The joys of an airport book may not quite meet the escalating demands of an upwardly liberal sensibility, but who can deny it is liberating? Environment is the daddy of content. You won’t get many books at an airport store on the vagaries of civilisation, but you will discover a hundred ways in which to turn your boss into a vegetable, and yourself into a sex symbol. But the best trash is not about changing the world; it is about saving it from dark satanic forces controlled by a mastermind. Nothing has changed since Superman, except that Superman now reads Dante instead of the Daily Plonk. Dan Brown is back at the airport with a thud that can be heard at the cash register.
I discovered Dan Brown when I joined the long line of suckers who made him a billionaire, and realised why precisely it was such a long line. The Da Vinci Code was an exotic tale of a power-thirsty Catholic cult which wanted to destroy something or the other before it was stopped in the nick of time by Brown’s alter ego, a Harvard professor who, naturally, did not waste too much of his time on teaching. The hallucinations worked well through my pliant brain about a decade ago. I am pleased to inform you that both the Vatican and the world survived Dan Brown’s assault. It is, however, a tribute to this master chef of potboilers that he did, for a brief while, make the Vatican wince.
The trick is to perfume rubbish with a bottle of incense hidden beneath the pile. Brown’s bottle is artfully shaped, with secret sub-containers for clues and questions that persuade you to suspend rational judgement. But, contrarily, this would not work without a writing technique that is so stupid it can only be described as courageous. The latest Dan Brown, Inferno, exhausts the reader with some serious heavy breathing in punctuation. There are more dots separating words with simulated tension than in an optical illusion graphic. Words appear in bursts within sentences; sentences stutter through paragraphs as short as summer underwear. Chapters are as flimsy as a negligee. We are playing peekaboo with destiny, so why not?
I fear that Dan Brown may be in some danger of taking himself seriously, which would be fatal to his craft.
But recognise the paradox: the tension must be both real and fake, for we know that while everyone from a slick lone ranger working for a deadly consortium to the whole of the Italian police is trying to kill the hero from the opening page, the hero cannot die, for that would effectively end the book. This is therefore precisely the opposite of crime mystery, where anyone can die. If you think it is difficult to read such deathless, breathless prose, consider how difficult it must be to write it. Events must consistently outpace credibility. But that’s okay. Dan Brown wants readers, not the Nobel Prize. The Nobel fetches far less money.
The problem may be that Brown has run out of incense, and is now using the kind of cheap deodorant advertised on music channels. Our Harvard Hero’s mission this time is to stop a dead genius from killing one third of the world’s population through some kind of plague, which is about as original a thought as the Son of King Kong. Most of the action takes place in Florence, but the dramatic revelations can be picked up from any good city guide book. Maybe that is why tourists like the stuff. Why bother to stretch facts when it is so much more lucrative to stretch the imagination?
The inducement to buy the book is born of a genetic fascination for the pleasure of prurience during the idle wasteland of an airplane trip. A holiday gives the body a rest; Brown gives the mind a rest. Junk is only as good as it is bad. I fear, however, that Brown may be in some danger of taking himself seriously, which would be fatal to his craft. Every once in a while, possibly tortured by the need for self-respect, he introduces some inexplicable word into the text. Do you know the meaning of “chthonic”? I didn’t. Do you care? I don’t. But just in case you want to word-drop, the “ch” is silent.
Here is a tip from a concerned if occasional reader. Brown should never leave London out of his books. The British Museum is a treasure house of clues from here to eternity. Take, for instance, the stark Egyptian black slab with a hollowed square at the centre, with ten lines stretching away like rays from a little child’s sun? It was probably done by a Pharaoh’s imbecile toddler, but who is to stop a Harvard professor from calling it the first instance of modern art laden with the deep warning that neurons would destroy matter ten centuries after the 8000 BC. Whoa…wait a minute…THAT MEANS NOW!
Maybe Dan Brown has reserved this symbol for his next book, Deferno.