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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Whoa. Burn.

That's not a post title I'm proud of, and when I found out partway into Dan Brown's Inferno that his primary historical inspiration this time was Dante's Inferno, I immediately judged that the book was rather unimaginatively titled. Without risking a spoiler, I can say that the element of the plot which is called 'Inferno' appears to be named rather poorly as well, in context of the allegorical relations to Dante's work -- unless we consider the deep symbolism in that old masterpiece, which the common reader, unfamiliar with Dante except in name, will find difficult to grasp through its treatment in this book alone. Then again, of course, Langdon is a symbologist, so maybe the symbolism should be important.
For the first time, my
own copy of Inferno, not
a picture off the internet;
with my hand for proof!
Brown's fourth Langdon story had been on my reading list since it was published, and I finally got to it last week. A novel of its length and pace would take me a maximum of three days earlier, but given my altered schedule I had less hours per day to read -- which means it took me four; and for three of those four days, I was disappointed and nearly bored. Almost everything was predictable, with a little concentration I could see through nearly everything, and as usual Langdon was running around with a younger woman of academic background who had begun to feel warm and fuzzy towards him -- till then I wasn't impressed with the plot, and the small reference mistakes that one can condone in researched thrillers of this kind began to grow big in my head and irritate me to no end.
The consolation, however, lay in the fact that this time, Brown had brought forth richer imagery, better language, more variation of style, better gelling subplots -- and so, lacking thrill, I delved into the technicalities of the thriller. I noticed how, this time, the balance between science and history typical to Langdon stories was tipped heavier towards science than ever, and that gave me some warmth, being a student of Science myself.
Perhaps it is unknown or even unthinkable internationally, but it is a fact that Indian litterateur snobs had criticized Brown's work as cheap, old-wine-in-new-bottle thrill, and drawn comparisons with 'mature' writers like Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer -- comments and comparisons that I always considered baseless and foolish but was hitherto unable to counter adequately. As such, I began gearing myself up to point out all the technical improvements in Brown's work in this post and in my conversations with fellow readers. Suddenly, however, on day four, Brown smashed so many twists in my face that it felt like he was holding it all in for the rest of the novel to dump it into the last third of it. I forgot all about the technicalities, started feeling utterly stupid, went red, broke a sweat, did a dance, tweeted about it, and then sat down to read again -- burn, critics; burn, smart-asses -- Brown just upped his game. You know how they say good writing is about being unafraid of vulnerability? Well, if not really himself, Brown made his protagonist Langdon more vulnerable than ever in this novel, sometimes to the point of appearing clueless and puppet-like, and that gave his story new places to go : the fact that Langdon's vulnerability opened up Brown's writing makes me wonder more than ever about how much of Langdon is Brown's alter ego. I, for one, have always felt that the greying hair and well-tailored clothing are, um, inspired, which is why I've never reconciled with the screen version of Langdon.
Reading Inferno, my first lasting reaction was to rethink my choice of picking French as a fourth language instead of Italian, though both are available, among others, on DuoLingo, because this book has more unexplained Italian than The Da Vinci Code had of unexplained French. The second lasting impression was from a gender equality standpoint -- mostly of a female lead who is, for a change, partially outside of stereotype, but not quite enough. The lead woman this time essentially works independently and does not conform to the expected appearance, but I would like to see a character who is a person first and a woman second. The other strong females in the story are also too far defined by their femininity in some way or the other -- this is something common to Brown's Langdon novels, and absent or inconspicuous in the others. Whether Brown feels the need to design them this way to protect Langdon's masculinity or something stupid like that, I do not know. Also, in this book and previous ones, I dislike how Brown always prefixes the gender of unnamed female professionals. He writes 'female technician', and simply 'technician' for males. It seems to further the idea that the nature of the profession is affected by gender, or like being female is a part of the job description, thus making it different from the 'normal', male version of the job -- it sounds like a clarification or even an apology. I'm all for a healthy mix of equally strong and important male and female characters -- otherwise all this I'm saying wouldn't have a point -- but I think the pronouns should do the defining. It shouldn't be so, that unless specified, the person is male; unless specified, gender should be just that -- unspecified, and if it's a character who comes in for one line as a part of their job in the story, why does the gender matter anyway?
Third, I found the the characters better fleshed out this time, as if Brown paid more attention to them. We are given deeper insight into a larger number of characters besides Langdon, complete with better back-stories and more page space given to their individual thoughts and feelings. They are also more indispensable to the story this time. This, combined with the science-leaning narrative and the relative departure from a Langdon-centric approach makes this story more similar to Deception Point and Digital Fortress than the other Langdon stories -- I always felt that except for being a secondary character, Tolland in Deception Point could be, with a bit of reworking, be replaced by Langdon.
The most lasting impression, however, is of the impact of this book's ending. All of Brown's novels, especially the Langdon ones, have left me with new insight and new moral dilemmas, but the endings have not threatened to change the nature of life as I, or as we, know it. Even issues relevant to modern life have been conclusively put to rest, at least within the scope of the story. But this time, the issue and the ending are especially chilling because the issue is the realest yet, and the ending would have had serious repercussions on everyone's life had it been true. It is a new kind of ending, with a new kind of exit sequence for Langdon, which Dan Brown veterans will find a pleasant surprise.
And yes, the last word. If not for anything else, do read the novel for its last word.

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