Inferno

Is there any modern writer more controversial than Dan Brown?

The literati, by which I mean, inter alia, people who write about books for a living, always seem to be sundered into two “ne’er the twain shall meet” camps every time a new Dan Brown novel gets released. One faction invariably praises the book’s carefully crafted plot puzzles and thrilling set-pieces. The other excoriates Brown for his malapropism, terrible prose and willful attempts at passing off poorly-researched fiction as cast-iron fact.

Of Brown’s latest, a critic like Janet Maslin of NYT could write that “Inferno is jampacked with tricks … Mr. Brown winds up not only laying a breadcrumb trail of clues about Dante … but also playing games with time, gender, identity, famous tourist attractions and futuristic medicine”, while on the other end of the aisle, Peter Conrad of the Guardian could refer to the book obliquely as a “lie that expunges the truth and replaces reality with its own demented murk and noxious malarkey”.

I think that Brown’s detractors are off by a few degrees in their studied opposition to the book. Of course, I could say that to pile abuse upon the poor author swimming in his ocean of fat stacks is a somewhat fashionable attitude to take in those kinds of circles, but the real problem is in judging Dan Brown’s work by a set of rules to which it was never meant to be subjected – that is, as literature.

I prefer to think of a Dan Brown novel as the narrative equivalent of a novelty toy, the kind that with intricate mechanical parts that surprises you with hidden functions as you try to figure it out. Brown is at his best crafting complex narrative mazes that have more twists and turns than the Colorado River, where nothing is at it seems, where deception runs rife. Dan Brown’s premises are assuredly formulaic – a typical Brown book always starts with a murder, features a beautiful and mysterious woman, an exotic city layered with secrets, and escalates into a sequence where Langdon and his sidekick-of-the-week run from their enemies while engaging in a glorified art history tour to save the world. But within this formula, the micro-plot – the hijinks, conspiracies, twists and turns – are always varied and inventive enough to remain fresh in a “I can’t believe he pulled that off” kind of way. Brown sometimes uses cheap tricks to construct his web of lies – most commonly in odd plot contrivances that seem almost too coincidental to be believable – but he does so with a kind of cavalier glee that suggests that we’re not meant to take all this stuff too seriously.

Brown’s other great gift is in world-building. I suspect, though, that this world building ability really is at the heart of a lot of the criticism directed at him.

See, Brown constructs worlds just like our own, but not quite. It is a world slightly larger than life, filled with shadowy organizations, conspiracies and weighed down by the clammy hand of history. Brown’s forte is taking these elements and forging together a thematically cohesive world that makes the reader feel like they are privy to a great secret. It is a technique that I could call a narrative fallacy, a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Black Swan. The narrative fallacy in a Dan Brown novel is believing that the story Dan Brown weaves could perhaps be an accurate description of the real world – because he tells it in such a neat and cohesive way, backed with historical and art factoids of dubious provenance but are too esoteric for the average reader to question. The use of Robert Langdon, the ultimate symbol of suave and self-assured academic virility, acting as a vicarious authority figure who doles out all these sage truths, only compounds the effect.

I don’t blame art historians for accusing Brown of selling his books by telling his readers exciting lies, because that’s what he does. But Brown’s talent for spinning convincing narratives is not in question. It’s a skill he wields with aplomb – and to evidently great success.

As for Inferno itself, it’s a largely enjoyable (gasp – yes, I enjoyed it) ride with some admittedly shocking revelations and a conclusion that almost verges on science-fiction-esque in its potential ramifications. What I don’t like about the Langdon novels, however, other than the overly-functional prose, is that there is no character continuity. Langdon is not so much a character as he is a cipher – Brown’s puzzle-solving mouthpiece, who doesn’t change at all across books. Inferno doesn’t even mention his previous adventures, and you’d have thought that he’d be used to the heroics by now – but he still comes across as a little bewildered at being caught up in events in this book. And I don’t expect that the events of Inferno, world-changing though they might be, will affect whatever happens in the next book – continuity might hurt sales, after all – but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

I give this book: 3.5. out of 5 blonde wigs

Read if:
– You know better than to believe the stuff Brown writes
– You don’t mind pedestrian prose
– You like the literary equivalent of a roller coaster

Don’t read if:
– You have a low threshold for suspension of disbelief
– You are an Art Historian

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