The Rule of Four, published by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason in 2004, is a book co-authored by two young men who adopt a serious, rather old fashioned style that makes them sound older than their years. I liked the correct grammar and elegant sentences, although the style goes strangely with some of the subject matter, specifically the chronicle of undergraduate hi jinks like hanging pants from a tower and the Princeton Nude Olympics. Middle-aged writers striving for the voice of a young character take note – it’s possible for an intelligent and educated young man to sound like an elderly philosopher. What’s really jarring is for him to sound like a backward teenager.
The Rule of Four deals with Princeton students who take on a Medieval book entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as a thesis subject. When the project was introduced I noted that in contrast to most fictional topics of this type, the book wasn’t billed as containing secrets that would save/doom the human race, overturn the entire history of the world, or any of the other ridiculous and impossible things that are so hard to live up to. At first this was refreshing. The book was just a book. But then I realized why thriller writers invoke all those doomsday scenarios. If the old book is just an old book, intriguing as it might be to try to understand it, it hardly seems worthy of life-long dedication and the sacrifice of career and family. Scientific research can always be justified as curing disease and bettering our lives, but the poor humanist who devotes his life to understanding a random piece of history just sounds like a nut.
In the story, the book turns out to have great significance after all, redeeming all the trouble it caused. According to the authors’ note, in reality the identity of the Medieval writer (the book actually exists), let alone the meaning, if any, of his ramblings, aren’t known. I hope that in fact the book did no more than stymie a few undergraduates, and the life-long dedication of several of the characters to its mysteries was fictional.