9 circles. 7 Sins. 1 Secret: Illuminated in the steps of Lincoln Center, this cryptic message greeted me as I walked across the plaza to Avery Fisher Hall. It was Wednesday night and Dan Brown, the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, was scheduled to introduce his latest novel, Inferno. Brown's internationally popular thrillers focus on the relationship between science and religion and are riddled with symbolism, anagrams, admirable heroes and evil villains. As a result of their subject matter, his works have sparked widespread controversy and intrigue. His latest work, Inferno, a thriller set in Florence, Italy, focuses on the epic poem the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and will undoubtedly follow in the same tradition as his former works.
I walked through the glass doors of Avery Fisher Hall and into the beige-colored lobby. Alumni representatives from Brown's almae matres Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy welcomed the attendees. The lobby was abuzz with college alumni, academics, and Brown enthusiasts. Upon entering the theater, I glanced down at the stage which was illuminated with mysterious symbols conjuring the ancient secret societies and traditions Brown explores in his novels. Exotic and alluring music played in the background, heightening the mood of mystery and adventure. I discovered the track was called "The Mummers' Dance" by Loreena McKennitt.
Matt Lauer of The Today Show, who interviewed Mr. Brown earlier this week, greeted the audience. Mr. Lauer stated that there are over 200 million copies of Mr. Brown's work in publication written in over 50 languages. Laughingly, Mr. Lauer told us that instead of providing him with simple driving instructions to his New Hampshire home, Mr. Brown sent him the directions in code form. Mr. Lauer proceeded to display the Today interview on a screen, which showcased Mr. Brown's labyrinthine home in New Hampshire, complete with hidden doors and secret passageways.
Mr. Lauer was honored to introduce the special guest, Dan Brown, to the audience. Tall and thin, Mr. Brown clutched the podium with both hands; he reminded me of the actor James Cromwell. I found him to be immediately likeable and engaging. He told the audience that he usually kicked off his book tours at the Water Street Bookstore in his New Hampshire hometown; however, with the help of live streaming, he was able to simultaneously speak onstage at Lincoln Center and in real time at the bookstore. Mr. Brown acknowledged his parents who were sitting in the sixth row. He told us his mother was the organist at the local church he attended during his youth (referring to her as the "SNL Church Lady"), while his father was a math professor at Phillips Exeter Academy and the author of an advanced mathematics textbook. His parents' characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and influence would become the main topic of his discussion.
Mr. Brown created a clear juxtaposition between his mother's religious lifestyle and his father's scientific mindset; this was visually illustrated by his parents' respective license plates which he held up for the audience to see. His mother's license plate read "KYRIE," the Latin word for Lord, while his father's license plate read "METRIC" for his admiration and support of the metric system. Whereas his mother's religious beliefs dominated the household, his father's discussions of the solar system and mathematical concepts such as Pi were also dinnertime topics. Brown cited their seemingly polar opposite personalities in his early years as the basis of his interest in the relationship between science and religion. Mr. Brown claimed: "Science and religion are partners since they attempt to tell the same story. While religion savors the questions, science dwells on the answers." However, it does not take a cryptologist to interpret that Mr. Brown slants in favor of a scientific mindset, for no God fearing Christian would even attempt to write the story of The Da Vinci Code, which poses the idea that Jesus Christ may not be the son of God.
At the conclusion of his talk, Mr. Brown finally hinted at the nature of his latest book. In typical Brown fashion, he provided the audience with three clues concerning the topics within the book: "Contrapposto," "Transhumanism," and "Malthusian." The Italian "Contrapposto", or "to suffer the opposite," is a term used to describe certain punishments within Dante's Divine Comedy. For example, fortune tellers in Dante's Inferno had their heads fixed to the backs of their bodies as a sort of reverse punishment, never to be able to see into the "future" again. The second clue, "Transhumanism," is a modern movement in which individuals manipulate genetics to improve physiology and alter the evolutionary process. The third term, "Malthusian," is derived from the British scholar Thomas Malthus, and refers to the threat of overpopulation and the terrible consequences accompanying it. Mr. Brown eschewed a question and answer finale to the program and instead responded to and answered questions sent in earlier via Facebook. This only added to the intrigue of his already elusive persona.
Instead of discussing the context of the novel, Mr. Brown surprisingly elaborated on his curious upbringing and eccentric parents, interspersed with a few humorous anecdotes. While on the set of The Da Vinci Code film, Mr. Brown told us that he overheard a crew member say, "Could someone please get Mary Magdalene a Diet Coke?" Although those looking for an in depth analysis of his writings would have been disappointed, others, like me, found Mr. Brown's talk to be an interesting glimpse into the man behind the bestsellers. Although he has been attacked by religious organizations and scholarly critics alike, Dan Brown is undoubtedly an influential figure in current American culture. Mr. Brown remained cryptic and vague while discussing the context of Inferno; however, he certainly intrigued me enough to battle my way through the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall at the end of the program to grab a hot copy of Inferno.