Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rule of Novels

Few things give me greater pause than a lent book.  I have a really high success rate when it comes to picking books that I enjoy - there's a reason why almost all the "reviews" on this blog are positive; life is too short to spend it reading crummy books, so I tend to stick to authors, topics, and genres that I know I enjoy.

When someone else picks the book for me, though, the success rate slips.  It's still above 50% - people tend to know me well, so they aren't going to give me a romance novel or Food Network cookbook.  As everyone knows, though, gifts and suggestions tend to be more about the giver than the recipient.  When someone says, "I think you'll enjoy this," what they really mean is, "I enjoyed this, and I hope you will too."  (I am emphatically not exempt from this tendency; I'd never dream of giving someone else a book that I didn't like myself.)

On the other hand, though, outside gifts are far and away the best opportunity for me to make new discoveries.  I wouldn't have gotten into Dave Eggers if not for gifts from my sister, wouldn't have started A Song of Ice and Fire without gifts from my brother, and wouldn't have gotten nearly as deep into George Saunders as I have without gifts from my other brother.  So, I've learned to ignore pointed recommendations at my own peril.  In the worst case, I'll spend a few days reading a sub-par book, but in the best case, I'll open up a whole new realm of good reading.

I recently received a book called "The Rule of Four" from a colleague.  He had heard that I did a lot of reading on the train, and pressed the book on me, saying that it would help me pass the time.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that my problem isn't a lack of reading materials, in fact quite the opposite.  After finishing off a few inter-library loan books, I cracked it open.

I haven't read "The Da Vinci Code," and after reading TRoF, I feel like I don't have to.  From what I know of Dan Brown's book, this story has a lot of similarities.  It's set in the modern day, and focuses on coded messages left behind in a Renaissance-era work.  I don't have much desire to read TDaVC, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which perfectly played on several weaknesses of mine: a love of conspiracy theories, a love of English literature and analysis, and a love of the university as an institution.

The book is hardly globe-trotting; the action takes place entirely on the campus of Princeton University.  And it's an incredibly well-realized portrait of that campus; I've never been there, but after finishing the book, I feel like I know it.  The physical layout of the campus and particular buildings are well described without ever feeling like you're reading a campus tour manual.  I suspect that the authors may have taken liberties with certain details, particularly the steam tunnels that form a set of secret passages which conveniently connect the major locations on campus.  In general, though, the physical layout is entirely believable.  The same goes for the sense of tradition and student life.  Having spent four years at Wash U, I'm well aware of the many rituals and practices that can accumulate over 150 years of institutional progress.  Imagine how many more you get at one of the oldest schools in the nation!  Some authors' notes at the end describe the liberties that they took with Princeton lore.  I was surprised both by what they had invented (Jonathan Edwards' Easter traditions) and what they had not (the naked run through the first snowfall).

The characters are also very well realized.  The book centers on four friends and roommates, as well as significant persons from the narrator Tom's personal life: his mother, father, and girlfriend.  The main action of the novel takes place in a very compressed amount of time, just a couple of days during Easter weekend, but the authors judiciously include flashbacks (both brief and extended) that expand the story with more context for the characters' relationships.  Those relationships are complex, my favorite kind.  Some look at first glance to be stereotypes - the nerdy antisocial over-achiever, the moneyed preppie - but over time you get the feeling that these are real people, with all the depth and interest that you would expect - the "nerd" joins the most exclusive dining club on campus, and the preppie is a devoted prankster and one of the most dependable friends in the group.


And then there's the book.  I think this was one of my favorite aspects of the novel... the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is really the main character of the story.  It is described in various ways, almost always anthropomorphized: it is deadly, alluring, cunning, haughty, aloof. 

In the novel's backstory, scholars have spent their careers trying to make sense of this impenetrable story.  Within the novel, Tom and Paul manage to determine the "code," and spend years working to unlock its mysteries.  The book's description of this process is a lot of fun, mainly for the way that it both resembles and yet is wholly unlike what you would do in an English lit class.  It's kind of a literal form of literary analysis... they look at the text, try to decide what it's saying, look at both the explicit and the implicit meaning, find out what doesn't make sense, and then try to determine why the author made those decisions.  The difference is that in a "real" book this process will lead you to a deeper understanding of the author's art and their message; in TRoF, the process leads them to a deeper understanding of the author's motivation and his coded message.  So, really, there isn't that big of a difference.  Anyways, I'm not sure if everyone will get as big a kick out of this as I did, but I thought it was great fun.


One slight failing of the novel is that, thanks to its abbreviated cast of characters, there isn't that much opportunity to create mystery.  When the murder occurs, there are really only two possible suspects: Curry and Taft.  Taft is the obvious choice, so I immediately assumed that it was Curry, and was proven right.

There are a few details that don't exactly add up.  These wouldn't even bother me, except that so much of the rest of the book is tightly constructed, so the gaps are more obvious.  The most obvious is the absurdity of Paul chasing down codes over a weekend so he can finish his senior thesis.  I just can't accept that anyone, especially someone as bright as Paul, would wait until the final day to come up with the basic argument of his thesis... it's stunningly unbelievable.  Anyone at all would have written up what they already had, even if they kept on researching afterward with an eye towards their Masters or for personal curiosity.  Time and time again it's made abundantly clear that Paul has more than enough material to eclipse all previously published research, so this is a transparent plot device that wears thin.

In a similar vein, after spending the whole novel building up the care and intricacy that went into producing the Hypner*, it's a serious MacGuffin to say that the portmaster's diary is an integral part of solving the riddle.  They try to address this within the book by saying that Francesco just forgot to put the final directions into the book, but seriously, come on... that's the entire POINT of writing the book in the first place!  If the book had ANYTHING in it, it should have had the directions.

Um... that might be it for serious criticism.  Other than that, I was generally really pleased with how the plot developed.  There's a great amount of action and drama given the compressed time-frame and limited number of characters.  I thought of some particular scenes as being almost like set-pieces: the naked run, the Ivy ball, the flight through the steam tunnels.  They were very well realized and executed.


Good book!  I tend not to do a lot from the adventure/thriller genre, and this was a great example of a keeper.  It's an impressive achievement for authors who are this young, and I hope we see more from them in the future.

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