Fiction—even genre fiction—carries us into worlds we don’t know. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories bring the imperial London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries back to life—and make us feel, as nothing else can, the weird brilliance of late Victorian Positivism. John le Carré’s spy novels preserve the post-imperial London of the Sixties and Seventies—and can make the young feel, as few other books can, the strange public numbness of the cold-war era. In some ways, the conventional nature of their plots—which assume that all mysteries will, in the end, be solved, even if justice doesn’t always triumph—makes these stories, at their best, particularly effective at giving the feel of a city or a closed society like the Secret Service.
Long, long ago, in a fresh green world we have lost, writers published “campus novels”—most of which had little in common with the currently best-selling novel by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, The Rule of Four, except their settings. Some of them played the game so straight that they were virtually rigid, and celebrated student culture and its values with what now seems astonishing naiveté. Owen Wister’s mephitically charming Philosophy Four celebrated the high jinks of well-bred undergraduates at the direct expense of greasy immigrant scholarship and culture. Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale followed Dink Stover and his friends as they challenged social conventions. In spite of his outbreaks of independent thought, however, Stover became a campus “big man”—an achievement sealed and celebrated, at Yale, by being tapped for one of the university’s mysterious secret societies.
Stover’s adventures inspired hordes of prep school boys who followed him into the Gothic catacombs of the Ivy League—and generations of immigrant kids born and raised in places very far indeed from Yale. Others—like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and its British inspiration, Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street—tipped their fedoras to mainline student culture but concentrated on characters that needed something the university didn’t quite provide. They portrayed universities as lovely Gothic hothouses, abloom with well-dressed, charming, pink young men, posing elegantly or striving hard. Their heroes usually tried both posing and striving, before they kicked the neat grass clippings of the quads from their feet and pursued their sentimental educations in dirtier, livelier cities.
For all their variety in tone and moral, these books had much in common. All of them centered on Bildung—the formation of a young man’s mind and character. All of them treated scenes of student life as their primary dramas. They relegated dons and deans, quite properly, to the secondary role of minor irritants and very occasional inspirations—something like sand traps on a golf course or flesh-eating monsters in a computer game. All of them, finally, chose a particular type for their hero: a young man who came to college equipped with a certain amount of money, good clothes, and a proper background, but remained just enough of an outsider to make his obsessive and perceptive observation of the college scene seem plausible.
Johnson’s Dink Stover, though a star athlete, came to Yale from Lawrenceville, Princeton’s feeder school. His incurable innocence and decency led him to quit his first Yale club—and survived unscathed through drunken dissipation, confrontations with snotty club loyalists, and scary contact with more lurid evils. His wide eyes took in sins he could never have committed himself. MacKenzie’s Michael Fane, though rich, attractive, and well dressed, was the illegitimate son of a nobleman and came from a London day school, not one of the boarding schools that produced most undergraduates. More unusually, he had already pursued and been pursued in the smoky, flaring streets of London, the modern Babylon. Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine hailed from the Midwest, like his creator, and his origins in the deep dark center of the country made him an eternal moth, irresistibly pulled toward the bright, gracious institutions of the Northeast, and fated to be consumed by them. Handsome and popular, but sensitive, these young men made appropriate heroes for what Fitzgerald called “quest novels,” whose heroes went out in search of a secret, which some identified with the universities themselves, and others eventually found in the dark realms outside.
These novels, especially in their American form, bore the stamp of a period and a culture: the university world at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In those years, American colleges and universities hit the most intense growth spurt they would undergo until the GI Bill and a generation of extraordinary leaders like Kingman Brewster transformed them again after World War II. The old colleges in New England and Ohio had been solid Protestant grubs—brick citadels of plain living and high thinking, dedicated to producing lawyers, ministers, and teachers, and generally committed to a classical curriculum. But now the stars were differently aligned. Out of the grubs crawled Gothic butterflies, bright, variegated creatures sparkling with the new colors of the Gilded Age elite.
