20050821

Four to the Floor

I recently read The Rule of Four. It's one of those hidden treasure / secret clues / coming-of-age / princeton university / romance / steam tunnels / conspiracy theory novels that we're seeing so many of recently. The plot revolves around a cryptic (and allegedly real though I am just too lazy to check) book from the 15th century. The narrator is engaged in decoding the clues in the book, finishing his finals, and realizing that maybe he should pay more attention to his girlfriend.

It's an entertaining, if quite often infuriating, novel. The decoding of the clues is mixed in with filling in of background details in the narrator's life, leaving a somewhat confused timeline. It doesn't help that much of the action takes place in an insanely frenetic 24 hour period the description of which spans most of the book.

I find the reader reviews on Amazon quite amusing. Many of the recent reviews attack the book for its flaws quite vituperatively. Critically, it was reasonably well received, but one of the mistakes the reviewers made was in their laziness, the plot meant that they described it as a cross between "The Da Vinci Code" and Umberto Eco. Well, Eco-fans are unlikely to find enough in here to catch their attention. It's certainly superior to the breathless hyperbole of the DVC, and a little more considered. But because of the quotes on the front cover, lots of DVC fans have piled in, expecting another trashy romp around well-trodden conspiracy theories and carefully planned misdirection. They then whinge that this book has been written by people who know how to string a sentence together, and has plot elements such as romance and thought. They complain that the book lectures them, conveniently forgetting that at several points in the Da Vinci Code, the lead character has flashbacks to times when he was explaining the relevant material *in a lecture*.

Not that I particularly want to defend the Rule of Four. It has plot holes aplenty, and the solution of the riddles are riddled with holes. While DVC resorted to getting William Tunstell-Pedoe to make up some silly anagrams, tRoF has arcance references to classical literature. Each riddle is solved (with immense effort, sleepless nights, thousands of hours of research etc.) by a single word, which is then used as a key to decipher a block of otherwise innocuous seeming text in the book being unravelled. How does this deciphering work? Well, one clue is answered by something like stadium, which is seven letters long, so you have to take every seventh letter of the text starting from a point where "stadium" actually appears in the text. Or another one is answered by a four letter word, so they take the first letter of every fourth word, and so on.

Can you see the flaw here? Once you know the general pattern of the clues, you don't actually have to solve them. You just have to try various trivial options (every third letter, every sixth letter etc.), which would take no time at all given the electronic version of the text a few perl scripts. Funnily enough, none of the Amazon reviewers seem to have noticed this. Unless I've made some glaring error, in which case, I don't care.

Furthermore, the titular "rule of four" is actually learned based on information from outside the book (contrary to the deciphered text's claim that an appropriately educated reader should be able to work it out for himself), and other vital blueprints are also picked up from outside the work itself.

One thing I did like about the book, although it may be unintentional, is the time compression: the bulk of the book, about 500 pages in all covers a couple of days in great detail, and refers back to events happening over the course of the narrator's time as an undergraduate. But, the five years after graduation get covered in a couple of paragraphs. This initially seems somewhat slipshod, especially since the narrator's crucial decision that a wild goose chase after some non-existent buried treasure wasn't worth the toll on his personal life and friendships seems then to be ignored since he goes to work in Texas for a software company as some kind of antisocial hermit. But, the more I think of it, the more clearly it becomes a metaphor: you graduate university, and after that years seem to slip by so quickly in comparison to the time you spend as a student, which seems so rich and full of detail. In other words, this book is like life: fun when you are young and without responsibilities, but after that it can get dull and tiresome.

Anyway, in order to recapture some fun and games, I'm about to embark on my own quest: to find out the truth behind the tragic death of Jamie Kane. Feel free to join me (for whatever the rights and wrongs, this piece of Wiki-fiddling did catch my attention and draw me in to the teen-oriented world). I'll let you know how I get on.

1 comment:

Bloggs said...

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