The Rule of Four

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Rule of Four: A Novel by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.

Ian Caldwell Dustin Thomason The Rule of Four

The “Rule of Three” in Freemasonry refers to the ritual pronunciation of a secret word that can only be properly spoken “in a trible voice,” i.e. by three initiates working together. Similarly, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bestseller debut novel The Rule of Four concerns itself with a secret that is only accessed by the combined efforts of four Princeton University roommates. The text of the novel never mentions the Masonic Rule of Three, and instead explains the title as the name for a purported textual code. But that sort of indirection is not out of keeping for a book that is preoccupied with tacit allusions as riddles.

While the publishers have understandably chosen to pitch The Rule of Four to the enormous (and apparently undiscriminating) DaVinci Code market, the bestseller to which it most deserves comparison is Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas. Not only are both of them fast-paced, literary thrillers, but they share a thematic concern with the phenomena of textual obsession and multiple authorship. In the case of The Rule of Four, there are actually two credited authors of the novel itself, a pair of men who “have been best friends since they were eight years old,” who have now written what they describe as “a book about friendship.”

Perez-Reverte invented the diabolist tome The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows by Aristide Torchia (Venice 1666) as the obsessive focus for his novel. Certain features of that imaginary book—its scarcity and value, offensiveness to Christian sensibilities, provocative woodcut illustrations, and impenetrable text—suggest that it may have been modeled on the actual Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice 1499), which serves as the enigmatic text around which The Rule of Four is constructed. At this point, I drop the third-person objectivity of the reviewer, since I wrote my own Doctorandus Degree Thesis on the Hypnerotomachia.

Caldwell and Thomason write (in the voice of their principal character): “My father, who understood the way the Hypnerotomachia had seduced him, once compared the book to an affair with a woman. It makes you lie, he said, even to yourself.” (98) The authors have perhaps lied to themselves a little regarding the feasibility of the code that their characters discover in the Hypnerotomachia, and they resolve the authorship controversy regarding this superfically anonymous book differently than my studies have led me to do. But I admit that my breath caught with wonder at the possibility that they had shared some of my own discoveries about the book, when the solution to one of its alleged riddles was approached through a Thomas More quote regarding a game “rather like chess” involving “a pitched battle between virtues and vices.” (202-03) But I was relieved to find that, after all, these novelists and I were not unwittingly duplicating each other’s ideas.

I recommend Hypnerotomachia translator Joscelyn Godwin’s “unauthorized guide” to the novel: Real Rule of Four, which exposes some of the points where Caldwell and Thomason get their history wrong, and fascinating points that they missed. Despite its inaccuracies and failings, The Rule of Four is an elegant, engaging read, with its own literary depth. It is a fiction, and its claims about the Hypnerotomachia text are inventive (and sometimes quite unlikely). But in one lovely passage of sustained metaphor with multiple allusions, the authors highlight the power of fiction:

“For a moment I feel like Sancho Panza, listening to Don Quixote. The giants he sees are nothing but windmills, I know, and yet he’s the one who sees clearly in the dark, and I’m the one doubting my eyes. Maybe that’s been the rub all along, I think: we are animals of imagination. Only a man who sees giants can ever stand upon their shoulders.”

The imaginative vision of The Rule of Four makes it a worthwhile read. [via]