Some years ago, I was on a book-reviewing panel when someone in the audience asked what we, the panelists, thought of "The Bridges of Madison County," which was then a fixture on bestseller lists. We hemmed and hawed, tried to talk around the question, until our moderator acknowledged that, most likely, none of us had read the book.
This led to a discussion of the difference between critics and readers. How, if the book was selling so widely, could we not have read it? What did that say about us?
I kept thinking about that conversation as I slogged through Dan Brown's latest Robert Langdon thriller, "Inferno" (Doubleday, $29.95), which aspires to do for Dante's "The Divine Comedy" what "The Da Vinci Code" did for Leonardo's art. Set in Florence, "Inferno" uses the 14th-century Italian epic as a lens of sorts through which to read Langdon's quest to find a destructive virus before it can infect the world.
Brown, of course, has become a cottage industry — "The Da Vinci Code" alone has sold 80 million copies, and then there are the other Langdon novels, "Angels & Demons" and "The Lost Symbol" — although I couldn't tell you why. Sloppily plotted, turgidly written, "Inferno" is so poorly constructed, so uninvolving ("bilge," A.N. Wilson called it in the Daily Mail) that it makes "The Bridges of Madison County" look like "The Great Gatsby," if only because its characters are recognizable human beings.
Here we see the great sin of Brown's fiction: not that his stories are unbelievable nor that he breaks the narrative momentum (such as it is) by inserting mini-lectures meant to share with us the depth of his erudition, but that Langdon has no pulse, no personality, nothing to make us care. This may be why, in his interview with Brown this week, Stephen Colbert referred to the character as Tom Hanks (who plays him in the movies) — because Hanks, at least, is a person. Langdon is a husk, an empty suit, his one defining trait the tendency to monologue.
In "Inferno," he wakes up in a Florence hospital bed with a head wound and a case of retrograde amnesia, but there is no fear, no struggle, not even when the arrival of a hired killer forces him out into the city, IV tube dangling from his arm.
For a guy like Langdon, one would think, amnesia is a big deal, since his currency is his knowledge, his ability to decode the signs and symbols, to see the connections no one else knows are there. But you know what? It doesn't matter how much, or even whether, he remembers, since he's a cipher anyway.
Why, you might ask, take it all so seriously? It's just a thriller, after all. Yet not only does this argument devalue thrillers — the genre of John le Carre, Ian Fleming and Helen MacInnes — it also ignores Brown's aspirations, which may be more far-reaching than they appear.
Talking with Colbert, he made a telling point: "What better work of literature than 'Inferno' to base a thriller on? It was a thriller of its day." He elaborated on this in a short video for the USA Today website, describing "The Divine Comedy" as "a huge bestseller in its day. It was a thriller written for the masses."
It's true that Dante has sold a lot of books over the centuries, as have Shakespeare, Cervantes, Charles Dickens. And yes, all these writers appealed to a mass audience, as Brown does today. But is he really positing a connection between his book and Dante's work? Maybe, maybe not. Still, as with "The Da Vinci Code," Brown has more than a thriller on his radar; he means not only to entertain but also to educate.
In part, this is the point of "The Divine Comedy" also, with its riffs on science and philosophy, on the politics and history of its time. The narrative follows the author on a journey through hell, purgatory and heaven that is both allegorical and deeply personal, although at heart it is a deeply human work.
The reason for this is Dante, who writes out of his sense of loss and longing, his unrequited love for Beatrice and his despair at having been exiled from Florence, the city where he was born and raised. "At the midpoint of the path through life," begins Clive James' new verse translation, published last month by Liveright, "I found / Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way / Ahead was blotted out."
That's a character talking, someone with a history — which also is true of George Smiley, James Bond, Allan Quatermain, even Tarzan of the Apes. How are we to care about a book if we do not care about the people in it? This is not a critic's question but a reader's question: I know Brown's books have sold millions of copies, but what makes us want to turn the page?
For me, there's no good answer. I'm with Colbert, who told Brown, "I love your books. I love the rage they fill me with," before uttering what may have been the most honest statement of the evening: "You don't need my help to sell a book. You're Dan Brown."
Colbert is right on both counts, and as usual he pierces our shared illusions to expose the cynical spectacle underneath. Why, he is asking, are we even talking about "Inferno" except to play into its marketing juggernaut? It's a question that resonates, whether you're a reader or a critic, for anyone who cares about books.