Let’s get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.
There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.
But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets’ Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.
Also woven into the narrative is the theme of father-son relationships. Within the rarefied confines of academia, both Tom and Paul are ultimately seeking validation from father figures that seem to only convey their affection as it is related to history. I’m all about tender masculine relationships so those parts were really up my alley.
The authorial decision to structure the novel as a thriller, I think, ultimately hurt the story. Had Caldwell and Thomason emphasized the coming-of-age and nerdy mystery aspects while softening the mortal peril, it could have been a more satisfying read. It’s in books like these that you can really detect the bald commerce of the book publishing industry. The Rule of Four clearly earned a lot of money my attaching its name onto Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (published one year before) but it also suffered when it comes to cultural esteem because of it. If it had been edited and marketed as, say, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, it could have attracted the kind of readers who are interested in atmosphere and academic scholarship, rather than readers looking for zippy thrillers with Vatican conspiracies.
I guess I like the idea of it more than its reality, which happens often enough. The Rule of Four has acute things to say about the futility and nobility of scholarship which really hit home for me and my own college experience. During those short years, you are put into this very unnatural environment where a missed term paper feels like the end of your life. It’s a time when all the learning opportunities are there for the taking and you have all the time in the world to pursue all that you want to know. But of course, youth is wasted on the young.