The Interesting Question Raised (and Left Unanswered) by Dan Brown’s Inferno

The explosive success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code made him unfathomably wealthy but it also indirectly made him a punching bag for a certain type of literary snob.

Yes, that includes me.

It’s not interesting, especially in 2020, to note that Dan Brown’s prose is stilted and awkward, that his descriptions of female characters fall squarely into the cringeworthy trope of men writing women and that his ability to write page-turning fiction has less to do with his control of narrative tension and more to do with his willingness to utilize constant, inexplicable interruptions. (There are only so many times that a character on the verge of revealing a huge plot point can be unexpectedly interrupted/kidnapped/murdered before the reader’s suspension of disbelief fades, revealing the janky narrative framing underneath.)

For all that, I recently read Brown’s Inferno because, in spite of all that shit I just talked about Brown, the book is centered on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and the allure of an action/adventure set against that work was too irresistible a siren song for me. Inferno is as hackneyed as you’d expect but I’ll admit that there is some satisfaction in revisiting the Malebolge and pondering the indescribable beauty of Beatrice as if I’m back in a sophomore year Classic Lit class. That pandering, nostalgic satisfaction is, explicitly, what I was looking for when I plunked down a few bucks for Inferno. What I didn’t expect was for Brown to introduce a legitimately interesting subplot about morality and the complicated line that runs between who we are as professionals and who we are as people and, most interestingly, what happens when that line is fully erased.

Early in the story, Brown introduces an assassin who is excommunicated from her syndicate and who then must flee from the very type of killer that she has spent all of her professional life being. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to outwit and outlast the wiles of the merciless group that she’s just been expelled from. It’s a plot line that teases at a lot of very intriguing outcomes but, of course, Brown doesn’t resolve this promising thread at all, instead choosing to push it off some scaffolding to its death—and I mean that literally; the character at the heart of this story thread unceremoniously falls to her death without achieving any narrative resolution.

And yet, even if Brown is unwilling to resolve them, these considerations are undoubtedly important, as the last two decades of prestige television have proven over and over again: Nearly every show to attain critical acclaim in recent memory has been dedicated to the idea of the anti-hero, a character who exhibits morally reprehensible behavior but for whom the audience is meant to root anyway. Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, House of Cards, The Americans and Barry have explored exactly this duality in some capacity. This is narratively fertile ground and that Inferno not only abandons but fully undercuts such a rich avenue for character exploration in favor of cheap twists and needless cliffhangers is a pretty succinct review of the book. As that assassin fell to her death, so too did my hopes that Inferno would be worth the time I spent with it.

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