Saturday, August 12, 2006

"The Rule of Four" hardly rules

Book review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

by Al Dimalanta

I have rather ambivalent feelings about this book.

When I first picked up The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason and read the synopsis at the back I was intrigued. It promised to be a historical thriller, something that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized (no, over-popularized, considering the flood of clones and wannabes at its wake). I had a dilemma, though: which cover color should I choose? It was such a difficult choice. The book was printed in four different colors, an obvious contrivance if you ask me, and I had to pick one. I went for the gold cover.

With the most difficult task over, I bought the book, went home and read.

The funny thing was, as I was reading the first few chapters, I had to keep telling myself to read on, not give up, and stay with the book. It was something that I didn’t really enjoy doing. The plot seemed sufficiently intriguing enough, but why was I pushing myself to read further? Something was amiss, and I wanted to figure out what it was and why.

The story revolves around the lives of four senior Princeton students, particularly focusing on the days leading to their graduation (Princeton is one of the leading research universities and the most outstanding undergraduate college in the world). The two main characters, however, are Tom (the narrator) and Paul, his best friend. Tom is the son of a Renaissance scholar who was one of several people who fervently studied a 15th-century book titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphii (I challenge you to say that four times without stammering). Tom’s father’s life was dictated by his obsession to unlock the mysteries of the book, which proved quite a daunting task even for a scholar of his caliber. It was an obsession that Tom swore he would never have. Paul, in turn, is an orphan and a brilliant thinker who took on the task of unraveling the book's puzzle by choosing it as his thesis subject.

Paul solicits Tom's help in the thesis and the latter finds himself immersed in the very same obsession that dominated his father's life. As Tom and Paul slowly unravel the secrets of the book, they find themselves in the thick of a generation-long struggle for power, recognition and fame, which involves two of Tom's father's associates. Not only did the Hypnerotomachia promise to shed light on the real turn of events in Florentine history (during the time of Italian priest-ruler Giloramo Savonarola), it also hinted on the location of a crypt containing priceless works of art hidden from Savonarola and were supposedly saved from his Bonfire of the Vanities.

As I previously mentioned, the plot seemed interesting enough – four friends in a race not only to solve an age-long puzzle, but also to stay alive. The various conflicts in the story, both internal and external, centered on how the Hypnerotomachia affected the lives of the central characters. There’s Tom’s internal struggle to avoid the same demons that haunted his father’s life, his strained relationship with his girlfriend Kate who initially considered the book as a rival for his attention, Paul’s struggle to merely survive the demands of Princeton (as well as his own idiosyncrasies), and the dangers that surrounded those who knew too much about the book. However, in the first half of the novel, I found the frequent interspersing of uninteresting chapters aimed at character development (and there are more than four characters that needed to be developed in this here story) unnecessary, therefore boring and even irritating -- much like frequent and lengthy commercial breaks during a televised championship boxing match.

Moreover, I didn't enjoy for I never was and never will be interested in countless Princeton trivia which are found in every turn (the authors’ puerile infatuation with Princeton was something I could not identify with). These, I thought, didn't contribute anything to the development of the story and can be considered as mere verbal litter for mere mortals (read: non-Ivy Leaguers).

The second half fared much better in terms of pace and readability although I doubt if many readers would have the endurance to reach this part. The action picks up as the answers to the mysteries behind the book are unraveled and, as such, redeems whatever literary stupor the book initially imposed upon its readers.

Although the whole story is concerned with universal themes of friendship, commitment, and the pursuit of truth, in the end, the story seems to lack a central unifying theme. In the process of reading, I often asked myself what this book is really about. Is it about the friendship of four roommates and the things they do to sustain such friendship? Is it about the commitment (or obsession) of Tom and Paul to unlock the mysteries of a maddeningly arcane book? Or is it simply a giddy narrative on a beloved alma mater? Whatever the central theme may be, it got lost in the muddle of pointless descriptions and narrations.

The book is the debut effort of Caldwell and Thomason, which explains the peremptory tone of the piece. My general feeling was that the authors wanted so much to impress by pulling out all the stops and putting as much as they could into one novel. The result is an intellectually self-conscious and arrogant book (both in language and content) that owes more to its braggadocio than to its ability to provide a totally satisfying, coherent and enjoyable read.

I have always believed that a fiction novel’s main purpose is to entertain the readers, providing a conveniently safe although transitory escape from reality. Everything else is secondary. Although admittedly a good work of fiction both entertains and informs, the informative value takes a backseat to the sheer enjoyment of a vivid and uplifting narrative. Needless to say, our rookie authors seem to have overlooked the need for their narrative to delight.

In the end, however, on the strength of the latter part of the narrative, I liked it, although I still had to convince myself that I did.


Anonymous said...

i really enjoy reading your entries. :)

Light said...

I just hope that those who leave their comments will also leave their names. Thanks.