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This article by Peter J. Mladineo was prepared for the May 26, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Renaissance Art to a Murder Mystery
James Joyce once said that his magnum opus "Ulysses" could serve as a blueprint to rebuild Dublin in case the Irish city ever disappeared from the planet. Princeton may now have its own literary blueprint in "The Rule of Four," by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, two 20-something Ivy Leaguers who manage to turn Princeton University into a blood and fire-soaked code-breakers paradise. And in far fewer words.
"The Rule of Four" is a hip new book (Random House Dial Press, 368 pages – 400 shorter than "Ulysses") set almost entirely at Princeton University. And while the book could, theoretically, help future post-apocalyptic historians piece together the campus where about 99 percent of the action – murder, intrepid escapes, a Nude Olympiad, and an inferno at one of the university’s premier eating clubs – takes place, much of the blueprint will have to be extracted from code.
The book is being touted as an "intellectual thriller," recipe as follows: Blend Renaissance art, religion, scholarship, suspense, a few nasty murders, and buried treasure into a cerebrally pleasing plot; add in plenty of Latin and, don’t forget – lots of code; shake hard, and you’ve got it. This genre, started in the late 1990s by writers like Umberto Eco and taken to new heights last year with the publication of Dan Brown’s popular and controversial best-seller, "The Da Vinci Code," seems to be all the rage.
People magazine said "The Rule of Four" is "an erudite tale of intrigue that snakes back to the 15th century," a welcome relief from the "cheesy writing" in "The Da Vinci Code." Also picking up on the comparison to "The Da Vinci Code," the New York Times writes, "This fussier but also ingenious novel aspires to out-anagram, out-acrostic and out-cipher-text that one." The authors have a reading at the Princeton University Store on Saturday, May 29, at 10:30 a.m. and at Barnes and Noble on Tuesday, June 8, at 7 p.m.
The action begins with four Princeton seniors, roommates at Dod Hall, tying up their collegiate careers several weeks before graduation in 1999. Two of the characters are involved in research on a book from the Italian Renaissance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, "an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology, written in a style that even a tortoise would find slow," they write.
This part of the novel is not fiction: The Hypnerotomachia (pronounced HIP-ne-ROto-MAHkia) was published in 1499 in Latin, but uses several other so-called dead languages, including Chaldean and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even some words made up by the author, whose identity is still a matter of debate. Its title literally means the "Poliphilo’s struggle for love in a dream" and is, essentially, a voluminous puzzle that has confounded scholars for 500 years and is said to contain secrets encrypted within its text. This book really is the main character in "The Rule of Four."
The Hypnerotomachia is a tangle of plots and characters connected by nothing but its protagonist, an allegorical everyman named Poliphilo. The gist is simple: Poliphilo has a strange dream in which he searches for the woman he loves. But the way it’s told is so complicated that even most Renaissance scholars – the same people who read Plotinus while waiting for the bus – consider the Hypnerotomachia painfully, tediously difficult.
The authors report that it was only translated into English in 1999, after several other attempts to do so resulted in the insanity of the translator. One of the few copies of the 1499 edition sits in Princeton’s Rare Books Room in Firestone Library, a place where "upperclassmen in literature seminars are brought here like children on field trips, their pens and pencils confiscated, their dirty fingers monitored," Thomason and Caldwell write.
At this point Thomason and Caldwell move into pure fiction. As the code gets closer to being solved, Princeton goes off the deep end. As all four of the main characters find themselves pitted against some unscrupulous professors who are likewise obsessed by the book, Princeton becomes the scene of intrigue, murders, disappearances, and a massive fire that leaves Ivy Club, Princeton’s posh eating club on Prospect Street, burned to the ground. More on that shortly.
Princeton, as Dublin was in "Ulysses," and as St. Petersburg was in "Crime and Punishment," is as much a character in "The Rule of Four" as a setting, with its time-honored traditions and its ravenous scholasticism taking center stage.
