Saturday, May 27, 2006

# Posted 3:29 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SUMMER READING: I just finished the Rule of Four, racing through more than 300 pages in less than three days. The novel was published in 2004, sold more than a million copies in hardcover and stayed on the NYT bestseller list for over six months.

But that isn't what's remarkable about the book. Publishing houses churn out hundreds of suspense novels a year, some of which become very popular but amount in the end to nothing more than light reading for a few hours at the beach.

Not so The Rule of Four, co-authored by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. The Rule is the brilliantly imaginative story of two students at Princeton who struggle to decipher hidden messages in a Renaissance text known as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Their nemesis is an aging scholar who struggled with the Hypnerotomachia in his youth and has now become insanely jealous of the protagonists.

(Full disclosure: I discovered the Rule of Four because Thomason's father is my supervisor at work.)

What I didn't know while reading the Rule is that the Hypnerotomachia is a real book from the late 15th century, prized by scholars but little known to the general public. What Caldwell and Thomason have done is used the Hypnerotomachia as a template from which they draw to invent impossibly complicated riddles whose answers point to the location of a (fictional) buried treasure, lost since the days of the Renaissance.

Such riddles are best illustrated by example. Early on, one of the book' s protagonists, Paul Harris, receives a remarkable gift from his mentor, a trustee of the Princeton University museum of art by the name of Richard Curry. The gift takes the form of an exhibit in one of the museum's galleries. It consists of twelve paintaings by Renaissance masters such as Pontormo and Andrea del Sarto. Each paintaing recounts some part of the bibilical story of Joseph.

The second protagonist, Tom Sullivan is mystified by the exhibit and demands an explanation from Paul. The answer lies is a bibilical verse, Genesis 37:3, which reads "Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors." The twelve paintaings on the wall are also a coat of many colors, a gift from Richard to Paul as a symbol of his affection.

Of course Richard said nothing to Paul about the significance of the paintings or the Biblical verse that unlocks their meaning. Richard simply presumes that Paul will decipher his code, because both of them inhabit an intellectual world that prizes playful erudition.

What is doubly amazing about such puzzles is the extensive knowledge of Renaissance, Classical and Bibilical learning that Thomason and Caldwell had to master in order to create such riddles. And more than learning, Thomason and Caldwell possessed the imaginative flair necessary to transform such knowledge into a compelling narrative rather than a dry academic text.

But the merits of their book are even greater. Not surprisingly, numerous readers have compared The Rule of Four to The DaVinci Code. Yet they quickly add that The Rule of Four is different because it is so well-written. Although I haven't read The DaVinci Code, I wouldn't hesitate to describe countless passages in The Rule of Four as beautiful.

Often, it is just a few words or a metaphor that strike the reader as poetic. For example, while driving after a snowstorm, the narrator observes that "The roads we travel are thin black stitches on a great white gown." A descriptive gem of this kind appears on perhaps every other page of the book. In other words, there are hundreds of them in The Rule of Four.

All of which forces one to ask an unusual question: Does this book transcend the genre of the thriller and achieve the status of literature? There are many reasons to say yes, in addition to those mentioned above. The book's protagonists and other characters are far more than paper cut-outs whose existence serves to advance the plot. They are flesh and blood whose development as inviduals drives the plot almost as much as the mystery of the Hypnerotomachia.

In the final analysis, I don't think I am particularly qualified to judge whether a certain book counts as literature. That is a judgment others can better make for themselves. What I can do is share my feeling that The Rule of Four often seems divided between the author's love of its mystery and their affection for its characters. In fact, an important theme of the book is the need to achieve balance in life between intellectual pursuits and human relationships. Even so, it sometimes feels that this book is actually two books in one, each one struggling to suppress the other.

Since this is Caldwell and Thomason's first book and both are just 30 years old, they undoubtedly have long authorial careers ahead of them. If The Rule of Four is any indication, they have the potential to write serious fiction just as impressive as their suspenseful debut. In the meantime, they deserve tremendous credit for demonstrating that the life of the mind can be the subject of compelling popular entertainment.
(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

I know it got good reviews in Indian newspapers... although they generally referred to the author as Ian Cantwell or some other variation.
If you'd like to read more about the Hypnerotomachia, the following website is a great resource. It also has an electronic version of the text.


Does anyone know if there's a copy in the United States? Preliminary Googling suggests that there's one at the University of Glasgow, and another at the State Library of Victoria (Australia).
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