In bourgeois societies, as Lionel Trilling noted long ago, money is—or used to be—ashamed of itself. Colleges and universities offered a respected place where malefactors of great wealth could turn their perishable piles of cash into massive lecture halls, libraries, and dormitories, and a fashionable space where the malefactors’ spawn could gain some polish before they began bilking investors or hiring Pinkertons to break strikes. Vast stone buildings, fretted and pinnacled as fancifully as stonemasons imported by the dozen from Italy could make them, sprang from the mud of cities and college towns. Rich boys, climbers, and pretenders moved in, and turned the colleges from seminaries for young professionals into finishing schools for the urban and suburban upper middle class.
The old classical curriculum slowly dissolved and was reformed as a mosaic of departments and elective courses, more suitable than the uncut Greek, Latin, and mathematics of the old colleges to raw youth without professional ambitions. At the same time, a new undergraduate culture took shape, one rich in gaudy traditions invented as rapidly as the Gothic style itself. Student activities—sports, newspapers, laundry agencies, and fraternities—held illimitable dominion over all. The vast stony campuses, grandiose as the government buildings of the British Raj, echoed to the thud of football players in collision, the plunking of mandolins, and the wails of frat pledges undergoing corporal punishment. The college became a lively world unto itself, one that fascinated not only undergraduates and their younger siblings, but also the American public as a whole. National magazines regularly portrayed the colleges, huge crowds attended their football and baseball games, and changes in their curriculum or coaching staff became headline news on the front pages of the big city papers. It all seemed very, very important and very, very exciting. The classic college novels of the 1910s and 1920s gave—and give—a sense of what it felt like to live through this first campus revolution.
Since those innocent years, of course, the American campus has gone through more metamorphoses than Ovid’s demigods. The naively fervent hopes and values of the old campus culture, focused on all-absorbing competition for local offices and goals, withered in the wised-up age of the GI Bill and after. Combat veterans in the Forties and Salinger’s young men and women in the Fifties had little enough in common, but they all knew that the eager, the ambitious, and the sleazily sociable were phonies. Fraternities and sororities suffered in their turn, a few years later, when the generation of the Sixties loudly claimed to choose equality over hierarchy and collectively turned from beer to other intoxicants. In the Eighties and Nineties, the all-white student bodies of the old colleges became multicolored and multicultural, and most of the informal barriers that once protected the campus from the city were battered into rubble by summer internships, the World Wide Web, and the cell phone.
Yet in the fin de siècle and the new dawn we are currently living through, some of the older collegiate institutions have shown unexpected resilience. In an age of public piety, when presidential candidates must pray or be eliminated, religious organizations have burgeoned. A century ago, white male patricians awaited the Call to China. Nowadays multiracial groups of boys and girls in identical T-shirts and baseball caps, many of them Chinese, Japanese, or Korean by descent, sip hot chocolate and sing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” while waiting for the Call to Wall Street. In an age of privilege, fraternities and other private clubs glisten with a new appeal. The fancy cocktail and the fine fillet, the limousine and the dance, the floral display of bright gowns and bare shoulders beside the black-and-white parade of muscular young penguins—these images play as powerful a role in student fantasies now as they did when Fitzgerald lovingly recorded the applause that greeted “her sweet face and my new clothes.” It all makes a rich and puzzling tapestry.
For the last thirty years or so, however, the most prominent campus fiction has been written either by professors or by writers who had put in time on campus running fiction workshops and giving readings. Inspired by that lonely masterpiece of satire that transcends the limits of genre, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and provoked by the harsh debates, glitzy perks, and ghoulish misbehavior of the new professorate, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, Alison Lurie and Jane Smiley, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, and James Hynes have preserved for posterity a rogue’s gallery of left-wing prigs, Mephistophelean prince-of-darkness theorists, and hapless middle-aged male professors destroyed by desire. These often witty books, many of them not just over the top but down the other side, have been read by a vast public. They have even been translated into European languages, and have inspired some continental imitations, such as the leaden campus novels of Gustav Schwanitz and Thea Dorn’s sprightly Berliner Aufklärung.
