Rs 750, 461 pages
From the first sentence of Chapter One—“The memories materialized slowly… like bubbles surfacing from the darkness of a bottomless well”—to the last—“The sky had become a glistening tapestry of stars”—it’s wincingly clear that we are in Dan Brown Land.
In Dan Brown Land, it is very easy for critics, or indeed, anybody who is fond of this little thing we call “writing”, to find something to satirize. There’s Brown’s … determination …. to restore the ellipses… editors made writers… take out… unless they were … Barbara Cartland….
Given a blank page and the vast resources of the English language, Dan Brown will reach relentlessly for cliches. An assassin, unstraddling (sic) her motorbike, will advance like a panther stalking its prey, and you expect nothing less from her, because Dan Brown has already stamped his love of the obvious phrase on Inferno, even though we are only 14 pages in. Elsewhere, he proves that he is a master of suspense: “She knew NetJets took customer privacy very seriously, and yet this alert trumped all of their corporate privacy regulations.”
A little later, the Wikiprose will begin: relentless paragraphs of exposition that explain to readers who Dante was, and what the Inferno was, and what Malthus had to say on overpopulation (this is important). Sometimes, characters speak entirely in Wikiprose: “In the days of the early Greeks, a mouseion was a place where the enlightened gathered to share ideas…” “If you ever read The Divine Comedy, you’ll see his journey is divided into three parts—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.”
This reviewer, unwilling to add to the thriving Dan Brown Parody industry, read Inferno very carefully, and found some lines that she could not parody. For instance, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis,” which is from Dante Alighieri. Or “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark,” also difficult to parody, and also from Dante. Technically speaking, though, it is not true that any paragraph from Dan Brown’s Inferno can be easily parodied.
It is true, though, that if nine circles of hell were reserved for those who commit tautological errors, overuse adverbs, torture grammar, state the obvious, repeat what they’ve just said about the obvious, relentlessly suck any hint of poetry out of prose, create dubious conspiracy theories, create dubious conspiracy theories that depend on unlikely coincidences, create dubious conspiracy theories that depend on unlikely coincidences and mysterious villains, Dan Brown would have a VIP Lounge reserved in all of them.
Why read him, then? Inferno might become more popular than The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, despite every atrocity he commits upon the gagged, bound, tortured and disembowlled corpse of the English language. And it might do that because Brown has reinvented the novel.
In an interview to the Paris Review, Don De Lilo said: “It was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history.” Dan Brown sees in language something far less noble—it’s a delivery system for ideas, no more and no less.
Is it, perhaps, the originality of his ideas that bring him readers? Not so. Inferno has a characteristically over-the-top premise, but it is only run-of-the-mill compared with your everyday conspiracy theorist, who can imagine shadow world governments or the Clinton Body Count.
Spoiler alert: in Brown’s Inferno, the world is in danger, threatened by rogue eugeniticists who mean to sort out humanity’s population problems through the use of bio-terrorism. This is a noble aim, assuming that you’re among the four billion survivors, and that you don’t mind a little judicious culling every few generations or so to keep the world in that state of grace. (Especially if the bio-terrorists target, say, Internet trolls, or people who deliberately misplace their apostrophes.)
For reasons clear only to Dan Brown and his fans, Dante Alighieri and a set of riddles revolving around the cantos of the Inferno and the poet’s death mask are a key component of this plot. This is a daring move on Brown’s part; though we agree that terrorism is always wrong, some of us might confess a weakness for terrorists who have the taste to pick Dante, and who know their cantos inside and out. But again, a rapid perusal of conspiracy theorists will indicate that the idea of riddles built into art or literature is not new.
Perhaps it is the neatness of his plot, then? Yes, but what are the chances that one protagonist—Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist—will wake up in hospital with a bullet injury and no memory—and be treated by Dr Sienna Brooks, who just happens to have an IQ of 208, a waist considerably slimmer than that, the abilities of a ninja and the ubiquitious memory of Google’s search engines? Once you work out that it’s highly unlikely that this meeting owes much to chance, relax: there are even more implausible twists and turns ahead, because Brown never disappoints.
But these things—style, plot, premise, character—are what you look for when you’re looking at a novel as good literature, instead of a delivery system. In each of his novels, including Inferno, Dan Brown pulls off the Holy Trinity of entertainment.
He gives good gossip: Harris Tweed decorates its coats with an “iconic orb adorned with 13 buttonlike jewels and topped by a Maltese cross”, the Venetian doges were buried under their Latin names. The awfulness of his language masks its sources—Brown writes the way a TV broadcast, Wikipaedia, witless ads and some Internet blogs sound. He writes, in short, recognisably, producing a distillation of 21st century mass-speak, making each chapter a cliff-hanger. He does not write like a novelist, which means that he’s accessible to bright people who don’t read novels.
And finally, this is why Dan Brown has mass appeal: as he rambles through Dante, the history of Venice, death masks, Botticelli, scuba diving beneath the Hagia Sophia, he makes people feel like they know stuff. He has one great gift—his enthusiasm for Da Vinci and Dante is genuine, if slightly terrifying.
In Woody Allen’s The Whore of Mensa, men pay good money to have their deepest, most shameful urges satisfied: “Suppose I wanted Noam Chomsky explained to me by two girls?”
That’s the code Dan Brown has cracked. Deep down inside, every reader wants to feel smart, not just like they know stuff, but like they know stuff other people don’t. Brown manages to make each of his two million readers feel like they’re the only ones who he’s telling this arty, intellectual, secret stuff to. For some readers, he will make their tapestry of stars glisten like they’ve never glistened before. For the rest of us, here. Nothing like Paradiso to scrub the taste of Brown out of your mouth.
(Published in the Business Standard, Saturday, 18 May, 2013)