367 words. Originally published Nov. 17, 2011 in The Daily Princetonian.
If you like art history, frustration and young men pruning in ennui, “The Rule of Four” might be for you. The novel, penned by two childhood friends who traveled the well-worn path from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to Princeton/Harvard and beyond, could not be more presumptuous — it’s like authors Ian Caldwell ’98 and Harvard grad Dustin Thomason sat down one day over scotch and cigars on the family yacht, wrote down every wisecrack and stereotype anyone has ever uttered about the Ivy League and turned their list into a book.
Narrator Tom is haunted by the expectations of his dead father, a professor who dedicated his entire life to cracking the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a dense, allegorical text written in about five outdated languages (we’re talking hieroglyphics here, things that make Turbo Greek look like child’s play) that Tom’s roommate Paul spends much of the book successfully deciphering. Armed with his Princeton learning and a lot of spare time, Paul is poised to complete his thesis, a complete explication of the text that may or may not lead to a hidden vault of lost treasures somewhere in Rome. Tom, Paul and their two other less important roommates battle an evil grad student and a jealous thesis advisor while suffering multiple existential crises before — spoiler alert — a few people die in a massive blaze at Ivy.
Murder and arson notwithstanding, the real crime here is the unctuous, self-absorbed portrayal of Princeton — a version of campus so far beyond the necessary hyper-reality that I barely recognize it myself. Tom is equal parts overeducated and apathetic, a silver spoon bumbling his way through an English degree who invites more eye-rolls than empathy. He and Paul skate through the carrels, secret passages and sinister lecture halls of this mystical, vaunted version of Princeton making smug references to Proust and “taking their meals” at Ivy on the rare occasions they can tear themselves away from the Hypnerotomachia. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a 21-year-old undergraduate would rather open a book than sleep with his girlfriend, but, as for the rest of the student body, inaccurate would be an understatement.