One of the first characters to appear in Inferno is a spike-haired, malevolent biker chick dressed in black leather. What is the girl with the dragon tattoo doing in Dan Brown’s new book?
She’s scaring Robert Langdon, the tweedy symbologist who stars in Brown’s breakneck, brain-teasing capers. Reader, she will scare you, too. The early sections of Inferno come so close to self-parody that Brown seems to have lost his bearings — as has Langdon, who begins the book in a hospital bed with a case of amnesia. When Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code can’t tell what day of the week it is, the franchise appears to be in trouble.
But Inferno is jampacked with tricks. And that shaky opening is one of them. Brown winds up not only laying a bread-crumb trail of clues about Dante, but also playing games with time, gender, identity, famous tourist attractions and futuristic medicine. Then there’s the bit with the Archimedean spiral, which will have people slowly rotating their copies of Inferno.
There is even a twist built into its 5/14/13 publication date, a numerical anagram of 3.1415, the approximate value of pi. Why? Because Dante divided hell into circles. Because pi is a hint about measuring them. And because Brown’s readership has never met an embedded secret it didn’t like.
Brown again begins with a crazily grandiose prologue, this one a little more unhinged than usual. “O, willful ignorants!” exclaims some mystery figure. “Do you not see the future? Do you not grasp the splendor of my creation?” This guy with a God complex leaps off a building.
Robert Langdon’s beautiful, ponytailed doctor yanks him out of bed. He is in Florence, Italy, where he dashes through famed and historically important sites, trying to figure out what a cylinder hidden inside a sealed titanium tube with a biohazard symbol is telling him. It’s a tiny projector that offers a scrambled version of a Botticelli image, La Mappa dell’Inferno. And that sends Langdon and Sienna, the ponytailed doctor, off to the races.
Sure, there’s an awful lot of touristy detail. And Langdon will always choose a big word over a small one. But Inferno picks three of the world’s most strategically significant, antiquity-rich cities as its settings, and Langdon makes a splendid tour guide and art critic.
While it would be unsporting to say exactly which cities are involved, two are Italian. As for the third, it is in both Europe and Asia, and Langdon finds a copy of his own Christian Symbols in the Muslim World in a museum gift shop. “Now I know the one place on earth that carries that book,” he thinks.
But it takes more than geography to keep a Brown escapade spinning. The formula also calls for sinister cultism of some sort, and in this case the scheming involves overpopulation. Zobrist is a wealthy Malthusian with a powerful, secretive, high-tech army at his command (Brown says it is real, but he has given it “the Consortium” as a fake name) to execute a doomsday plot. While talking about controlling the rapid growth in population with the head of the World Health Organization, Zobrist is told, “We’re at seven billion now, so it’s a little late for that.” His reply, a fine specimen of mustache-twirling villainy: “Is it?”
There’s a lot more along these lines. And it all ties together. Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest. Eventually the book involves itself with Transhumanism, genetic manipulation and the potential for pandemics. Inferno puts the idea of a plague front and center, invoking the black plague and its culling effect on mankind. Brown is more serious than usual when he invokes Dante’s dire warning: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
But the main emphasis here is hardly on gloom. It is on the prodigious research and love of trivia that inform Brown’s stories, the ease with which he sets them in motion, the nifty tricks (Dante’s plaster death mask is pilfered from its museum setting, then toted through the secret passageways of Florence in a Ziploc bag) and the cliffhangers. There is the gamesmanship that goes with crypto-bits like “PPPPPPP.” (Sienna: “Seven Ps is … a message?” Robert, grinning: “It is. And if you’ve studied Dante, it’s a very clear one.”)
And finally there is the sense of play that saves Brown’s books from ponderousness. Once the globe-trotting begins in earnest, Langdon calls his publisher to ask for a private plane. No, says the publisher: “Let me rephrase that. We don’t have access to private jets for authors of tomes about religious history. If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk.”
Guess what: Brown has already written it. And then some.