The same old rune

Posted on June 1, 2013


Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ is stuffed with clues, chases, chunks of general knowledge, and possibly an insight into why this author does what he does.

Midway through Dan Brown’s latest thriller, I began to wonder about the future adventures of Robert Langdon, the Harvard University professor with a penchant for scouring the European landscape for answers to maddeningly cryptic clues. At some point, having exhausted the Easter-egg possibilities of every city, building, statue and painting in the Continent, Brown is going to have to turn elsewhere – and why not India? Surely there’s a mystery waiting to be unraveled in the bowels of the Taj Mahal, where Langdon ends up after following leads embedded in (a) the dreadlocks of a recently deceased Naga Sadhu, (b) Anarkali’s expunged contribution to the Akbarnama, (c) the peeling plaster around the largest fresco in the Ajanta caves, (d) the latitude and longitude indicated in the waistline of a copulating couple in a Khajuraho temple, and (e) the runes revealed under the soot of the oldest griddle in Chandni Chowk’s Parathe Wali Gali.

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Upon the souls of the Knights Templar, this is not an attempt to mock formula, which is the oxygen on which genre fiction thrives. Why expect something different from Dan Brown? After all, no one picks up a Mills & Boon paperback in anticipation of the scene where the long-awaited union of the lady of the manor and the gamekeeper is interrupted by a chainsaw-wielding psychopath. Inferno adheres closely to the rules laid out by The Da Vinci Code, which means we have Langdon and a good-looking female companion running from one European location to another, tracking clues and evading murderous men and women who belong to cult-like organisations. And like The Da Vinci Code, this stuff is made for the movies. The chapters are short, exciting, twist-riddled, and they always end with a climax. (“A searing bolt of pain traveled directly to Langdon’s head. He felt his eyes rolling back, and then everything went black.”) The pages turn themselves, thanks to a plot where religion and science collide in a manner as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile.

Unfortunately, these pages also turn themselves from tedium. Is there another novelist so unmindful of narrative momentum? Brown will set up a heart-pounding chase, and then stop to gawk at the scenery: “Istanbul’s three-hundred-year-old Spice Bazaar is one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world. Built in the shape of an L, the sprawling complex…” He’s perpetually torn between the contradictory impulses of the entertainer and the edifier – imagine Robert Ludlum possessed by the spirit of Wikipedia. We learn about the Medicis’ patronage of art, about cylinder seals invented by Sumerians, that Botticelli was “one of the true giants of the Italian Renaissance,” and that Venice is “a unique Italian water-world made up of hundreds of interconnected lagoons.” Langdon cannot cross the Swiss consulate without noting that its “concave, blue-glass façade resembles a futuristic monolith along the skyline.” It’s probably a blessing that Brown doesn’t write sex scenes, otherwise we’d encounter a passage like this: “Langdon crushed her lips with his and threw her on the bed. His eyes wandered to the 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sateen sheets. Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium…”

There are formidable-looking charts and graphs that present information that could easily have been worked into a conversation, and even the heroine’s background, instead of being parceled out in phases, is revealed in a rush of expository detail. She’s her own little Wikipedia entry. If you’re an armchair psychoanalyst, you could treat yourself to a sleuthing session of your own, foraging Brown’s prose for insights into his obsession with facts and figures. Here’s a passage that suggests a theory:
“Where are we,?” Langdon finally demanded.
“This is my ship – The Mendacium.
Mendacium?” Langdon asked. “As in… the Latin word for Pseudologos – the Greek god of deception?”
The man looked impressed. “Not many people know that.”
Langdon, therefore, is really a stand-in for Brown, and we, the readers are substitutes for the impressed man, the owner of The Mendacium, marveling at the author’s accumulation of information that “not many people know.”

We may be more impressed if he wrote better prose. You don’t move 200 million copies of your books by employing anything but the most utilitarian language, but surely all those readers deserve more diligent editing. Early on, describing Dante’s The Divine Comedy – the key to the happenings here – Brown writes, “Of [its] three sections – Inferno, Purgatorio, and ParadisoInferno was by far the most widely read and memorable.” Later, a character says, “If you ever read The Divine Comedy, you’ll see Dante’s journey is divided into three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.” Why the repetition? If the intent is to remind the reader, couldn’t the second instance have been less of an announcement? The name of a shrine is spelt, in the same paragraph, as “Hagia Sophia” and “Hagia Sofia.” And setting a scene, Brown writes, “A replica of Michelangelo’s David… stands in all his glory at the palazzo entrance.”When David refers to a statue, not a person, shouldn’t it be “its glory”? But Brown and his fans will probably label this as nitpicking, which is the act of removing the eggs of lice, generally head lice, from the host’s hair. As the nits are cemented to individual hairs, they cannot be removed with most combs…

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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