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Two Days I'll Never Get Back


by Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2013

Let me get one thing out of the way: Inferno, Dan Brown’s newest novel, is not good. By any standard, scale, or specification, this is a bad book. In fact, the only thing that Inferno is good at is being bad. It is not bad in a fun way, though. It is bad in a way that is embarrassing and offensive, a way that made me think as I read it of all of the seconds that were flying by, seconds I would never get back, seconds that would’ve been better spent doing literally anything else.

And yet Inferno will certainly be one of the best-selling new releases this year. It has been out for about three weeks and has already sold more than 600,000 copies. It is the fourth installment in Dan Brown’s series of novels (Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol) about the exceptionally lame Professor Robert Langdon, a fictional member of Harvard’s fictional department of symbology. Frustratingly enough, this deeply uninteresting book has even been flattered by something like controversy. Public argument can be a good thing, and it is nothing short of inspirational to see a debate emerge about a work of fiction. In this case, however, it is an argument between religious wingnuts who object to whatever pagan garbage they assume is in Inferno (spoiler alert: there is nothing more sinful than an episode of 7th Heaven in these 480 painful pages) and Illuminati lunatics who use words like “sheeple” in normal conversation. In fact, as I was reading this book in Coffee Culture on Elmwood and Bryant, a young woman came over to me and placed a Post-It note on my copy before walking away without a word. The note read, “The best book you could ever read is the Holy Bible, the word of God (‘I AM’) for us.”

In this most recent iteration of his eponymous series, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence after some sort of violent accident with nothing but his characteristic wit of the bourgeois everyman and his tweed jacket. “Where am I? What happened?” Langdon asks himself in the first of a mind-numbing series of italicized reflections, none of which gives the reader any new information about anything at all, and all of which, every single one, could be removed from the text without any result except for a light thinning of the textual excelsior that comprises the vast majority of this novel. A wafer-thin device of a female character with a porn star’s name materializes to answer his questions: “I’m Dr. Sienna Brooks.” Brooks is described as having eyes that, “though a gentle brown, seemed unusually penetrating, as if they had witnessed a profundity of experience rarely encountered by a person her age.” Who is Langdon? Where is he from? “You were wearing Harris Tweed and Somerset loafers, so we guessed British,” Brooks tells him. Then we get the following: “‘I’m American,’ Langdon assured her, too exhausted to explain his preference for well-tailored clothing,” and the reader can almost see Dan Brown sitting on an $800 office chair smiling to himself and looking excitedly at the screen of his IBM ThinkPad.

Langdon soon discovers that he is being pursued by Vayentha, an agent working for the Consortium, a powerful contractor whose office is The Mendacium, a giant boat with all manner of pieces of technology with long names aboard (e.g. “…the incoming call was from a Swedish Sectra Tiger XS personal voice-encrypting phone”). Powerful clients hire the Consortium for various clandestine services and blahblahblah even world leaders have paid the Consortium for its skills in whatever. But the Consortium’s most recent client was a super weird guy who jumped off a building and now—nothing will ever be the same again. Give me a break.

This villainous client has created some crazy scheme somehow based on Dante’s Inferno (“Composed by Dante in the early 1300s, Inferno had quite literally redefined medieval perceptions of damnation”), a text on which Langdon just happens to be an expert. In one particularly embarrassing chapter, we get the text of “Divine Dante: Symbols of Hell,” a lecture Langdon gave to hundreds of amazed white people two years before the narrative present. The chapter is so melodramatic, with audience reactions that are so implausible, that it comes off as a parody of Brown’s particular brand of living vicariously through his protagonist. Langdon says, “Don’t tell the pope,” and we are supposed to believe “the crowd laughed.” Langdon shows a slide of a Botticelli painting and we are supposed to believe “the crowd gasped audibly.” Brown’s true achievement here is his ability to be condescending without being smart at all.

The villain calls himself the Shade. If that didn’t make you cringe, the Shade’s mortifying soliloquies certainly will. They read like those adolescent press releases from what CNN calls “vigilante hacker group Anonymous,” the ones that end with, “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” The Shade says, “But this is my paradise…the perfect womb for my fragile child. Inferno…But I am not a prophet. I am your salvation. I am the Shade,” and somewhere in the world a two-headed calf is born.

