Every now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.
I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol), Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.
Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.
Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.
First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.
Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.
Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.
Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.
Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.
As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.
Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.
Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.
And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*
The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.
All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.