Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Inferno, by Dan Brown, a review

The details are all too important to me. I spent months looking over the text of volumes 1 and 2 of Quantum to get them to a satisfactory state (not perfect). And so, when I pressed the "Publish" button on both I was understandably relieved.

Ironically, that amount of care and dedication didn't go into the blurb... It's been a few days since I published volume 2 and yesterday I noticed a booboo in the blurb description:

Iraq War veteran Miles Trevor has once chance to gain redemption for losing his men in the war--at least this is what he tells himself. To prove his worth, he undertakes a quest to help the teen Sprite, Kendra Lepree, return to her home in Lusphera. But this simple quest grows to Epic proportions.

I laughed softly and then, in a panic started pulling out my hair when I realized that when I wrote the blurb for the other publishing websites (Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords), I had simply cut and pasted that description. I fixed all of that today and now I don't look like a jackass when anyone reads the blurb.

It's a lesson learned: Don't cut and paste descriptions, at least not before you proof-read them.

So, what does this have to do with Dan Brown's work? A conversation about Dan Brown ultimately has to be about details. They are all-important in his work.



Author: Dan Brown

Premise: Famed symbologist, Robert Langdon, wakes up in an Italian hospital without having any memory of how he got there or why. Very quickly he realizes that he had been trying to stop a madman from unleashing a monster on humanity.

Genre: Thriller

What didn't work for me:

I remember what the James Bond movies were like in the past (back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s). Each story was its own, unique entity that hardly acknowledged what came before it. This way, James Bond was always that cool, unaffected spy that could tackle whatever obstacles were in his way without worrying about the many, many men and women who died in his previous movies. The Indiana Jones movies are like that too (except that last one they made).

The Robert Langdon series is a bit like that. This will be Langdon's fourth story and I never get a sense that the main character has gone through hell in previous stories. I can deal with the narration not mentioning the events of Angels and Demons or The Davinci Code, but for Langdon not to remember or be affected by having met one of the descendants of Christ is a little far fetched.

For that matter, why isn't he affected by the fact that he keeps having these very bad days during which incredible things happen? I mean even John McClane and Jack Bauer acknowledge that very nasty things happen to them occasionally; they make jokes about it or are noticeably affected by these events.

In short, the style of storytelling feels dated, like those Lone Ranger and Zorro serials.

Aside from the style of storytelling, the nature of the story bothered me. I've said before that the narration does several things. One is describe events, and the other (something I haven't written about) is offer the reader insight into the mind of the author. Taken to an extreme, the fiction becomes propaganda and/or advertising.

We all know what advertising is, we see commercials for products everywhere. Propaganda comes in several forms, the most common are political and religious (a sermon). Less common is philosophical propaganda. I am not going to say that propaganda is evil and gosh darn it, Dan Brown should be punished for it. Propaganda is a tool that many governments and organizations take advantage of.

I will say that I am not a fan of any form of propaganda in fiction because it is sooooo blatantly obvious; I like books that make me think, not books that think for me.

Propaganda in fiction works like this: 1) Introduction to an issue or problem that is dire and very easy to recognize; 2) through the limited scope of the fiction, the author attempts to solve the problem; 3) in the fiction, the solution to the problem works out okay and hey, maybe we should apply it to the real world.

Now, this is not the same as an author being outspoken about a real issue in the world they live in, like Steinbeck in this passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

"And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs. When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it--fought with a low wage. If that fella'll work for thirty cents, I'll work for twenty-five. ... And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills to bring more people in. And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we'll have serfs again."

Dan Brown identifies a real problem in the world: Overpopulation. And he makes the mistake of trying to solve that problem by offering a possibility, a way technology can stop this problem effectively. In the context of Inferno, the solution seems okay--hell, it seems like a damn good option. But this is what the propaganda is supposed to do, make you think the solution (presented in the limited scope of the fiction) is something we ought to look into.

While the outspoken author presents a real problem and hopes real discourse can take place in the world to find a solution, the author of propaganda wants you to buy into the solution presented in the fiction.

What worked for me:

I remember the first thing that came to mind when I found out Dan Brown was coming out with another Robert Langdon novel: What is it going to be about? This was not a question about plot, but rather a question about its subject matter.

Dan Brown writes about some tantalizing issues.

And when the novel was published, I deliberately stayed away from any description of it. I just stuck to the, "It's a Robert Langdon novel." Reading it and discovering its subject matter was a real treat for me.

What this does is make Dan Brown stand out from the other authors who publish thrillers. I don't get excited when other authors in this genre publish something new. The only other authors who make me look forward to their work are great authors like Cormac McCarthy and George R. R. Martin.

And I appreciated the way this novel creates interest in a masterpiece like Dante's Divine Comedy. It brings to the average reader a focused and very informed look at the literature and other works of art it mentions. This is what I mean by saying that in a Dan Brown book, the details are all-important. Everything is precise, from descriptions of paintings, to GPS like descriptions of structures. The amount of research involved for a project like this is mind-boggling. Only a select few authors are willing to go this in-depth into what they write about.

I'm looking forward to more. Lots more. More Robert Langdon, please.

Aside from the subject matter, the exposition has grown on me. I remember when I read The Davinci Code, how awkward the long passages of exposition seemed. My perception of them changed when I understood this is distinguishing feature of the series.

Call me silly, but the scholarly lectures and materials included in the novel work on different dimensions. It is intriguing exposition that actually teaches you things. It is also very specific to the character Robert Langdon, who is a professor.

In Inferno, Dan Brown has also honed the exposition so it is not as imposing as it is in previous novels. Actually, Inferno seems well polished and reserved, no doubt the result of a good writer-editor relationship. Compared to The Lost Symbol, Inferno is superior.

Mind you, this doesn't mean it is in par with books like, say, The Grapes of Wrath, but it is showing change.

I also enjoy the fact that Robert Langdon is a simple professor, not an ex commando or a criminal or a cop. What helps Langdon is his intellect, not so much his brawn. He is not like the too-common detective, who has been trained to deal with these stressful situations. He is also not like the Indiana Jones clones, who can't wait to get out on another adventure. Langdon, because of his personality and profession, fits well in a classroom and would rather stay in it.

And even though he meets these beautiful women who might be romantic interests, he engages them in a realistic, reserved manner. So, missing are the gratuitous sex scenes in some novels of this same genre, and the false way in which the good guy ends up with the girl at the end.

We make up for that with some honest, and much more satisfying discourse on why relationships work and don't work. Langdon acknowledges that getting involved with these women would be thrilling, but in the long run, not fulfilling. And dammit, that's something I can respect.


Every time I read a Robert Langdon novel, I learn something. And isn't that the point of reading a book? If you're willing to laugh at the way Mr. Brown solves the problem presented in the novel, like I did, then Inferno can be a satisfying addition to the Robert Langdon series.

Like always, what makes a novel enjoyable to me is different per novel. In this case, the character of Robert Langdon, combined with the fast paced plot and the beautiful details of the subject matter, made this a novel I will contemplate.