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How “Inferno” Fails to Set the World on Fire

by Matthew Dentith
 

“Inferno”. It’s the title of the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. It’s the name of my favourite Jon Pertwee “Doctor Who” story. It’s also the name of Dan Brown’s new Robert Langdon novel, a book almost four years in the making, and a book I’ve been looking forward to.

The Harrowing of Hell, from a 14th-c. manuscript (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Looking forward to a Dan Brown novel is a curious psychological phenomenon. Brown has never gathered accolades with respect to clever prose or complex characters. Indeed, until the publication of his third book, “The Da Vinci Code”, a Dan Brown book was merely something you wouldn’t feel guilty reading in an airport lounge. However, that particular book, about the Jesus bloodline, made Brown an overnight literary sensation, for what seem now to be unlikely reasons. So, my nervous excitement about reading a new Dan Brown novel was borne out of curiosity. Would “Inferno” spark the zeitgeist like “The Da Vinci Code” had?

So, what’s it like? Well, it’s not as good as “Inferno”. Or even “Inferno”, but you’ve probably already guessed that.

“Inferno” is a tale about a symbologist (a profession only found in the works of pseudo-theorists and novelists) combating great evil by looking at art. Frankly, it sounds like a pleasant job, except that between moments of quiet reflection there are kidnappings, firefights and chase scenes.

Symbology: it’s not your standard academic gig. Then again, what is these days, in the age of interdisciplinarity? We’ll all be fighting shadowy cartels in the future. Indeed, given the rise of the modern, profit-making university, many of us already are.

“Inferno” has all the stock Dan Brown features. Characters with distinguishing but unnatural traits (pustulant sores for one, female baldness for another), a daring damsel (with exceptional talents and, crucially, the ability to fall instantly in love with the protagonist), a conspiratorial cartel with no ethical compass and, finally, a hero in Robert Langdon, an academic who is more obsessed by the suits he wears than the courses he teaches at Harvard. [1] It has twists-a-plenty in the final few pages and a “shocking conclusion” designed to make you, the reader, think.

“Inferno”, like all the Robert Langdon novels thus far, is about symbols. Symbols and the hidden messages they encode in the architecture and art around us. In previous adventures Langdon has interpreted the artistic landscapes of Rome, Paris, London, a small portion of Scotland (Rosslyn Chapel) and Washington, D.C. Now Langdon is in Florence (a step up from Washington, D.C., I feel) and cannot remember the last two days, is being pursued by someone on a motorbike and has just discovered that his jacket has been restyled without his permission. [2]

If you had read the previous books, you’d be forgiven for thinking Professor Langdon should take this as “business as usual”. After all, he’s been targeted for death by a Pope of the Catholic Church, hounded by the albino assassin of Opus Dei and been involved in a Freemasonic conspiracy to hide the existence of the Bible. Surely, he should be comfortable and confident in the face of danger by now?

But no. Langdon wears a perpetually perturbed face through this book, one that Brown does not hesitate to add adjectives to whenever it is grammatically possible (and, in a few cases, where it isn’t possible; rules of English be damned!). Yes, it’s true that he knows how to escape museums and he can recognise the engine of any car and the make of any gun, even at a distance, but he has to be led around by a faithful assistant if you want the plot to ever progress. Otherwise, all he does is stare at art and give potted history lessons.

“Inferno” could almost be considered as a “Your First Conspiracy Thriller” since it has all the necessary elements:

Mystery: The suggestion the international symbol for biological hazards really represents a three-headed devil and there are Malthusians out there who are going to stop the plague that is humanity.

Secret societies: The Consortium, who are working together with a rogue member of the Council for Foreign Relations, in opposition to the WHO.

Betrayal: The people Langdon thinks are on his side end up being tools of the villain and the people Langdon thinks are out to get him are, in fact, trying to rescue him.

Travel: The main character travels to exotic locations like Florence, Venice and Istanbul over the course of a single day. [3]

However, “Inferno” also features a few Dan Brown specials:

Weird science: There is a lot of talk about Transhumanism and super-evolved brains.

