I guess this will fulfill my yearly quota for Mickey Mouse watch-clad academics who solve ancient conspiracy filled puzzles.
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Updated 5/31: Sometimes, I feel like Dan Brown is my nemesis. In interviews, he comes off as a smart, earnest guy (if a bit of an academic dweeb*) who has an obsession for puzzles, old art and conspiracy theories, but also as a guy who has no idea how to laugh at himself. He seems to take his own work very seriously, and gets his feelings hurt by even the eensiest teeny baby criticism. He writes the same four or five characters over and over in every book he’s ever written. He writes books that have sold millions of copies but he has no idea how to write a character that doesn’t flounce around his stories like a puppet with his hand up its ass. He seems to enjoy writing books that will make people tear their hair out in fits of aplopleptic rage. Once, I’m pretty sure he compared himself to Shakespeare, but I can’t find the article right now so you’ll just have to trust me, I guess. He completely disavows the notion that he writes with a formula**. The public image he’s created for himself sometimes gives me a strong urge to chew up nearby scrap paper and then spit it at the back of his head. And I’ve never hocked a spitball in my life.
*I say this as a former academic dweeb myself, so don’t go crying into your Cheerios, Dan.
**The Dan Brown Formula: Something mysterious/creepy/violent/potentially life-changing happens, setting into motion a chain of events that can only be stopped/uncovered for what they really are by our Protagonist, an intelligent middle-aged gentleman who happens to be an expert in his field, but also in the specific areas necessary to saving the world/uncovering a mystery/solving puzzles laid out for some unknown reason by a shady Antagonist (more on him later). Protagonist is always handsome, extremely well-educated, and single. He purposesly sets himself apart from the main populace, observing the common culture and placing it historical context rather than participating. Protagonist has one or two defining traits that will be mentioned over and over again in lieu of characterization. Protagonist, with the help of a beautiful (usually young) woman who finds him handsome and is generally impressed by him, solves a series of mysteries/puzzles in order to accomplish a goal. Protagonist is in constant danger from shady Antagonist, who usually has issues of his own, probably psychological, usually also sexual and religious. Antagonist always seeks to change the world in a negative way, either by altering the world’s perception of something it holds dear, or by endangering lives. Protagonist is nearly always fooled by the presence of a Traitor, who hides in plain sight as a kind, intelligent, and resourceful person until it is time to do the betraying. There are five million plot twists. Protagonist saves the world with his brain (never his brawn). Protagonist and Girl ride off into sunset (this part is metaphorical.) The End.
His books are similarly easy to riff on, and Inferno is no exception. Actually, as the fourth Robert Langdon book, it’s the easiest, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious through repetition what his limited repertoire of tricks consists of. Namely: Repetitive plot, repetitive characters, the traitor, the global organization, the puzzle plot (for no reason at all in this one seemingly), etc, etc. See above formula. But the Langdon books in particular have their own special vocabulary. For Langdon himself, you can’t go two pages without one of the following being mentioned: the Harris Tweed that he wears (in apparent defiance of the establishment which scorns the apparel as ‘nerdy’?), his Mickey Mouse watch, the fact that he is in exceptional shape for his age because he swims every morning, his great head of hair (something always noted by other characters, not Langdon himself), having characters applaud or notice how handsome Langdon is, young chicks falling for him all the time, and my personal favorite, how the only thing he thinks about besides his scholarly pursuits is that one time as a child he got stuck in a well, and apparently he never really left. It’s apparent to me that Dan Brown clearly works out his own fantasies, desires, and frustrations in the pages of his books. Bottom line: there’s a lot to criticize in a Dan Brown book.
(This is where this review will take a 180 and flip positions, so if you’re one of those people who are uncomfortable admitting that even the worst written book might have something worthwhile to offer (THE PLEBES AND THE STUPIDS LIKE IT SO I MUST NEVER) back out from this page slowly and go elsewhere on the interwebs.)
Here is my point to counteract – or maybe encompass is the better word – the points above. Even if the above points are true, and I believe they are, they do not affect my enjoyment of the book. Look, you don’t read a Dan Brown novel for great writing. You just don’t***. You read a Dan Brown novel to be carried along on a plot going the same exact speed of one of those fancy foreign high-speed trains. You read a Dan Brown book to see historical facts and famous pieces of art placed in new context, or maybe just to learn something. You read it for the secrets and the conspiracies and the ridiculously high stakes the plot hinges on. You read it for the red herrings and the betrayals. (If you’re like me, you also read it so that every time Dan Brown writes something with a Dan Brown flair, you can shake your head or laugh loudly or use whatever sort of exclamations you prefer – Oh, Dan Brown, you say, mentally patting him on the head with simultaneous affection and frustration.) You read it to find out what crazy thing he’s written about next, and to find out just how many and what types of people he’s going to piss off next. You read it to be fucking entertained. In that respect, this book is pretty much a success.
***If Dan Brown is your paragon for good writing, please for the love of God send me an email or a private message or a tweet, and I will provide you with a list of alternatives with which to raise your standards. Also, for as much shit as people give Dan Brown, I think he’s good at quite a lot of things that get overlooked most of the time. He’s really good at research, for one thing – the wealth of historical detail he uncovers in his books is extremely thorough, and I’d be willing to bet the amounts of information he uncovers that he doesn’t put in his books is rather large. I also think it’s notable that the historical and artistic bits he does include are nearly always very interesting. For another thing, in terms of the genre he’s writing in (the thriller), his writing is top notch. I’ve read a lot of thrillers by other authors, and in comparison, Dan Brown is something of a wordsmith. On a related note, the purpose of the thriller is to thrill — to create suspense. So while one might consider his short chapters that 99% of the time end in cliffhangers as ‘hacky,’ you might also want to consider them ‘effective’. They serve their purpose — they get you to turn the page. And finally, and maybe most significantly, Dan Brown has a definite talent for finding our cultural panic buttons and then pushing on them real hard. The effect of this is that he works through in his novels issues that we face every day, and he does so in a venue that can be sold candy-coated to a consumer mass public that would otherwise barf up similar information in reflexive panic.
The last thing I want to say about Dan Brown and this book is the reason that I ended up giving it four stars instead of three. That reason is ballsiness. He tries to break up his formula in this one, and in some ways he succeeds. It was an interesting experiment in Inferno to have the plot start with Langdon unable to recall where he is or why he’s in Italy, with a gunshot wound to the head. From there, he has to piece together his recent past and solve a mystery he’s already solved once before all over again. This adds an extra layer of confusion to the plot that his previous three Langdon books were missing. He also shakes up his infamous traitor plot a little, but I won’t say too much more about that just in case you’re going to read it for yourself. But the most significant reason I say he has balls is the ending to this book. In thrillers like this one, the hero always saves the day. The world is returned to its status quo, maybe a little richer, maybe a little more cynical, depending on whose book it is you’re reading. But he always succeeds in whatever madcap tomfoolery he’s been participating in. But in this one? Uh, he doesn’t. Langdon and his associates attempt to stop the mass dispersal of a virus that will sterilize 1/3 of the world’s population for all time, and they fail. This means that any future Langdon book will take place in a world that has been irrevocably changed. I mean, that’s just unheard of in this genre. I won’t get into the politics of it, but in terms of story, I really think that ending saved this book.
I could probably go on, but as this is my 52nd review of the year and it’s almost 2,000 words, I think I’ll just leave it at that.
(I still kind of want to throw spitballs at the back of Dan Brown’s thick head of hair. Anybody know if he’s doing a signing in AZ?)