At first the authors had considered basing the action at Thomason’s alma mater in Cambridge. But Harvard, they say, had just seen "Good Will Hunting" and "With Honors" shot there. Princeton won out because it was a less trammeled setting, and because it was conducive to a sort of claustrophobic gloom.
"That kind of inescapable atmosphere of the Gothic buildings and the mist and the fog settling on the ground really matched the mood that we wanted," says Caldwell. "As soon as we started outlining the scenes for the book we realized that it was a good match."
It is a place of rituals, "transmitted intact down to the present, profiting from that immunity to time and fortune which the university, like an ancient tar pit, confers on everything that unwittingly lumbers into it and dies," they write.
The authors have already been approached by film people, who reportedly have expressed "good interest" in the book. But they have not sealed anything yet. If it does ever become a movie, some may be shocked to see Ivy Club burned to the ground, almost an afterthought. "Then there is only an explosion, like a sudden dawn at midnight. A gas pipe, bringing the entire building to its feet. And the soot begins to fall." (Caldwell, who belonged to a rival eating club, Cloister Inn, says the destruction of Ivy was not a retribution fantasy.)
There are plenty of first-hand accounts of the daily rigors of Princeton student life. Seniors grapple with theses, sophomores enter into eating club "bickers," and students form close relationships with their study carrels at the library. Even Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton basketball coach, shows up in the pages, with his motto, "the strong take from the weak and the smart take from the strong" – a saying that is burned on the consciousness of many a Princetonian.
Particularly eloquent are the meditations about the almost religious faith the university culture puts in books. "I was losing my faith in books," says Tom, one of the characters. "I’d begun to realize that there was an unspoken prejudice among book-learned people, a secret conviction they all seemed to share, that life as we know it is an imperfect vision of reality and that only art, like a pair of reading glasses, can correct it." When his father, another Hypnerotomachia scholar, died, Tom receives nothing but books from all his dad’s professorial friends.
For kicks the Princeton students play laser tag in the school’s steam tunnels underneath the campus, sneaking down through the manholes at night, at risk of expulsion if caught. "The college would like to forget that this place exists. The only message at this entrance, written long ago in black paint, is LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZE, VOI CH’INTRATE." That, the authors inform, is Dante’s "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
Speaking with U.S. 1, the authors say that most of the shenanigans around campus, including steam tunnel tag, are real. "As far as we can tell," says Caldwell nonchalantly, "everything in there is faithful to the truth. By and large they are as they are conveyed in the book."
Between Sylvia Nasar’s "A Beautiful Mind" (the book behind the Oscar-winning Ron Howard movie about Princeton Nobel laureate John Nash) and this new novel, Princeton may be developing a reputation for mad professors and raving students, who occasionally shuck clothing when it snows.
The authors take aim at a longstanding Princeton tradition, the Nude Olympics. Though the administration has cracked down on the practice in recent years, the tradition – beginning shortly after the onset of coeducation – was that every year, at the first snow, hordes of naked sophomores would tear across campus. In the storyline, the first snow comes serendipitously in April during the action.
"Surrounded by dorms crawling with spectators from across campus, they show up in herds, hundreds upon hundreds of them, and with the heroic unconcern of lemmings they take their clothes off and run around wildly. It’s a rite that must have arisen in the old days of the college, when Princeton was a men’s institution and mass nudity was an expression of the male prerogative, like pissing upright or waging war."
Caldwell was first exposed to the Hypnerotomachia during a history course at Princeton by Professor Anthony Grafton, who was exploring the book from a historical perspective for a seminar entitled "Renaissance Art, Science, and Magic" (see sidebar). Says Caldwell: "Once he explained a bit about the book and I had done some research on it, I was hooked. Even scholars seem to agree that no one has really cracked this book yet."
In "The Rule of Four" the authors introduce some fictional Princeton professors who are so madly obsessed with the text they are bent on doing anything to keep it associated with their names. "I haven’t run into any that are this obsessed with the Hypnerotomachia but I have run into professors who were obsessed," says Caldwell. "I had a romanticism professor who pretty much believed he was the reincarnation of Franz Kafka."