By contrast, students’ experiences in this new collegiate world have only recently begun to yield fictional responses. One of the first—and by far the most successful, before this year—was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This eloquent hybrid of the college novel and the thriller, steeped in nostalgia for a world of natural colors, Victorian porch swings, itchy tweeds, and oxford shirts, took a male outsider from California through the parties and pretensions of a rich, progressive small college in New England. The Secret History is marred by more than one cliché or formula. It would take a reader with a heart of stone not to grumble a bit when it turns out that the languid, pretty twin brother and sister from the South engage in incest. But Tartt also devised some elegant innovations. Her main character ends up concentrating exclusively on the classics, working with a small group of fellow students and one charismatic teacher. By focusing to an unusual degree on his academic experiences, she found a way to justify a first-person narrative as allusive, as stuffed with recondite information and literary references, as Fitzgerald and MacKenzie had written in their time. And by turning the central story of this little group into a Gothic tale of secret ritual, murder, and betrayal, she made her book a strong fictional record of a pervasive mood in the contemporary university world.
The Secret History graphically evokes the sense of emptiness and desperation, the hopeless and unalleviated despair, that dominates the lives of so many contemporary college and university students—often the very ones who seem, to most adults, enviably confident and in charge of productive, directed lives. The bright college of cocktails and ball gowns, the frat boys’ and sorority girls’ paradise, is also the scene of scary rakes’ progresses: the journey to the end of the academic night that Elizabeth Wurzel traced, a couple of years later, in her memoir Prozac Nation. Tartt evoked a glaring, fluorescent-lit world of attractive, articulate students who abuse drugs and alcohol, starve and vomit, cut themselves with knives, and attempt suicide. Any college senior can describe these scenes, long omitted by college fiction, quite literally ad nauseam from personal experience. Since Tartt’s successful experiment, they have been explored in many different ways: Tom Perrotta’s Joe College (2000), for example, skillfully tracked a young man from a lower-middle-class life in the least classy of the eastern states—New Jersey, of course, where his father owned a factory lunch wagon—through the clammily glamorous social and intellectual frenzies of Yale in the late years of the culture wars.
The Rule of Four is a skillfully executed entry to the same sweepstakes that Tartt won—a crossbred college and suspense novel, written by two recent graduates of Princeton and Harvard respectively, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Full disclosure—mea maxima culpa—requires me to admit that I, disheveled, round, and male muse that I am, had something to do with the book’s origins. Years ago, Caldwell took a course with me on art, magic, and science in Renaissance Europe. I suggested that he devote a term paper to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna—a strange but dazzlingly printed and illustrated book, exotic even when Aldo Manuzio first published it in 1499. The author concealed his name in an acrostic, and the story itself took its protagonist—rather like the young students at the center of those old quest novels—in search of beauty across a deadly but attractive landscape, sown with handsomely ruinous pillars, signposted with spurious hieroglyphs and inscriptions in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic as well as Latin, and populated by dragons, gods, and Ghirlandaio girls carrying out bloody, sexually charged rituals.
Caldwell wrote the paper, which was very good. Seven years later, he and his friend have produced this book, which is even better fun than the paper. In this mystery novel, Princeton students and professors engage in a magnificently insane caucus race, as they compete to be the first to work out the authorship, aims, and meaning of the Hypnerotomachia. The book has its weaknesses—but it’s a pleasure to read, and in the end, like The Secret History, it even has some news to tell us.
Caldwell and Thomason spin their story along two different timelines, moving abruptly from the one to the other. On a bitter cold Easter weekend, the reader follows Tom and his three friends—the brilliant, obsessive scholar; the beautiful, rich gentleman; and the humane, supersmart, and loyal black pre-medical student (it’s a shame the cliché police weren’t called, since they could have done their valuable work on this group, as on Tartt’s)—through the last days of their senior year at Princeton.
Luridly suffused with every shade of local color, from paintball fights in the campus steam tunnels and the now-defunct Nude Olympics to the climactic party at an eating club, this is superficially the story of the Princeton campus as it is now. In fact, of course, The Rule of Four isn’t reportage—this late Nineties campus lacks e-mail, without which student life as we know it now would be unimaginable, and would have been unimaginable then. But it is replete with all the details one might expect to find in a postmodern quest novel. The plot’s intertwined strands include the love story of Tom, the narrator, and his generous, humane girlfriend Kate; the ways in which differences of class, wealth, gender, and race inflect all of campus life; and the great drama of whether Paul will manage to crack the Hypnerotomachia and finish his senior thesis as undergraduates, graduate students, and professors chase each other and Paul around the campus in search of the key to all the Hypnerotomachia’s mythologies, guns in hand (these are a bit less common, happily, in central New Jersey than they are in current New Jersey fiction, from The Rule of Four to The Sopranos).