We learn as the book lumbers onward that this strange client is basically Jonathan Franzen: He is another one of these doomsday prophets who are convinced that overpopulation is going to destroy the world. People are living for too long and reproducing too much, and that is terrible and horrifying and so we need to have a giant plague or something to thin the herd. I have many issues with this misanthropic nonsense, the most fundamental of which is the fact that after we adjust for gender imbalance in countries like China, we get a global effective fertility rate of about 2.4, which is only just above the replacement rate, and that current trends suggest “the human race will no longer be replacing itself by the early 2020’s” (from “The End of Population Growth” by Sanjeev Sanyal at Project Syndicate).

More important for a reading of Inferno, however, is Brown’s refusal to examine critically the flawed fear-mongering his villain performs. This is because the financial success of this novel is due to the fact that it preys on anxiety. To write Inferno, Brown found a scary vision of impending doom that he supports by invoking science and even including graphs in the text of the novel, and then he hung a plot with the thickness of a mosquito net around it. Brown takes everything for granted—that we will expect Dr. Brooks to fall in love with the two-dimensional Robert Langdon, that we will be afraid of population growth and the Consortium (which Brown, before the prologue, claims is a real organization whose name he changed “for considerations of security and privacy”), that we will follow his lead as he walks us through puzzles about as complex as a black-and-white Rubik’s Cube.

Brown’s method of writing a mystery involves the following tried and true trick: 1. Take a building/image/song that is famous, 2. Introduce a hidden room/message/object that is not immediately obvious to the reader, and 3. Reveal the room/message/object in a way that allows the reader to feel like he has done some of the cryptography himself. This is the reason children love to do paint-by-numbers or connect-the-dots images. What is offensive, then, is the fact that Dan Brown treats his readers like they’re in grade school.

But Brown is no evil genius. One thing Inferno taught me is that Dan Brown is nothing but a good capitalist. This book is written so poorly that I had to check if I had mistakenly gotten my hands on an uncorrected galley proof. There was no chance of that, though, because the publisher imposed such a bizarre embargo on review copies (reviewers chosen to receive advance copies in the mail were given an evening to read the 480-page novel and then they had to mail it back) that there was no chance of one getting into regular circulation. I can’t think of any excuses, then, for the errors that abound in Inferno. On the small scale, we’ve got the fact that Brown never standardizes his use of the interrobang (the ?! or !? that sometimes comes at the end of a sentence that expresses both surprise and disbelief), or the fact that Brown uses ellipses (…) so often it becomes comical within the first 15 pages. (The first page alone has seven of them.) Worse, he uses them in the third-person omniscient narration when there is no good reason to do so: “Langdon was overcome by a sudden, instinctive sense of danger…not just for himself…but for everyone.” Factual errors are everywhere, including Brown’s erroneous quotation of Robert Oppenheimer on page 45 (the actual quote is, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” and he said it in an interview about the Trinity test in 1945).

On a larger scale, there is the stunning weakness of Brown’s prose, including eye-melting gems like “Vayentha, he thought, picturing the sinewy, spike-haired specialist,” and “She pointed to an area near the bottom of the funnel-shaped hell,” and “Monteverdi, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini composed pieces based on Dante’s work, as had one of Langdon’s favorite living recording artists—Loreena McKennitt,” and “Circles of contamination…replication of infected cells…death-toll estimates,” and “Although Langdon sensed his mind now working at normal speed, he still felt as if he were struggling to catch up. I’ve been carrying a biometrically sealed canister,” and “Sienna, eez Danikova! Where are you?! Eez terrible! Your friend Dr. Marconi, he dead! Hospital going craaazy!”

I love fantasy, I love mysteries, I love science fiction—this is the worst possible example of any of those genres. To find a better book, just look to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel of the same name. Or read literally any other book. Maybe The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a wonderful and accessible novel of fantasy and national intrigue. There are so many thousands and thousands of beautiful things to read, and you would do well to turn away from Inferno in favor of any single one of them. One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure sometimes, but putting a bow on a banana peel don’t make it Moby-Dick.

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