Inferno: Dan Brown’s Latest Robert Langdon Thriller
By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 06/03/2013 2:02 pm EST
Publish date: May 14, 2013 Publisher: Random House | Buy Book
Dan Brown’s globe-trotting symbologist Robert Langdon has returned for another impromptu European adventure in Inferno. While the title certainly implies Biblical connections, this story draws much more of its inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem rather than canonical scripture. There’s a danger when invoking such a widely-regarded piece of literature, though. Perhaps predictably, Brown’s Inferno is rendered even less memorable than it already is when measured against Dante’s work. Inferno is an aloof and withholding affair, dragging out its mysteries to the point of exhaustion and challenging readers to connect with its characters on any level beyond the superficial.
Much of Inferno finds Robert Langdon without his strongest asset—his uncanny memory (his incessant flair for internal monologue, unfortunately, remains intact). Inferno opens on a Langdon confined to a hospital bed, surrounded by strangers, with no recollection of how he got there (or even to Italy, where much of the story takes place). Before long, Langdon and his impromptu partner Dr. Sienna Brooks are being pursued across Florence by faceless enemies in pursuit of information that Langdon clearly possessed mere hours before.
The inclusion of amnesia as a plot device this early in the book is a good indicator of the tired narrative readers are about to embark upon. It’s a lazy device at best, and it does nothing here but needlessly extend the plot and allow for nearly all of the story’s “twists” by way of Langdon’s own faulty memory. When viewed through this filter, every one of Inferno’s plot developments seems convenient to the point of absurdity.
Speaking of amnesia, if you forget that Langdon is an art professor specializing in iconography, don’t worry—the book will remind you of this every chapter. It will also make certain readers don’t forget that Lawrence Knowlton is a “facilitator”, Elizabeth Sinsky a “silver haired devil”, and the provost an alcoholic. Important (and obvious) plot points are repeated ad nauseum, as if Brown is making sure the audience “gets” that Langdon has gaps in his memory. It’s almost like Brown knows his audience will be reading this while on the verge of falling asleep and need frequent reminders of virtually every detail.
Even participants in the story are prone to this tiresome repetition. As noted above, characters such as Langdon or Knowlton are given to internal monologuing. There’s nothing wrong with using this as a writer’s tool, but in Brown’s hands it becomes an extraneous waste, as seen in the following passage:
“He had just noticed something about the cylinder that struck him as odd. Normally, a person could peer through a cylinder seal’s hollow center, as if through a section of empty pipe, but in this case, the shaft was blocked. There’s something inserted inside this bone. The end caught the light and shimmered.
‘There’s something inside,’ Langdon said. ‘And it looks like it’s made of glass.’”
Langdon has now observed, twice for readers, that there is something inside the bone, and in such a way that one observation in no way enhances or adds to the other. It’s the same remark, by the same character, twice, and this is far from the only instance of this clunky writing to be found in the book. This internal narration adds nothing to the plot, and generally serves as a lazy way of conveying intention and feelings.
Another detriment to the story is the lack of a definitive villain. The book is full of shady characters who could be villains, but none of them ultimately fills the role. The most likely candidate perishes in the novel’s opening moments, and while his presence is felt for the remainder of the book, he, too, exists in a gray area. While there is a bit of realism to such a portrayal, which is certainly what Brown is shooting for, it’s also never clear exactly what our heroes are struggling against, which makes the whole affair that much less compelling.
By the end, the entire narrative is rendered moot. Not only is there no real antagonist, but nothing that has happened within the novel’s window of action truly matters at all. None of the driving narrative has any impact on the story’s outcome. For a conclusion as potentially radical as the one found here, one would expect the events leading there to not feel quite so pointless.
All of this isn’t to say that Brown’s work is the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. This isn’t the sort of pop culture work that inspires you to “turn your brain off”. In fact, Inferno, like much of Brown’s work, is steeped in real life history and art. It’s clear that Brown has done his research, and has a genuine affinity for the material he alludes to. It’s virtually impossible to come away from a Dan Brown novel without learning something, and Inferno is no exception. But that strive for authenticity is a double-edged sword. Oftentimes, this attention to detail derails the narrative and any of the fleeting tension it provides. As they rush through the streets of Istanbul in a race-against-the-clock attempt to locate Inferno’s MacGuffin, Langdon and his colleagues pause to admire the interior of the Hagia Sophia. Brown paints a vivid image of this architectural marvel, but does so at the expense of his narrative.
Like The Da Vinci Code before it, Inferno is typical Dan Brown: a thought-provoking idea wrapped in a narrative that is lacking craftsmanship. The real issue at the heart of the book, the dilemma of overpopulation, is a real, timely problem that deserves more than this book gives it. Brown demonstrates a “finger on the pulse of culture and society” that many modern authors espouse, but with less finesse than his contemporaries might aspire to. I can’t help but miss Michael Crichton a little bit more in the wake if this novel. I feel like he could have really done something great with the material.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.