Though its “cosmetics”—as the authors called them in an interview—are endearingly familiar to Princetonians and fellow denizens of Ivy League universities, this mystery plot suffers from some obvious problems. Interest in selective student clubs has risen sharply in the last few years, at Harvard and Yale as well as Princeton—but accounts of backlash never play like the real thing. Eighty years ago, in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald worked hard to endow Princeton’s local fraternities, known as eating clubs, with a glowing, contagious glamour:
Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards.
Even then the rhetoric rang a bit false, as several of the novel’s characters come to see. Almost a century later, the most selective of these clubs, which specialize in hushed, pretentious rituals of exclusion and squalid, beer-drenched parties, don’t exactly glow with a hard, gemlike flame. Cynical characters in The Rule of Four mutter about the sexual services demanded from female aspirants to membership. The authors’ efforts to spin high drama from the clubs’ social pretensions and costume parties fall a bit flat, and to some extent they themselves undermine them.
The other timeline—and the more gripping one—reaches back much farther into the past. It is the story of how Tom, the narrator, and his friend Paul came to be obsessed with the Hypnerotomachia—described as a book that snares men’s souls. Tom, it turns out, inherited his interest from his father—a failed historian whose one major discovery did not win him the fame it should have, and whose career at Ohio State ended in a deadly car crash. Paul, by contrast, acquired his interest later on—largely from two friends of Tom’s father, an art dealer who serves as one of the university’s trustees and supports Paul’s research, and another historian, the villain who did the father in with a nasty book review—a vicious, sterile, overweight but ingenious professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, across town from the university, who looks rather like me.
In their last year, Tom and Paul become enmeshed in a scholarly folie à deux. Working their way through the Hypnerotomachia, they crack its secret messages, one by one. To do this they have to master all the disciplines, all the arcana, all the Faustian obsessions of the Renaissance magi—Cabala, Eastern wisdom, Pythagorean numerology, the works. In the end, Paul recognizes in the novel a serious message to the future cast away in an unusually beautiful bottle, a desperate plan devised by the Roman aristocrat Francesco Colonna, as part of his larger effort to save the arts and the classics from the Florentine prophet Savonarola, who is portrayed as ordering his followers to pile classical manuscripts and Botticellis, along with women’s cosmetics and high heels, on their bonfires of the vanities. Paul’s efforts to finish the decoding, Tom’s desire to save his individuality and his love for Katie from the joint obsession, and the erratic interventions of wild-eyed, weird adults, who certainly will not stop at theft or murder if it will enable them to produce an article for Renaissance Quarterly, collide to form a kind of critical mass, one that turns out to have several kinds of explosive potential. Fatherless, midwestern, and relatively poor, but very smart, Tom makes the perfect observer for virtually all of these strange happenings.
Caldwell and Thomason put a foot wrong here and there as they lay out this second and more interesting story. True, there were two Francesco Colonnas in the later fifteenth century, one from Palestrina, near Rome, and one from the Veneto. In The Rule of Four, the Roman Colonna turns out to be the author—a view that has very little evidence to recommend it. Tom’s father supposedly came upon his greatest find on a remote shelf in a Vatican branch library. In colorless reality, even the most irrepressible scholars working in the Vatican are forbidden to browse the stacks for rarities. They sit quietly at long tables until their manuscripts appear at the reading room desk. Savonarola did reject some forms of ancient thought—such as astrology—but was a staunch if idiosyncratic civic republican who played a central role in the creation of the republican government that ruled Florence from 1494 to 1512.