At times "The Rule of Four" reads like a page-turner, but its acrostic clues, the Latin, the history, the numerology, the dark and conflicted characters, and the Ivy League eminence of the locale add enough weight to make the book a heavier read than "The Da Vinci Code," and certainly more substantial than a Grisham thriller. Often best-selling page-turners sacrifice the cerebral for the dexterous, but "The Rule of the Four" seems to do the opposite.
The book gets a little soap operatic at times and there are times when the non-human characters are more real than the human ones. But just as "The Da Vinci Code" introduced the "sacred feminine" concept to pop culture, this work could introduce the monstrous and unreadable Hypnerotomachia to it, and for that it deserves praise.
Caldwell and Thomason, both 28, grew up together in northern Virginia, went to the same elementary school and the same high school, and began writing together before most people even learn basic algebra. "We actually started writing together when we were eight years old," says Thomason. "We wrote a play called ‘The Klutzy Kidnappers.’ We had always dreamed of writing something longer. The idea of trying to write something and getting it published was always a dream of ours."
When it came time for college, Thomason went off to Harvard to study anthropology, while Caldwell packed off to Old Nassau to study history. They both graduated in 1998 and began work on "The Rule of Four" that summer. Now Thomason, whose parents work in Washington think tanks, lives in New York City, while Caldwell, whose father was a diplomat and mother worked in the Department of Defense, lives in Newport News, Virginia. They collaborate mostly by E-mail – a useful tool for Thomason, who was also earning his M.D. and M.B.A. from Columbia University while collaborating on the book.
Their initial successes – getting a publisher and getting rave reviews in top publications like the New York Times and People – as well as seeing their new book (now at No. 6) garner comparisons to "The Da Vinci Code," No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list for hardcover fiction, are well beyond expectations. "When we were writing it we never saw any of this coming," says Caldwell.
Currently the two are working their second novel – another thriller chock full of history that they are hoping to finish faster than their debut, which took them nearly six years. "We are just starting it," says Caldwell, "and our desperate hope is that it’s not going to take nearly as long as our first one now that we’re writing full time."
Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place, 609-921-8500. Saturday, May 29, 10:30 a.m.
Barnes & Noble, 609-716-1570. Tuesday, June 8, 7 p.m.
Anthony Grafton, above, whose seminar on "Renaissance Art, Science, and Magic" introduced Ian Caldwell to the obscure 1499 text that is the inspiration for "The Rule of Four," recalls his former student as an impressive undergraduate. "Ian was a terrific student, very smart and articulate, and an excellent writer," Grafton says in an E-mail interview from Italy.
And some of it must have rubbed off on him as a novelist, in Grafton’s view. "It’s a wonderful entertainment that takes off from Princeton into a world of brilliant fantasy about academic and student life."
How much of the novel’s description of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – given as chock full of secrets, codes and intrigue – is fiction? "The Hypnerotomachia is a very long and complex book that includes many cloaked and secret messages, both verbal and visual," says Grafton. "Descriptions of it in the book are by and large very accurate."
And, the professor adds, there are plenty of other medieval books out there – as well as "complex allegorical paintings" – that could provide fodder for other fiction writers.
Does a book like "The Rule of Four" serve as enticement for a scholar such as Grafton to convert scholarly pursuits into pulp fiction? "No," he responds. "For that you need talent of a special kind, which is rarer than most people seem to think. A number of professors have written mystery novels; very few of them write nearly so well as Ian and his partner.
"One of the great joys of teaching at Princeton is that I get to work with students, who both as students and later on achieve amazing things. Another former undergraduate, Graham Brunett, scored a national success with ‘A Trial by Jury,’ his account of a stint as jury foreman for a New York murder trial. He’s also a scholar, and is now a colleague in my department. Other former students have done distinguished work as writers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, documentary filmmakers – you name it. It’s pure pleasure to watch them succeed."
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