Midway through this infernally boring novel, Dan Brown finally pulls a fast one on the reader, and the story picks up. But by that time it is too little, too late.
Inferno does not live up to the standard set by the first two novels in the Robert Langdon series, which began with Angels and Demons. As a thriller, it is hard to top the bestselling The Da Vinci Code for both plot and sales. Meanwhile, The Lost Symbol read like an elaborate apology for the amount of damage Brown dealt to the Freemasons' image. Inferno takes a completely tangential route, and deals within the frameworks of another classical narrative, and completely misses the goals of a thriller: to keep the reader insatiably flipping pages.
If it weren't for the overt and blatantly artless connections made between the two texts, Dan Brown's Inferno, and Dante Alighieri's Inferno, there would be little point to Dan Brown's novel at all. But then, the critic's job is not to heavily penalise the writer for writing in a particular genre. It is just infuriating to read a work that is not neatly filed into a specific shelf of the library. For a thriller, the book is too prosaic in the first half; and if it is contending to be a literary work it contains outrageously atrocious language - the river has "churning waters" and there is a "sea of corpses" at the feet of "a veiled woman". The bodies are "writhing in agony" and Langdon can "hear the mournful cries of human suffering echoing across the water." That is just the first page.
The story runs thus: Langdon wakes up in a hospital with a splitting headache. He is suffering from amnesia, ala Jason Bourne. But unlike Ludlum's hero, Langdon is not confused about whether he is on the right side. Of course he's the hero. He's the Harvard professor with the tweed jacket and Mickey Mouse watch, after all. Can't have Disney playing for the wrong team! He is saved by a doctor from an assassin, and then the adventure and the puzzle-solving begins. As do the touristy and historically informative set of discussions between the two characters, as they travel across Italy and Europe.
For anybody unfamiliar with The Da Vinci Code, puzzles in the Langdon series are often shared with readers, though obscure enough to not be solvable except through contrivances and coincidences in the narrative. Ditto for Inferno.
The puzzles are centered around the theory and actions of Bertrand Zobrist, a tortured genius geneticist. As with previous villains, this one is also an egoist, and he also leaves plenty of clues for Langdon to decipher. Zobrist believes that the Earth is nearing Doomsday population, when the resources will finally run out and people will begin to behave like the plagued and mad masses from Dante's version of hell in Inferno. With references to this well-known and incredibly visual text, Brown then ties the narrative of his own Inferno, referring to the original on at least every other page.
A Langdon escapade would be incomplete without a beautiful and superlatively intelligent woman. Enter Dr Sienna Brooks, a child prodigy with unmatchable language and music skills who has grown into a lonesome adult. She is the doctor who saves the professor's life at the beginning of the novel, and she stays by his side for most of the narrative, until the first major - and rather obvious - twist in the tale.
The other tortured and genius woman is the head of the World Health Organisation, Elizabeth Sinskey, who is chasing after Zobrist because the madman has left clues that he is willing and able - and eager - to reduce the world population by a significant amount. It sounds more interesting than the way it has been presented in Inferno, and it is presented very badly there. Enough support has been provided for the argument that the world is reaching a crisis through over-population, but not enough debate is generated between the characters about sustainable growth on the basis of equitable resource distribution (tax those rich bastards!). But then, Inferno is not a lesson in economics. Some plot loopholes are to be expected.
The Da Vinci Code managed to establish Dan Brown as a breed apart from other thriller genre writers. He deconstructed Christianity for mass-market thriller readers. Unfortunately, Dante's Inferno is not as accessible to Brown. Sure, it is beautifully written, and wreaks havoc across the heart of the trained critic and theorist; but its warnings against evil are hidden behind veils that cannot be penetrated with Brown's pen. That is the irony of the thriller genre: it cannot examine the details of a minute moment or object, but it can deal with the world at large. Brown's lavish strokes with the needle-point brush were bound to be ineffective, and they are.
Robert Langdon, professor and adventurer extraordinaire, may retain his status as the new Indiana Jones, even though the film versions will need to replace Tom Hanks, who is too old to play a 40-year-old. Brown cannot rest on the laurels of the last good book in the Langdon series, though. He will have to come up with an actually good narrative to compete against the previous best book in the genre: his own The Da Vinci Code.
By Dan Brown