Dan Brown’s Infernal Fiction

Inferno sets out to decry overpopulation, but instead reveals an ill-cultured, undereducated populace.

“That Mickey Spillane, he sure can write!” says one of the amiable losers in the film Marty, after reading a passage of exquisitely bad macho-romance.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, having written what for lack of a mightier term we must call a novel, a novel that proved that John the Apostle was a girl, Mary Magdalene a helpless goddess, and a hypotenuse an African water buffalo—having revealed for millions the lavish colors of the frescoes in Notre Dame de Paris (there are no frescoes in Notre Dame de Paris), the grim austerity of Spanish Cathedrals (Spanish Cathedrals are notorious for baroque exuberance), and the deep mystery of the Golden Ratio (every schoolboy knew about the Golden Ratio)—having shown the world that he could write a novel about art, theology, and Christian history while knowing nothing about art, theology, and Christian history, except what he could glean from the covers of matchbooks and obiter dicta from Cher—having shown how much you can do if you do not bother to open an ordinary encyclopedia, this Dan Brown, I say, this man of our time and of no time, has now written a novel about the greatest poet who ever lived, Dante.

Only it doesn’t have a damned thing to do with Dante, just as The Da Vinci Code didn’t have anything to do with Leonardo.  Dante is just a quick needle used to inject the “story” into the reader’s head.  This time, Mr. Brown has opened a lot of encyclopedias, deluging the reader with 400 pages of material that belongs in Michelin guides to Florence, Venice, and Istanbul, none of it to the point.  Even at that, he gets details wrong as soon as he veers away from something you might find in a guide book, especially when he engages in an exceedingly rare moment of telling us something about Dante’s poem.  He says it was called a Comedy because it was written in the vernacular, “for the masses.”  No, a comedy, according to the medieval definition, was a poem in which a character moves from misery to happiness, regardless of what language it is written in, and there were no “masses” to read it, since books were still costly to produce and scarce. 

He says that Dante’s Purgatory has nine circles of ascent; no, there are seven, one for each of the deadly sins.  He says that Purgatory is the only way to get from the Inferno to Paradise.  No, it isn’t; nobody but Dante visits Inferno and leaves the place, and plenty of people do not have to ascend the mountain.  Essentially, Dante’s poem is about the resurrection of a human soul, by the grace of God, to turn from the lie of evil to the truth and beauty of goodness.  Brown doesn’t get any of that, because he doesn’t care about any of that.

What’s this book about?  It’s 462 pages of bad prose.  Portentous sentence fragments.  Italics, for somber emphasis.  J—–, there are childish profanities!  Even childish punctuation?!  Anticlimaxes, a good dollop of Most Favored Bigotry, for sales; one dimensional characters, most of them pallid even in their one dimension, and a message with all the sophistication of Sesame Street.

What’s that message?  We’re all going to die, die, die a horrible death!  Yes, the world is becoming overpopulated!  Actually, the world’s population is leveling off, but the truth here is not convenient.  That’s because the threatening message is another needle, for injecting the promising message.  What’s that one?  It’s simple.  We all need to let scientists and readers of the New Yorker and other brainiacs to direct human evolution, so that we can break out into a “transhuman” and “posthuman” age.  Who are the enemies?  The Catholic Church (naturally), and all of us perfectly normal people who like to marry and have children.  Shame, shame.  And then, too, we must level some very mild criticism at the Robert Langdons of the world—Brown’s twit of a hero—who don’t like to marry and have children (that’s good), but who might feel just a tiny bit squeamish about mass sterilizations and eugenics (that’s bad).  After all, as Brown reminds us several times, didn’t Dante say that “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, preserved their neutrality”?  Actually, no, Dante never said anything so stupid.  John F. Kennedy, that poseur, said that Dante said it.  But Dante reserves the worst place in hell for those who return evil for good; and the epitome of them all is Satan, traitor against God, with his wings flapping forever in impotence.

Let me spoil everything in the book.  For hundreds of pages you are led to believe that there are bad guys running around trying to kill Langdon and the de rigueur Xena Warrior Princess, the pate-burnt Sienna Brooks.  There are no bad guys.  For hundreds of pages you are led to believe that a horrible plague, to wipe out a third of mankind, like the Black Death, is about to be unleashed.  It isn’t.  There is no such plague.  It’s a virus that will make a third of mankind infertile.  For hundreds of pages you are led to believe that the biohazard is in Florence.  It isn’t.  Then Venice.  It isn’t.  It’s in Istanbul.  Page after page, ten watt bulb after ten watt bulb, I’m reminded of dialogue from my childhood:

“Hold on, old chum!  Let’s look at the riddle again.  What if it isn’t Gotham City?  Might it be – Got’um, Sydney – Sydney Ostralia, the world-renowned microbiologist?”

“Holy homonyms, Batman!”

And what about the madman who concocted the virus, one Bertrand Zobrist?  Well, he is really a lover of mankind, don’t you see?  He wants to give mankind enough breathing space—because we are about to enter hell.  What is hell?  Not the loss of God.  Hell is other people—lots and lots of other people, with their garlicky food and their wailing toddlers and their excrement.  Hell is overpopulated Manila, not spiffy New England, where Dan Brown lives.  What is heaven?  Oh, heaven, that’s the brave new world around the bend, when people will be engineered to live longer and not have so many babies, so that they might, well, do whatever they please, apparently, because just as there is no point to a Dan Brown allusion or a Dan Brown metaphor or a Dan Brown travelogue, so there is no point to human existence, either.  We’ll just be nicer, and the fewer of us around to bother about, the nicer it will be.

I’m often taken to task for suggesting that we have been suffering a cultural implosion, for pointing out that an old issue of Boys’ Life is linguistically more sophisticated than the current New York Times.  May I kindly submit Dan Brown as exhibit A in my prosecution?  “That Dan Brown sure is erudite!” say reviewers around the country.  “That Dan Brown, he sure knows his art!  He sure has the goods on the Middle Ages!  His hero is a symbologist – he studies symbs!”  “That Dan Brown knows his science, don’t he!” 

I defy anyone to find for me a best-selling novel written in English before 1950 that is as relentlessly inane and chic-trite and morally destitute as this one.  In saying so, do I also mean to impugn the tastes of his readers?  Let me answer by adapting Dante’s verse over the gates to the lower world: Lasciate intelligenza, voi ch’entrate. 

Check your brains at the door, all you who enter!  Check your souls and your humanity, too.

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About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.