Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Eco’s Echoes’ Echoes

The Rule of Four
, by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason, Read by Jeff Woodman, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004

Upon listening to Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s New York Times bestseller, The Rule of Four, I was reminded of a line in the atrocious 1996 Michael Keaton film Multiplicity where Keaton’s second clone of himself, Doug #3, says to him, “You know how when you make a copy of a copy, it’s not as sharp as... well... the original.” Seen in a progressive line we start with Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Name of the Rose. The first not so sharp clone is the Robert Langdon novels of Dan Brown, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code (so far), fast-paced and giddy with historical and art allusions. It is the outline of Eco’s learning but without real erudition, without an understanding of historical context. Following on the heels is the even smudgier The Rule of Four — a book that took only Eco’s erudition but provided none of the thrills, none of the humor, none of the human warmth.

Maybe if you throw in some obscure murders, a more obscure mystery, and wrap it all with an even more obscure ur-text, you can dazzle enough people to think that what they’re getting is something smart. While it is clear that the authors are capable of citing a great quantity of arcane lore and are well read in medieval enigmas, the quantity of these microesoterica doesn’t obscure their glaring and rather appalling inability to plot a thriller worth a damn or create characters that have any more humanity than a sixth century woodcut.

That is not the definition of smart novel writing, at least not for this critic. More is required, much more of an author than simply the ability to marshal quotes from Zeno, Horopallo, Pliny the Elder, Ibn al-Nafis, and the recent English translation of the Renaissance text Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. That’s merely being well read and having enough encyclopedic material on hand to cross reference every other word. This may be painstaking, may involve months if not years of research, and may prove so mind-boggling to others that they have the same mental numbing that I feel whenever advanced calculus is under discussion, but in and of itself it is not smart novel writing. Oh, it may have impressed Caldwell and Thomason’s Ivy League thesis advisors and it may have sold a ton of books, but what of that?

I’m not sure why, but I have a weakness for books advertised in The New Yorker. Not that I like books advertised there necessarily, but that I find the ads for them compelling, as if spending the bread marketing a text toward literary types made the books of such a quality. And that was what lead me to The Rule of Four. I’ll admit too, that ever since I read Eco for the first time, I’ve been a sucker for historico-mystery thrillers. There’s something rather compelling in the notion that long-buried secrets are about to be uncovered and either a wealth of new information or simply wealth is about to be uncovered. It happened with the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it can clearly happen again.

What sets apart this book from the others, even from Dan Brown, is the amazingly craptacular quality of the writing. Unbelievable events transpire, characters behave with complete absurdity, metaphors of the worst, most strained kind are hoisted up, and sentences lacking any semblance of sense are slapped together. The novel ends with 26 year old Tom looking back on the events of four years ago and wheezing as hoarsely and as reminiscently as a Korean War vet, a kind of romanticized portrait of a Man Who Has Seen Too Much.

At any rate, what we are presented with is a love letter to Princeton, the story of four roommates as unlike as they can be, a mysterious text unraveled by two of them, a murderous competitor, and a secret trove of Renaissance art hidden away for centuries whose location is hidden in the cryptic text. It is the end of the year, theses are due, and narrator Tom Sullivan, whose father studied the Hypnerotomachia, is the roommate of Paul Harris, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin. Paul is an orphan who grew up in a real honest to god orphanage and is doing his thesis on the Hypnerotomachia. He also intellectually idealizes Tom’s dad. Charlie is a black medical student from the ghetto. Gil is a silver-spooned MBA who loves old movies.

We are treated to their friendship’s origins, its ups and downs, how it is influenced by college life, Princeton dining hall politics, their relationships to their field of study, etc. etc. And yet with all this personal information, none of the characters felt like more than a stuffed figure standing in for something else. Gil was the man of the world who will one day renounce his humanity in favor of Mammon, but for this brief flowering that is college. Charlie is all the potential of the black male who studies hard, plays hard, loves his moms, and keeps our more ethereal characters grounded in good old common earthiness — like nearly all black characters in white novelists’ eyes. Paul is the slight, sickly scholar who lives inside his books, thinks of nothing but his research, his brilliance troubled only by his sunken chest. Tom Sullivan is our F. Scott Fitzgerald style protagonist with his air of wistful regret for the past, all American wholesomeness, and his troubled romance with his saintly girlfriend Katie.

