Inferno, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2013, 480 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8

How appropriate that Dan Brown’s Inferno would have me thinking about catastrophe theory and how it relates to reviewing: If Brown can link trans-humanism, obsolete Malthusian hysteria, Florentine history and Dante’s Inferno in the service of a moderately dull thriller, then what’s stopping me from misappropriating a branch of mathematical theory in order to make the point that I’m suddenly exasperated by Brown’s shtick?

I suppose that a few reminders and pieces of background information are in order: Inferno is Brown’s sixth novel, the fourth to feature “symbologist” Robert Langon racing against the clock to solve intricate historical puzzles before a very modern and immediate threat unfolds.  The Da Vinci Code (2003) needs no introduction as one of the most widely read novel of the past decade, leading to controversy and a movie adaption in 2006; Angels and Demons (2000) was also adapted to the big-screen in 2009, whereas The Lost Symbol (2009) made a splash as the first direct sequel to The Da Vinci Code after years of silence from Brown. 

Inferno shows up four years later, and delivers almost exactly what readers had been expecting: Standard thriller mechanics set against a richly-detailed travelogue, as the protagonist uses arcane knowledge to fight against a very contemporary threat.  This time around, it’s Florence (and a few other European destinations later in the novel) that provide the scenery, historical facts and enigmas to solve. 

But the real mystery is this: I have defended Dan Brown against a number of detractors in the past, especially when I pointed out the savvier aspects of The Da Vinci Code against those who wanted to dismiss the book entirely.  Save for Digital Fortress, I could find good things to say about every one of Brown’s other books.  Why, then, do I feel so exasperated and frustrated by Inferno?

It does handle a few things quite competently.  The initial set-up makes good use of the good old amnesia trope in order to place our protagonist in desperate circumstances.  Why is he in a Florentine hospital?  Why does he have a dangerous-looking artifact in his possessions?  And why-oh-why are people shooting at him?  As he retraces his steps with the help of a beautiful smart woman (the fourth in as many books –Langdon clearly isn’t very good at long-term relationships), he get to understand that he’s going through a do-over of his past few days, hoping to avoid what put him under medical care.

And for about three-quarter of the book, it feels dull and interminable.  The accumulation of historical details that Langdon absorbs is a flood of trivia that has little to do with the plot, and unless you happen to be fascinated by Florentine history to a level to rival the Roman, Parisian/Londonian and Washingtonian settings of the previous Langdon novels, chances are that Inferno will be a tough slog.  Readers will make it through by repeating to themselves that it will get better, eventually.  Or that the novel may work better if you’re on the ground in Florence, pointing at the things described in the novel.

And while it does get better, this change for the best comes at the expense of credibility-destroying narrative tricks in which villains are revealed to be heroes, allies are unmasked as psychopathological monsters and everything Langdon thought he knew (or more pointedly didn’t) crumbles as a sham.  In order to do that, Brown has to skirt perilously close to lying to his audience –readers who don’t like such narrative sleight-of-hand won’t find much to love here.  On the other hand, it does give a narrative kick in the pants to what had, until then, been a fairly sedate thriller, so there’s that.

But as the last act of the novel unfolds, my boredom at the novel transformed into annoyance, especially as the villain’s plan was revealed.  While Brown does his damndest to give a shred of justification to the actions of his antagonist by pointing out the evils of overpopulation, his screed seems to be roughly forty years out of date, and unsupported by current research.

(To summarize a complex set of objections, in a nutshell: Overpopulation is real and dangerous, but unlike the alarmist predictions of the 1970s, we now know a few things: Big populations have advantages for just about everything, from medical care to arts development to scientific progress to a well-functioning economy to better models for feeding a densely-packed community.  Better yet: Demographic statistics clearly demonstrate that overpopulation is a self-regulating problem, and that the world’s population will stabilize within a few decades –in fact is already doing so in large areas of the world.  Furthermore, advances in agriculture, environmentalism and logistics show that sustainable populations are within reach –the realities of 2013 disprove most of the so-called “realistic” thinking of the 1970s.  Simply put: Overpopulation is solving itself to non-problematic status.)

Lunatic thinking by a novel’s villain is, of course, nothing new or unexpected.  The end of Inferno, however, suggests that this is lunatic thinking by the author himself.  The world-changing stunt at the end of the novel is problematic on numerous levels.  Even by the standards of previous novels, it may be time for Langdon to take an indefinite retirement while Brown moves on to other protagonists, because the universe he inhabits is getting cluttered by incompatible mythologies, radical events and Grand Revelations.

Other annoyances abound: After several bout with Brown’s tone-deaf style, I’m finally acknowledging that he could write better.  I’m not at all pleased by the easy equation of trans-humanism with cuckoo-crazy antagonists.  Langdon is still as boring a protagonist as it’s possible to write in popular fiction.  The ending shows that the protagonist’s efforts all were for naught, negating the point of the narrative.  And have I mentioned that before the frantic last quarter of the novel, practically nothing noteworthy happens as we’re fed reams of Florentine history?

Aas you already surely know, faithful reader, catastrophe theory is the study of “sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances”.  None of what has annoyed me in Inferno (the digressions, the nonsense science, the bad writing, the repetitive plotting, allies revealed as villains, Langdon’s lack of personality, the insane plot twists) hasn’t shown up in at least two of Brown’s previous novels.  But something has certainly changed since The Lost Symbol: myself as a reader, Brown’s smugness as a writer, the cultural matrix in which we live, or some deep zeitgeist shift barely perceptible through anyone’s Twitter feed.  As a result, I find myself disenchanted by Inferno and generally put off by Dan Brown as a writer.  His shtick doesn’t feel interesting any more, and I’m not at all tempted to defend him anymore.  Small changes, big behavioral shifts: I don’t intend to buy his next novel.  I’m pretty sure I already know how it turns out.

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