Dan Brown's Inferno: Half-Baked More of the Same

Inferno (2013)
Dan Brown
Knopf, ISBN: 9780385537859
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Dan Brown is a terrific storyteller and a terrible writer. There, I’ve said it. I’m sort of okay with that. If I had to choose, I’d rather read a good story told clumsily than wade through ostentatious prose that goes nowhere. In my adult life I’ve given myself permission not to read authors who make my head hurt from an overdose of style–Joyce, Pynchon, Proust, Shakespeare, Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t want to impress anyone with my erudition; I just want to curl up with a good read.

Therein lies my Dan Brown dilemma. Is he a good read? Not any more. Inferno is like the cheap, sweet wine one consumes as a college first-year–delicious until you get sick on it and never again wish to imbibe. Brown’s 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code was a great romp and rode high on everyone’s guilty pleasures list. In it, most readers met Robert Langdon for the first time–a dashing world-famous Harvard art historian and symbologist. Maybe that should have tipped us off. There simply aren’t many famous art historians and dashing people don’t come from Harvard!

Okay, that was a cheap shot. On a more substantive level, what we subsequently discovered is that Brown’s earlier novels were just lead ups to The Da Vinci Code and that he’s been rewriting it ever since. His formula is always the same. Something horrible has happened (or is about to occur) that coincidentally involves a trail of clues encoded in symbols that only Langdon can unravel. He’s already an international academic star who routinely lectures on archaic symbolism embedded in art works before engrossed audiences that number in the thousands, so it’s natural that the world’s law enforcement agencies, museums, and NGOs would seek him out and jet him to exotic foreign locations. (Has Dan Brown ever been to an academic conference? Most art history lectures are attended by tens, not thousands!) Along the way, Langdon meets up, James Bond-like, with a whip smart young woman who will help him solve the mystery (or not) and to whom he’ll be physically attracted (or not). The novel will then unfurl at the pace of a high-speed car chase with death being cheated every five pages or so. In between, Langdon demonstrates his ability to make intuitive leaps that no one ever makes, and a penchant for delivering mini art history lessons as he does so.

Inferno is more of the same, though its prose is even more clunky than usual. This time Langdon’s off to Florence, Venice, and Istanbul to help (or is it hinder?) the World Health Organization and perhaps save humankind. His sidekick is Dr. Sienna Brooks, who gets sucked into his symbolist vortex after treating a gunshot wound to his head that leaves him unable to recall having left Cambridge, Massachusetts, let alone being shot in Florence. Then it’s Da Vinci Code all over again, except this time the clues lie in Dante’s Inferno and in paintings by Botticelli and Vasari. It’s a good thing Langdon is a quick thinker and his amnesia effects only his short-term memory; otherwise he and Sienna wouldn’t be able to elude Italian police, a professional assassin, or the trained forces of a shadowy group called the Consortium, which reminded me more of Kaos from Get Smart than anything really sinister. In case you’re wondering how Langdon can solve complex puzzles so quickly when it comes to obscure symbolism, we’re told (numerous times in several books) that he has eidetic memory, which means: (a) photographic recall, and (b) that Dan Brown uses a thesaurus.  

This time, Brown’s story is (even more) absurd and he simply doesn’t have enough material to sustain 465 pages. Moreover, Langdon is a little slow this time around as I was able to follow Brown’s well-marked trail and solve most of the book’s riddles several chapters ahead of the eidetic professor. Brown’s padding also shows in the prose. The book’s structure is something like this: dialog, Wikipedia-like art entry, chase scene, repeat. It is to literature what Thomas Kinkade is to art: a knock-off of a knock-off of a knock-off. It’s so ham-handedly written that it’s hard to imagine any publisher would touch it if hadn’t come from an author who had previously sold a gadzillion books.

I’m glad I borrowed Inferno from the public library rather than padding Knopf’s coffers. (Let this be a lesson to all who wonder if libraries still fulfill important social roles!) I ripped through the book, but mostly because I reached a point where I had gone too far to turn back. I’m cured, though. T’is time to silkscreen a Dan Brown book cover and emblazon the t-shirt with: “Been there. Done that.” I don’t want to choose any more–give me a good story and good writing.

Rob Weir

1 comment:

Diwali said...

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