Inferno, Dan Brown: Book review

Dan Brown Inferno coverDan Brown’s latest, Inferno, is juuuuust maaaaaddening.

Not because of the renowned Dan Brown-ness of it all. This is Brown’s fourth book starring fusty art historian Robert Langdon, and his formula is well-established by now: Historical secret, treasure hunt, global conspiracy, beautiful sidekick, mysterious baddies, famous landmarks, all wrapped up in some of the clunkiest writing that ever thunked its way through your eyeballs into your brain.

Oh god is it clunky. Reading Brown is like walking up wooden stairs wearing clogs two sizes too big. A hallmark of Dan Brown’s sentences is needless detail and shoehorned exposition and flat dialogue and weirdly jarring repetition of words and phrases within Dan Brown’s sentences. But… that’s the fun of reading Dan Brown, I guess. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good, it’s not a guilty pleasure, but the wooden hamminess is part of the game.

(Critics usually make fun of Brown’s prose, but what I think is more amusing – to the point that it’s endearing, almost refreshing – is his deep, sheer, unfathomable uncoolness. Dan Brown, bless him, is incredibly uncool. He is clearly passionate about historical trivia, but passion is the opposite of cool. His hero Robert Langdon is also incredibly uncool – he wears uncool loafers and uncool tweed jackets and a Mickey Mouse watch that manages to be the most uncool thing you ever heard of no matter how often Brown reminds us it’s a vintage collector’s timepiece blah blah blah. Langdon is like Brown boiled off the uncoolest parts of your dad and your uncles and poured them into a standalone nerd who’s so uncool he sucks all the cool out of his cool, Indiana Jones-ish adventures.

Nothing about these books is cool, not even ironically. It’s hard to say which bit of the book is most uncool, but it’s possibly Langdon’s flashbacks to lectures he’s given on Dante – way to jam in the subtle exposition, Brown! – in which his audience is rapt, laughing at uncool jokes and ooh-ing ant ooh-ing at uncool information.)

Here for your reading/LOL-ing pleasure is one example of Brown’s prose (which also includes bonus weird homoeroticism – like seriously I swear half this book is just Langdon remarking on classic statues’ penises for no reason):

Dan Brown Inferno

(“Penile grip”? I have this long-running theory that Robert Langdon is actually super gay. Or at least super asexual. There are ceiling fans with more sex appeal than this guy.)

None of that stuff is what makes Inferno maddening. It’s maddening because the plot is a cheat. Brown is fond of reversals of character, where a goodie turns out to be a baddie and vice versa – think back to Teabing and Fache in Da Vinci Code – and that’s fine. Twists, and trying to spot the twists, are standard adventure-thriller elements. But the twist in Inferno is so convoluted, so artificial, so big-twist-for-the-sake-of-big-twist, that it’s just stupid. It’s really, really, italics-can’t-emphasise-enough-how-really-stupid-it-is stupid.

I’m going to spoil the plot of Inferno in an attempt to describe how stupid it is, so stop now if you intend on reading it fresh. (Even though I doubt it’s possible to give away the depth of the stupidity in a single blog post. Like the Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.)

So: Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in hospital, in Florence, with no idea how he got there – he has amnesia after a punk assassin attempted to kill him. With help from a beautiful doctor called Sienna, Langdon has to flee the assassin as well as a paramilitary team, who both work for a mysterious guy called “the provost,” the head of a shadowy organisation that’s helping a mad scientist billionaire unleash a devastating plague.

Got that? OK.

All Langdon remembers from before he got amnesia is that he was helping a beautiful older woman – who’s now been kidnapped and drugged by the provost – find the plague by following a series of clues based on Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, which the aforementioned mad scientist billionaire was obsessed with before he committed suicide. Cue treasure hunt.

Except! Nothing is as it seems! Sienna is actually the mad scientist’s lover and right-hand lady! The paramilitary team is actually working for the beautiful older woman, who’s the head of WHO! She wasn’t kidnapped and drugged – she just took too much anti-jetlag medication! (Of course!) The provost never tried to kill Langdon – he just tricked him into thinking the punk assassin tried to kill him, to spur Langdon into decrypting the Dante clues and finding the plague… instead of just asking him? And Sienna was recruited by the provost for all this… because reasons?

God, I don’t know. I can’t even describe it in a way that captures the epic ridiculousness of it. It literally makes no sense if you think about it even for a moment. It’s a textbook “why would anyone bother doing this then this then this then this when they could just do this?” dunderhead twist. You know that saying “audiences will believe the impossible but not the improbable”? It was invented to describe Inferno and how goddamn stupid it is: I believe a mad scientist would concoct a whole plot around Dante’s poem. I don’t believe all the other contrived B.S. that goes along with it.

I’m not trying to jump on the Brown-bashing bandwagon. Inferno‘s other flaws are forgiveable: The classical Dante work it’s based on mostly feels like window dressing on Brown’s work, and not an integral part of the plot like Leonardo was in Da Vinci Code. Big Issues like overpopulation and transhumanism are flatly discussed by flat characters. Those missteps don’t make the book any less readable – and in spite of his aforementioned clunk, Brown is pretty good at doing readable. He knows how to make a cliffhanger that will make you go, “Oh man this is so silly but I must keep reading now and for several more hours.”

(Inferno‘s best cliffhanger: “Sienna went pale. ‘Don’t tell me we’re in the wrong museum.’ ‘Sienna,’ Langdon whispered, feeling ill. ‘We’re in the wrong country.'” YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHH.)

But a dumb thriller has to be the right kind of dumb. Inferno almost is. But that one stupid twist makes it stumble, and it never rights itself.