And so with these stuffed characters, is it any wonder that they behave, not as a human might in such and such a situation would, but as a Character who must move along the Plot would? After a TA falls to his death in front of dozens of students, the identity of the corpse being withheld for a while so as to keep us in suspense, Katie, the saintly girlfriend leaves and goes back to her dorm to finish planning for her birthday party. That’s always a top priority, not the kind of thing you might postpone even if you might have known the dead guy. Tom distracted by this death, forgets to go to Katie’s then feels guilty about it, even though he worries that the dead guy might have been his roommate Paul. Katie, though always portrayed as a long-suffering saint who puts up with Tom’s obsession with the Hypnerotomachia, is angry. Again, in the real world, after watching someone you maybe know plummet to his death, do you really dash back to cake and ice cream and expect others to be there blowing party horns? I’d like to believe not, but perhaps so. Tom misses this oh so important soiree because once it is revealed that it wasn’t Paul who died but his thesis advisor’s assistant (which takes hours to learn), he and Paul go investigate the dead man’s effects which gets them pursued by the police for evidence tampering.

And of course, we are treated to the red herring characters. There is an evil professor, who is, of course, too evilly presented to be the real villain; and of course it is the gentle soul professor who we’re supposed to like who reveals himself as the actual villain. This bit of “mystery” in the book took no time to figure out and probably any child whose made it through the first four Harry Potter books could tell you all about Snape and make a good parallel.

Then there is the learning. Since we are unlikely, as general readers, to know fuckall about this book, the authors feel the need to provide us with filibuster length passages of explication. Professor Taft, our portrayed villain and Paul’s vicious advisor, instead of doing the traditional Easter lecture (generally a light ecumenical thing of which we are told the only word said less than god was hell), gives a lengthy declaration on the book in question. Lucky us. Talk about shoehorning. This awkwardly placed bit o’ learnin’ is rewarded with a completely unbelievable standing ovation, as you would never in a billion years expect, a purely gratuitous bit of plotting without any resemblance to the planet earth no matter how Ivy League the audience. Other characters throughout the book are also given ample opportunity to expound at length on the text and assorted related topics.

Son of booksellers, Tom tells us early on that he grew up among rare books, that his family was totally immersed in this kind of thing, that he knew the difference between papyrus and vellum by the time he was six. His father made a life work out of studying this book, yet Paul has to explain to him the most basic types of Renaissance cyphers, logic puzzles, hidden meanings, symbology. You quickly grasp that it is not for Tom’s sake that Paul is given the floor to orate, but for you, oh ignorant reader. And so each character almost takes a whack at delivering a discourse to enlighten the others who just don’t seem to get it, whatever It may be at this point.

As well, on occasion, these speeches might not actually make sense or a point of any interest or note. In one particularly choice historical reminisce, we are told that a Genovese portkeeper became concerned after his brother-in-law was poisoned at his dinner. Almost the same thing happened to a pickpocket he had hired to spy on someone, we are told. He was stabbed in the leg by a stranger and bled to death. Oh, I see how those are similar. This bit of story just sits there on the page, nonsense, like so much else.

Narratively, the plot jumps back and forth from the past to the present back to the past then again to the present, then back to an even further ago past, then to ten minutes later than the most immediate present, then back to the past, then again to the present after a detour through the historical past way way back there. It’s a kind of meandering path for a so-called thriller and it breaks up the flow of the story into chunks that neither keep our suspense wrought up on tenterhooks, nor complements each portion of the novel with the flashbacks feeding and illuminating the present while the present lays out just how the doomed past rises up in us.

Taking a page from Eco himself, the book climaxes with an enormous fire that threatens to destroy the evidence of the missing treasure trove and engulfs Paul. Eco is certainly more modest than Brown or these two, but if you’re going to try to top Jesus’ great-great-great-great-great-etc. granddaughter then hundreds of lost texts, essentially recreating something along the scale of the lost library of Alexandria, is one way. Of course, American authors can’t bring themselves to be as cruel as their European counterparts, and the book has a happy ending. Paul, insanely, sends a five hundred-year-old canvas to Tom through the regular mail in a poster tube and includes a cryptogram to where he’s hiding in Rome with all the missing treasure. Clever, no? A happy ending, hurrah!

When the reader, Jeff Woodman, does the black dialect, it’s just plain terrible. Is it supposed to be Brooklyn? Jersey? Retarded? And Gil? Is he gay? I wondered if the book would clarify this, but it never did. Woodman certainly endowed him with a certain goodness-Mary-whoopsy-darling-oo-lala lilt to his voice. Perhaps that’s his impression of the upper class. For further complimentary aggravation, when female characters are given the chance to speak, regardless of how intelligent, they are all read as though valley girls. Boston Valley Girls, foreign valley girls, southern valley girls, Jersey valley girls, it’s a valley girl world. To kick my ears when they’re down, Katie’s mega annoying Baaaah-stun valley girl is a major character. He also manages to mispronounce a number of important names, such as Kant pronounced as can’t. The book seems pop-literature enough but at least they could get a reader who knows who people are. It seemed as if, when listening, that every person involved in the book was simply striving for something that was just a little beyond their reach. Or, as one character in this mysteriously bestselling tome would have it, “The delicious futility of impossible tasks is the catnip of overachievers.”

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