"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One 'Inferno' Begets Another

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"... had already revealed his proclivity for collaborating with the masters and modifying great works of art to suit his needs."

The above quote from Chapter 58 of Dan Brown's Inferno depicts the protagonist Robert Langdon coming to a realization about the novel's villain. Intentional or not, I believe it is also a case of the author realizing something about himself. Like the stitches Langdon discovers in the back of his head at the tale's outset, something kept irritating me all the way to the last page.

The thematic heart of this novel is neither Dante Alighieri nor his epic poetry. They are like special guest stars brought in to pump up ratings for a sitcom. It's incredibly fun to have them around, but strictly speaking their presence is not indispensable, not with regard to generating compelling literature anyway.

There is no ancient conspiracy in Brown's Inferno, just a Bond-style supervillain with a Dante fetish. This is not to say Brown fails in his use of Inferno imagery. As a thrill ride, this new Inferno delivers. However, a plethora of working vacations failed to provide the author with an organic plot line or cohesive geography for this book. The villain must resort to graffiti and text manipulation to get the right symbols on the right works of art so that Langdon and his hottie sidekick of the day will venture down the right tunnels.

Still, as I closed up my beautiful hard bound edition after midnight, donning earbuds and listening to my favorite theme from Hans Zimmer's score to The Da Vinci Code, I was forced to admit Brown succeeded with this novel. He effectively fertilized his work using Dante's poetry and legacy. More importantly, he got into my head and made me think.

Brown's Inferno asks serious questions about humanity, its potential and its flaws. Not only are these questions serious, they are the right questions--ones we should be asking not only of dead artists and living power brokers but of ourselves. As both Dante and Brown indicate, damnation can be found in avoiding a serious discussion of humanity's flaws. And if the only venue in which we are willing to grapple with the big issues is a pop fiction novel with an average chapter length of four and a half pages, then we are as much the problem as any Brown supervillain could hope to be.

A central idea of this novel is the viral aspect of humanity. Brown is not the first to explore this facet of our species. As just one other example from good fiction, I am quite fond of Arthur C. Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey trilogy. Non-fiction works by accomplished scientists are in need of more readers as well.

Speaking personally, I found this to be the least fun of the Langdon novels, and that is a legitimate criticism because I read Brown's novels to have fun. Yet, I also regard Inferno to be his most compelling work with regard to the fictionalization of real world issues. By way of recommendation, my Dan Brown policy remains the same. If you want to try out his novels, start with Angels and Demons. If you enjoy that one, three more Robert Langdon adventures await.

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