain (this Bond go-to even comes with an amoral and shadowy conglomerate backing his actions with limitless resources), the real issue is that Brown is more interested in namedropping inspiring artists and historical “facts” than he is in actually making arguments or points; this isn’t even speculative fiction, it’s referential fiction, with the power to leap off on huge tangents in a single bound. Oh, and did I mention that Professor Langdon, our hero, is suffering from retrograde amnesia, a hoary old trope that’s made only a little brighter by the fact that it’s coupled with a ticking time bomb scenario? (It’s actually even worse than this, but I hesitate to spoil anything this early in the discussion.)
All of that’s excusable, however: it services the narrative, and that’s really all you should be coming to a Brown book for, anyway. (I’d tell you to wait for the inevitable movie, but if anything, those only make it even clearer just how shallow and bad the books are.) The reason why I’m using Brown’s Inferno (and let’s just be clear that we’re not talking about Dante’s Inferno at any point in this essay) as an example of a bad book is because of the writing itself. The very first chapter begins with one of the more pretentious lines I’ve ever read, a Bulwer-Lytton nominee if I’ve ever seen one: “The memories materialized slowly . . . like bubbles surfacing from the darkness of a bottomless well.” What does this simile even mean? Nothing materializes in darkness, and bubbles would never surface if they stemmed from a bottomless well.
That’s just poor prose. Even worse is Brown’s loggorheic regurgitation of historical facts that have nothing to do with the plot. Imagine that in an episode of 24, Jack Bauer took some time off from interrogating a suspect so that he might ruminate on the provenance of the ropes that he had used to bind his victim. Or paused, in the midst of a car chase, to note the particular style with which the roads had been paved, or the significance of the gargoyles that watched him speed by. It’s hard not to read Brown satirically when Langdon narrowly escapes a surveillance drone only to spend a page describing the Palazzo Vecchio — and not just the fact that it’s a “potent seat of Italian government,” which is essentially an in-text footnote for us uneducated readers, but that:
A replica of Michelangelo’s David–arguably the world’s most admired male nude–stands in all his glory at the palazzo entrance. David is joined by Hercules and Cacus–two more colossal naked men–who, in concert with a host of Neptune’s satyrs, bring to more than a dozen the total number of exposed penises that greet visitors to the palazzo.
The fact that the grammar is stilted and awkward only makes you dwell even longer on the fact that he’s digressing to talk about the number of statuary penii, which is no longer merely an author attempting to show off his architectural knowledge but a genuinely creepy sign of a writer compensating for something. This isn’t a fluke. Four pages later, in a separate chapter that begins by describing the palazzo’s Hall of the Five Hundred, we’re told that:
Langdon raised his eyes slowly to the far side of the room, where six dynamic sculptures–The Labors of Hercules–lined the wall like a phalanx of soldiers. Langdon intentionally ignored the oft-maligned Hercules and Diomedes, whose naked bodies were locked in an awkward-looking wrestling match, which included a creative “penile grip” that always made Langdon cringe.
Yes, you heard that right. No, no, not the fact that six is apparently all it takes to make a phalanx of soldiers (it’ll be five later on; Brown loves to recycle even improperly used words), but rather the fact that the author is taking the time to describe something that he is simultaneously telling us is being intentionally ignored. It is so irrelevant that it absolutely must be described, pacing be damned. I thought that Herman Melville and Victor Hugo went on for days and days: at least they were attempting to hide philosophical treatises or deliver a working knowledge of a foreign craft in the midst of engaging plots; is Brown being paid by the word, or is he simply incapable of throwing away any of his research? The editor deserves some blame for these excesses, but I doubt he/she had very much control. Still, it’s hard not to wince considering that only a few chapters later, having already described more than enough, Br0wn decides to once again remark on the the way in which “Hercules was holding Diomedes upside down, preparing to throw him, while Diomedes was tightly gripping Hercules’ penis, as if to say, ‘Are you sure you want to throw me?'” This seems more like a literary contest, in which authors are tasked with working a phrase or reference into their story, than a story, let alone something that fits a full-length novel. And mind you, it’s one thing for Brown to blather on about all the secret passages–real or not–that Langdon crawls through to escape his pursuers; it’s another to fixate on irrelevant details.
Speaking of irrelevant details, however, we must now discuss the plot — and abandon all hope for a spoiler-free essay, all ye who continue to read on here. To begin with, the villain dies in the prologue and, whether it makes sense or not, none of the people running around with guns are actually trying to hurt anybody. The amnesia was induced, so as to trick Langdon into discovering what he’d already been on his way to discovering before he was so rudely (and accidentally) interrupted. The attractive and hyper-intelligent Sienna Brooks, paired early on with Langdon, is revealed to be the lover of the villain, but she’s actually racing to destroy the soon-to-be-released plague (though this is interfering with the WHO’s attempts to contain it), and the smoke-and-mirrors corporation that’s been getting in the way has a change of heart and decides to start helping. The entire third act of the novel doesn’t involve suspense so much as it does a series of calm discussions and architectural observations (in Venice and later at the Hagia Sofia), and Transhumanism is thrown in as a last-ditch red herring (or the remnant of yet another casually researched topic that Brown couldn’t bear to abandon). Never revealed, of course, is why this brilliant scientist, so determined to release a plague that he commits suicide to prevent himself from giving up the location, leaves behind so many cryptic clues as to its location. Not that it matters, of course: the virus, as it turns out, has already been released and the book ends with Langdon and the rest of the world infected with a DNA-modifying vector virus that is designed to ensure that a third of the population remains sterile, so as to rein in the population’s exponential death march.
So. You’ve got poor sentences interrupted by irrelevant descriptions, a baroque plot that doesn’t just tell instead of show but lectures, and a narrative that is rendered as impotent as the characters themselves as it’s all already too late. The misleading synopsis calls this Brown’s most “compelling and thought-provoking” work, which is sort of an insult to The Da Vinci Code, or perhaps just more smoke-and-mirrors, in that this “truth” is meant to be understood as the publisher’s way of warning us that what’s most thought-provoking is how anyone could find this compelling. I try to find things that I admire about even the most deplorable things, so I guess I’ll close by saying that I suppose it’s novel that the heroes don’t “win” in the end, or at least, not in the sense of “winning” that can be summed up with thin, Charlie Sheen-level philosophizing. But come now: do yourself a favor and just read Margaret Atwood’s recent fiction, or (I’m told, and next on my list) Karen Walker’s Age of Miracles.