Symbols: The bon mot of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels; this time the focus is on the life of Dante Alighieri and his works,

Politics: By the end of the story, you are meant to come to a stunning realisation that will change the way you think about the human overpopulation problem.

So, how is “Inferno” as a novel? Well, it also has the standard set pieces you would expect: chase scenes, a succession of daring escapes and the obligatory chapter-long pieces of exposition. People swap sides and the sinister organisation, which is made out to be very powerful, also turns out to be comprised of very, very stupid people.

Dan Brown (photo by Phi|ip Sca|ia, released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License, Wikimedia)

As previously mentioned, Brown’s prose is, at best, mediocre and the characters are a mixed bag. Some of the incidental players are quite well-drawn; there’s a security guard in Florence who stands out, but the main characters are drawn hastily without much depth. The Director of the WHO cannot bear children, which seems to be the extent of her personality, whilst the villain, who dies seven pages into the novel, is merely pretentious and prone to asserting things in flashbacks. Still, when it comes to disservices to characters, it is Robert Langdon who seems to be the most under-utilised character in the story. His role in “Inferno” seems to merely that of a museum guide, whilst the love interest, Sienna… Well, she is both unbelievable as a character yet strong with respect to the role she plays in the narrative. She has a preposterous backstory which never quite goes anywhere but at least she takes charge of the situations she and Langdon get into. [4]

I’ve always maintained that the Robert Langdon novels started off as mediocre and have proceeded to only get worse. “Angels and Demons” was a decent thriller; it hurtles along and has a quite clever twist. “The Da Vinci Code” triggered something in its readers which propelled the book to the top of the charts and made it something you could respectably read outside of an airport lounge, despite the fact it was a messy, overly ambitious book. “The Lost Symbol” … Well, Robert Langdon spends almost sixty pages in a pagoda and the twist ending is that the Freemasons are hiding the existence of the Bible.

Yes, the Bible. I’m still bitter about the time I wasted reading that one.

“Inferno” is better than the “The Lost Symbol” (thus invalidating my claim that the books are getting worse) but not as good as “The Da Vinci Code” (which still allows me to claim that whatever peak Dan Brown might have achieved, it is behind him now). It lacks the cleverness of “Angels and Demons” or the interesting source material of “The Da Vinci Code”.

It does, however, have a central mystery more interesting than hiding the existence of the Bible.

“Inferno” is a novel about conspiracies, and as such it’s hard not to compare it to other novels that also feature conspiracies as crucial plot points. If “Inferno” were to be compared to Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” or Dom DeLillo’s “Libra”, then it would not fare well. However, this would be an unfair comparison; Brown’s obvious and stated literary predecessor is Sydney Sheldon. Compared to Sheldon Brown is, at best, a hazy reflection of a competent writer, but even this comparison is unfair, at least to Sheldon. It took Brown five years to write a follow up to “The Da Vinci Code” and four years to write “Inferno”. Sheldon’s books may not have moved the literary world, but at the very least he could churn them out. Brown seems to mistake years and years of research, much of which could be easily cribbed from commonly available guidebooks and online encyclopedias, as a hallmark of the quality and importance of his work. Given the length of time he takes to write these books, it points to a certain lack rather than some imagined ability.

It’s hard to talk about “Inferno” without talking about the conspiratorial conceit which drives the plot. So, spoilers: “Inferno” is about a a vector-virus called “Inferno”, one which will render two thirds of the human population infertile [5]. “Inferno” the virus was created by a Malthusian anti-hero with the express purpose of saving humanity from the perils of overpopulation. The story of “Inferno” is the race to find the virus before it is released, only to find out that the virus is already global and cannot be stopped. [6]

View from the Campanile, Florence (photo by Scott Raymond, released under Wikimedia Creative Commons License)

As grand schemes goes, this conspiracy is both terrifying in extent but oddly pedestrian in execution. Nothing anyone does in the novel prevents the release of the virus because the virus was already airborne a full week before Langdon wakes up in Florence. The conclusion of the novel, the realisation that the chase has been for naught because the virus has already gone global, leads to a strange polemic by Robert Langdon, a professor of Art History (and Symbology), who both argues and subsequently persuades the director of the WHO that thinning out the human herd maybe isn’t that bad an idea after all.

