Inferno by Dan Brown
I’ll start with the disclaimers: yes, Dan Brown books have an inherent shitness to them. I could make a bunch of points about the specifics of this, but this guy has already done it in a much funnier way than I could ever hope to do.
The counterpoint is that Dan Brown books aren’t intended to be high literature. The comparison that I make is that Dan Brown is to literature what Nic Cage is to cinema: occasionally inspired, more commonly ludicrous, usually some variety of entertaining, but rarely intelligent.
The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were Dan Brown’s Con Air and Face/Off: high art they sure ain’t, but a fun plot and high entertainment value mean we’re all having fun. Brown’s other books are the lesser films of the Cage oeuvre, ranging from the depths of terrible (Deception Point is Brown’s Ghost Rider) all the way to the heights of… well, forgettable mediocrity (The Lost Symbol being Snake Eyes).
At this point I’ve come to realise that I have seen way too many Nic Cage films. But he’s useful in making a point: you don’t usually watch Nic Cage expecting to see an examination of the human condition, and you shouldn’t pick up a Dan Brown book expecting anything other than a bit of fun.
I guess Dan Brown doesn’t really help himself by trying to conceal the inherent dumbness of his books behind a smokescreen of artistic pretension (especially in the Robert Langdon series). Each book features our betweeded hero on a treasure hunt against the clock, following various clues hidden in art and literature to reveal the answer to the mystery du jour, preferably before someone suffers a ghastly fate (usually a pretty girl getting killed).
This time around, the ghastly threat that Langdon is trying to avert is actually quite ghastly: the release of a mysterious plague that threatens to wipe out large swathes of humanity. For the greater good, of course: our villain is seeking to free humanity from the scourge of overcrowding. As the villain commits suicide in the opening scene you can’t accuse him of not practicing what he preaches.
The actual nature of the plague, once it’s revealed, is actually borderline clever twist. There are enough red herrings to make it vaguely surprising, and but also enough references to it throughout that it doesn’t feel like it’s come out of left field. That being said, it only ever gets to the level of “borderline clever”, and doesn’t stand up to much (any) scrutiny. But I’ll be fair: the overall plot is a strength of Inferno.
What isn’t a strength is the minutiae of the plot that get us through the overarching plot. The treasure hunt through art and literature that hold the clues to stopping the release of the plague is probably the least exciting Brown has ever come up with, and that’s saying something.
Said trail is focused on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In previous Brown books (or at least Da Vinci and Angels) it felt like Brown came up a plot, and then found the art and literature to bring this plot together. This time around, it feels like he’s put the cart before the horse: he’s decided to write about The Divine Comedy, and then shoehorned a plot into that. It never feels like the overall plot and the treasure hunt aspect really mesh together.
If the overall plot was a positive, and the details of the plot were a negative, we’d end up at bang average. But unfortunately, the actual writing lets the side down (shocking, I know) dragging Inferno down into the purgatory of mediocrity.
It’s not that the writing lacks grace or subtlety. Obviously it does, but it’s not supposed to have them, so I can’t mark it down for that. Except Brown seems to have decided that it isn’t a big dumb book; instead, it feels like he’s tried to write something that might be critically acclaimed. Fat chance, given that most reviewers will come in wanting to hate Inferno. But even if there was a chance that Dan Brown could, in theory, write a book critics would love, he’s going to have to actually put some effort in to doing it. And he doesn’t.
The problem is that Brown tries to make this feel like a more cultured, more intellectual book than his previous work without bothering to refine his language, which he must know is a major point of criticism for him. So instead of refining his writing, he just has people speak in Italian as often as possible, because foreign languages equal culture, and critics love culture. Surely he’s not serious? Shit. He’s American. He probably is.
While we’ve got the attempt at culture by going bilingual, we’ve still got all of the hallmarks that have made Brown ripe for parody: the mixed metaphors, the barely coherent (at best) twists, the not-even-qualifying-as-a-sketch characters with arcs as discernible as the coriolis effect (i.e. rarely noticeable), and the constant repetition.
I would love to be able to take the piss out of his use of the word “chthonic”, but while its unnecessary, it does actually have a point, which is bloody annoying, because honestly: chthonic. Who would ever use that word?
He also uses that glorious literary trope of amnesia. I’m loathe to criticise amnesia as a plot device, as it’s a key to two my favourite books (The Raw Shark Texts). But in that, amnesia is an actual plot point: the plot doesn’t exist without it. Brown uses amnesia as a cheap device to attempt (and fail) to create tension. Plus he tries to flesh out the amnesia by giving Langdon visions, which is many different varieties of idiotic.
In the end, the vague gesture towards what appears to be an attempt for critical acclaim does nothing but draw attention to the low quality of rest of the writing. As does his reference which seems to claim that Pep Guardiola is managing New York Red Bulls. Stick to what you’re good at Dan.
Sticking with what you’re good at brings us right back to the Nic Cage metaphor (or it does if you’re obsessed with Nic Cage). Nic Cage doesn’t deserve his reputation. Sure, the genre of “Nic Cage Film” definitely exists: it’s the dumb action flick that will at best be very entertaining, and at worst will be so bad you can have fun laughing at it. Most will end up somewhere in between, and be mediocre. But generally, the Nic Cage Film is something Nic Cage is good at.
But people forget that Nic Cage can also actually act. He’s put in some great, nuanced performances in things like Matchstick Men, Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor, lest we forget).
The genre of “Dan Brown Book” definitely exists: it’s the 300 page mystery, in a nice city with art and literature. Nic Cage has shown he does actually have something approaching range, and can do films that aren’t “Nic Cage Films”. Dan Brown hasn’t; he just does “Dan Brown Books”. They’re dumb, they can be entertaining, a lot of the time they aren’t. This one isn’t. It’s just mediocre.
Read if you like: Dan Brown, big dumb books, Nic Cage action films.
Don’t read if you like: good characters, good writing, good plots.
Next up: Death Masks by Jim Butcher.