Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dan Brown's Inferno and the Joy of Info. Dumping

Photo: Inferno's first edition hardcover, from its Wikipedia site

I liked Inferno, but I can't say that I really liked it, and I certainly didn't love it.  It's got some things going for it, but it's got a surprising number of things against it, too.

It depends on why you're reading this book, I guess.  If you're looking for really good writing, whatever that is, exactly, then you're going to strike out here.  Some parts made me shake my head, literally.  There are some parts that are so remarkably bad, you'll want to put the book down, but you won't.  (One aspect of the ending made me want to do this.  Actually, some parts are so bad that it reminded me of the famous Dorothy Parker quip, that "...this isn't a book to be put aside lightly.  It should be thrown with great force.")  Some parts really are that bad, so be forewarned. 

What makes them bad?  Well, in a nutshell, Brown's writing is at its worst when he tries to give his characters some depth, and I mean that in the best of all possible ways.  He just can't.  It is that simple.  His characters just say things.  And they just do things.  Anytime he tries to get beneath that surface, your eyes will roll, I assure you.

Robert Langdon, for example, is (in)famously described, very simply, as Harrison Ford in tweed.  Brown describes him that way in every single book, and he makes Langdon describe himself that way, and he makes many of the other characters describe him that way.  Everyone, in fact, in Brown's universe, describes him that way.  This is very lazy writing, of course, as if nothing else about him needs to be said.  And, in a way, that's true.  Nothing else really is needed.  He's smart and erudite.  He's tall and handsome.  He has a deep voice and he wears tweed.  And that's it, throughout four books now.  Nothing else is needed because, frankly, there isn't anything else.

But there's a method to this madness.  Is Brown simply incapable of giving him individual depth, or is there another reason?  Well, there is something else.  Langdon is a blank slate because the reader needs to have room to put himself in Langdon's clothes.  In short, we are Robert Langdon.  He is the audience figure, perhaps one of the better ones in contemporary fiction.  And if he had more specific personality, that would shut us out, because he would be too uniquely himself.  There wouldn't be room for us in there.  We would have to watch him do things, rather than us being him, thereby allowing us to do those things, instead.  It's the difference between playing a video game and watching the character do things, and playing more of a reality role-playing game, and feeling like it's us actually doing those things.  This, plus the world-traveling, the codes and puzzles, and the info. dumping, are the reasons why his books work like they do.

Of course, Brown also carries this into his minor characters, which is bad.  And he tends to get a little preachy about his themes, which Inferno certainly does.  By the end, you'll wonder about how Brown actually feels about what his antagonist feels.  I think they're one and the same.  Brown gets just as fever-pitched as his antagonist does.  And he, and his characters, are severely repetitive about it, too.

For the record, their point--that this world is so overpopulated that we could potentially create our own cataclysmic demise--is well-taken, and well-known.  I know that we don't need a super-villain (or not, depending on your point of view) to create a virus that will become our present-day Black Death; there are plenty of them out there right now, including two presently incurable viruses written about this week, one in California, the other in Saudi Arabia.  We are very overdue for another pandemic like 1918's super-flu, which originated in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and which killed hundreds of millions throughout the world, more than every war combined.  The population-thinning virus before that?  The tuberculosis of the mid- to late-1800s.  One herd-thinning virus tends to hit the world every fifty years or so.  Nature has a way of cleaning its own house.  The book will hit you over the head with this, and then stuff it down your throat, about fifty times over--and then it will end with a horrific event that all of the characters just shrug their shoulders about.  Very, very odd.

Having said all that, there is a lot to like about this book, which isn't as good as Angels & Demons or The Da Vinci Code, but is a bit better than the slower The Lost Symbol and Dan Brown's others.  In fact, the best (and perhaps only) good thing about The Lost Symbol is what works really well with Inferno.  In The Lost Symbol, I was surprised to learn about how much like a deity George Washington was treated.  The painting of Washington standing like God, or like Jesus, in the clouds, in a giant painting on the ceiling of The Capitol, is flat-out creepy and fascinating.  Without The Lost Symbol, I wouldn't have ever known about that, or about the painting, or a few other things about D.C. in general.

I felt the same about Inferno.  Though lots of writers have used Dante's work as a focal point for a novel of historical fiction--the best is perhaps Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club--this book works because it brings the world-famous work of Dante to light, to better historical context, and to a better present-day understanding.  It made me want to take out my (very nice) copy of The Divine Comedy and to read it, which I'd never really done before--well, beyond line 50, anyway.  (I have a feeling that Dan Brown would be very happy if his book was well-received and that it made people want to read Dante again.)

Dan Brown's Inferno also will show you a lot of Dante's death mask, St. Mark's, Venice, Istanbul / Constantinople, Florence, The Hagia Sophia (mentioned before in Brown's works), the Palazzo Vecchio, and seemingly dozens of other things.  All of this was so interesting that I found myself wanting to buy The Illustrated Inferno once it comes out.

And that's why you read this stuff, right?  To place yourself as Langdon into all of the places he goes, to see all of the things he sees, to think about and to know all of the things he thinks about and knows.  To learn about all of the stuff that Dan Brown teaches us with the info. dumps.  To Google all of the things he refers to that we find interesting.  To travel to all of the places he travels to.  (Dan Brown clearly has his very favorite places in Florence, Venice, Rome, Vatican City, and Istanbul.  You have to spend a lot of time in all of these places to know their nooks and crannies, to have favorite spots.  I mean, I know Fenway Park like that, because I practically live there.  That's how well Brown knows these places, and there's a large amount of envy on my part involved with that.)

Anyway, to rate this, I'd probably give it three stars if I was in a writerly mood at the time, because the characterization, and sometimes, the plot, really are that bad.  But I'd give it four, maybe even five, stars if I was in the mood to remember that we read his stuff for the globe-trotting, for the vast amount of info. he has about history, about art and architecture, about stuff that you wouldn't normally think about.  And, if I was to remember that to do all this, for the reader to feel this way, the main character would have to be such an empty shell so that there'd be room for us to step in to experience these things.

So if that's what you want, you should read this.  If it isn't, if you want characterization and plot, you'd be better off with almost anybody else.  Read and choose accordingly.

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