With the exception of “Angels and Demons”, Brown has been dishing out morals at the end of each of his Robert Langdon stories. In “The Da Vinci Code” he wanted us to appreciate that all we know about Christianity is basically the result of political decisions by the Churches. In “The Lost Symbol” Brown set out to repudiate the claim he is anti-Christian by showing how important the Bible is. In “Inferno” he wants his readers to accept that overpopulation is a real problem and we need to fix it now.

This poses a bit of a problem: Robert Langdon is obviously Dan Brown’s “Mary Sue” complex, but in some ways Langdon is smarter than Brown. One of the really big problems I had with “The Lost Symbol” is that whilst Brown might well think the Bible is an important text, the Langdon character, always presented as the arch-skeptic, never convincingly buys the explanation that the Bible is the real treasure of the Freemasons.

The same problem crops up in “Inferno”. Brown is concerned with overpopulation. Langdon, when asked about it halfway through “Inferno” shrugs off the question, as you might think he would, but, by the end of the day (literally, since the novel takes place over a very short amount of time) he sides with the Malthusians, speaking not as symbology expert Robert Langdon but, rather, as the voice piece of Dan Brown the author.

This is not the only problem with “Inferno”, because the bigger problem is the question of why Langdon is even in the story in the first place. I can’t help but think that the symbology in this story is window-dressing which justifies this being a Robert Langdon novel, rather than some other Dan Brown story. In the previous Langdon novels the symbols drove the plot because there were encoded messages hidden in art that only Langdon could decipher and these messages, when decoded, challenged our view of history. This time… The symbols only drive the plot insofar as the villain/anti-hero has decided to hide his last message to humanity in a riddle. Langdon is a kind of passerby in this novel, rather than the driving force of it. As such Dan Brown has written a novel to give the character of Robert Langdon something to do rather than because there was a mystery his character was crucial to solving.

This does not bode well for the future of the Robert Langdon series.[7] Langdon is only interesting insofar as he gets the job done. In “Inferno” all he ends up doing is persuading the WHO to allow for a little light genocide.

Hardly the role of an art historian in today’s modern society, is it?

Dan Brown: Inferno.
Doubleday, New York 2013.
ISBN: 978-0385537858
Hardcover, 480 pages, US$29.95

 

Notes:

1. I do wonder what Harvard thinks of this fictional association with Robert Langdon? I was shocked to hear Cambridge taught Sociology, so I can’t imagine Harvard’s too pleased to be linked with the made-up discipline of “Symbology”, even if it is just the fever dreams of Dan Brown and his “Mary Sue” complex.

2. We’ve all been on benders like that, haven’t we? Langdon’s forgotten escapades even involved stealing the head of Dante. Which at least elevates it above most normal benders but still doesn’t quite beat Dave Lister’s epic drunken Monopoly game.

3. It’s almost as if he played the Assassins’ Creed games over the holidays and decided that Enzio and Robert are essentially the same person.

4.  In many ways Brown (with the exception of the Director of the WHO) tends to write more believable female characters than male ones.

5. Shades of the game “Mass Effect” here; given this and the locations cribbed from the “Assassins Creed” games, I can only surmise that Brown spent the last four years playing computer games under the guise of research.

6. Shades of the graphic novel “Watchmen”; Brown has also been reading comics.

7. Brown has threatened to write another twelve of these books; at one every three or four years, Langdon is going to be fighting evil societies well into his eighties.

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Matthew Dentith is an epistemologist whose chief research interests are conspiracy theories and other types of alternative explanations/theories. He wrote his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Auckland and has a regular slot on the radio on the University of Auckland’s 95bFM Breakfast Show.

(c) 2013, The Berlin Review of Books.

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