Monday, May 27, 2013

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

by Dan Brown

Dan Brown opens his fourth Robert Langdon thriller running—or rather lying down. The Harvard professor awakens in a hospital. In rapid sequence he discovers that he’s lost two days from his memory; that—astonishingly—he’s in Florence, Italy; and most shocking of all, that he’s in the hospital because persons unknown have tried to murder him. Most of these facts are given to him by a (naturally) pretty young doctor. Mere pages into the novel, an assassin is shooting up the hospital and Langdon and this doctor are on the run. (“She knew it was probably just the adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor. In addition to his being handsome, he seemed to possess a sincerely good heart. In some distant, alternate life, Robert Langdon might even be someone she could be with.”)

Soon enough, there are more revelations—about this impressive woman, about mysterious objects secreted on Langdon’s person, and about a larger conspiracy. Of course, the conspiracy involves a bio-terror plot, and it can only be foiled by… a professor of symbology! Brown sums the opening up well in the following quote—and forgive me if the punctuation is not letter perfect, I’m transcribing from the audiobook without a printed copy for reference:
“Dante’s Inferno, Langdon thought. Inspiring foreboding pieces of art since 1330. Langdon’s course on Dante always included an entire section on the illustrious artwork inspired by The Inferno. In addition to Botticelli’s celebrated map of Hell, there was Rodin’s timeless sculpture of the three shades from The Gates of Hell, Stradanus’s illustration of pledges paddling through submerged bodies on the river Styx, William Blake’s lustful sinners swirling through an eternal tempest, Bouguereau’s strangely erotic vision of Dante and Virgil watching two nude men locked in battle, Bayros’s tortured souls huddling beneath a hail-like torrent of scalding pellets and droplets of fire, Salvador Dali’s eccentric series of watercolors and woodcuts, and DorĂ©’s huge collection of black and white paintings depicting everything from the tunneled entrance to Hades to winged Satan himself.

Now it seemed that Dante’s poetic vision of Hell had not only influenced the most revered artists throughout history, it had also, apparently, inspired another individual, a twisted soul who had digitally altered Botticelli’s famous painting, adding ten letters, a plague doctor, and then signing it with an ominous phrase about seeing the truth through the eyes of death. This artist had then stored the image on a high-tech projector sheathed in a freakishly carved bone. Langdon couldn’t imagine who would have created such an artifact. And yet, at the moment, this issue seemed secondary to a far more unnerving question: Why the Hell am I carrying it?”
As for the twisted soul above, well, it’s not a priest. Inferno’s plot doesn’t revolve around the Church this time. The catalyst of the novel’s events is a mad scientist. Oh, he’s got a plan, and it’s positively Bond-villain-esque! The fact that his actions make absolutely no sense in the world as we know it must simply be overlooked. This sort of convoluted plotting comes with the madness, you see.

On to the substance of the book… If Brown’s writing has irritated you in the past, you can most
definitely expect more of the same. I think you can see how easily the language flows in the lengthy quote above. The action commences from the outset, as if the characters were sprinting from a starter’s gun, and the pace keeps up, but a lot of it begins to feel like action for action’s sake. Momentum without meaning. Plot is Brown’s bread and butter, and while there is definitely some fun stuff in this book, a big part of me feels like it’s nothing we haven’t seen from this and other authors before. And I, personally, didn’t feel like there was significant emotional payoff to compensate for other flaws.

So, am I trashing this book? No. Not really. Listen, I’ve read every book the man has written. At this point, it’s almost entirely because I need to read what everyone else on the planet is reading. (And apparently I’m immature enough to stay up all night and read it first.) But I love thrillers. Dan Brown does have the basic skills down. The story moves relentlessly forward on short, hooky chapters. It’s the type of quick read that makes long airplane rides fly by, and I’m entirely in favor of that. Furthermore, you might learn a few factoids and a thing or two about art that inspires you to visit a museum sometime. And apparently, Robert Langdon has a great many fans. They’ll be happy to see their old friend (much like his creator) up to his old tricks.