Still, Caldwell and Thomason are excellent in suggesting how much was genuinely at stake in the culture wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Like their hero Colonna, the young philosopher Pico della Mirandola and his German disciple Johannes Reuchlin insisted that Western Christian culture would be incomplete if it refused to learn from the Jews. They made this claim—a radical one in its own terms—in the teeth of efforts to confine Italian Jews to ghettos and make them wear yellow stars, while German Jews were tortured to make them admit that they had murdered Christian boys and used their blood to make matzoh. Later on, Protestant ideologues like Luther would try to eject Aristotle from the universities, and Catholic ideologues like Possevino would fillet Catholic libraries lest some young man trip on the temptation to think outside the constraints of orthodoxy. The fictional Colonna of The Rule of Four has something in common with the real Reuchlin—whose defense of Hebrew learning has become a classic document in the all-too-short list of classic defenses of human freedom of inquiry.
The book’s central chase—the young men’s desperate effort to muster knowledge of a dozen disciplines and hundreds of texts—nicely evokes the encyclopedic culture of late-fifteenth-century thinkers like Pico. He bought, begged, and borrowed books in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, not to mention the imaginary Chaldean ones that one of his informants promised to give him, in the hope that he could fit together truths from all of them, like a vast metaphysical jigsaw puzzle. Pretty much every one of the recondite arts that the two boys bring to bear on their project of decipherment, from Cabala to allegorical readings of ancient myths, actually flourished in the period when the book took shape. And the proposed decoding does a curious kind of justice not only to the humming, obsessive minutiae of the Hypnerotomachia, but also to the serious aims that may well have underpinned it, and to the kind of work needed to decipher such high Renaissance masterpieces. For the last few years, the dramas of scholarship have attracted striking numbers of readers. This unexpected and welcome development, a rare moment of sun in publishing’s Ice Age, resulted in part from the extraordinary stylistic gifts of writers like Umberto Eco and Simon Winchester. It helps to explain the vogue for novels like The Da Vinci Code—a sillier book than The Rule of Four, and far worse written. But it also reflects a wider nostalgia, natural enough in the age of the sound bite and the pundit, for something like intellectual Slow Food—for the kind of knowledge that takes time and effort to unearth.
Caldwell and Thomason address this nostalgia in a novel way. Their heroes’ overdetermined choice of a text to explicate wonderfully plays off the enterprise of humanistic scholarship itself. The Hypnerotomachia describes a quest lived out in a dream. As Polifilo, the protagonist, explores forests and monuments, beautiful women dressed in spectacularly elaborate shoes, which he describes in fetishistic detail, provoke him to sexual frenzies. Instead of gratifying his desires, they prescribe herbal remedies to calm him down—a good thing, too, as his arteries must have been snapping like matchsticks. But even when Polifilo finds and embraces his beloved Polia, she disappears, along with the dream in which he pursued her. To dedicate oneself, passionately, to pursuing this passionate story of pursuit—a journey that offers endless intoxicating excitements but in the nature of things can never reach fulfillment—makes a wonderful allegory for the endlessly promising, endlessly frustrating hunt for past experiences and their meanings on which scholars spend their lives.
Happily, The Rule of Four is not a documentary record. Renaissance Quarterly is an excellent scholarly journal—but it is hard to imagine any scholar so desperate that he would manipulate an undergraduate for a year and more in the hope of stealing an article for its pages. Princeton is an eccentric place, and it cherishes many outré traditions. Every spring, thousands of our highly successful alumni come back to campus for a lost weekend, which they spend wearing strange costumes in orange and black, shouting nineteenth-century cheers, and reconstituting the rock bands, study groups, and vegetarian co-ops of their youth. But at the Princeton in New Jersey, as opposed to the one in The Rule of Four, student clubs don’t sponsor must-attend lectures by the faculty on the evening of Good Friday, or any other movable feast. A good thing too, as one could hardly imagine students—or anyone else—attending them.
What this ingenious book does highlight, however, is something else new in college fiction: it focuses on the one long hard moment—a moment many, many bright American undergraduates experience—when the splendors and miseries of personal existence and the frighteningly powerful appeal of books, problems, and ideas come together in a truly dangerous way. Undergraduates do all sorts of things at universities. They play computer games, they eat pizza, they go to parties, they have sex, they work out, and they amuse each other by their pretensions. What most fiction has ignored is that a lot of them also spend vast amounts of time alone, attacking the kinds of intellectual problems that can easily swallow lifetimes. In the perilous months of their last years at good colleges and universities, seniors parachute into mathematical puzzles, sociological aporiae, and historical mysteries that have baffled professionals. With the help—and sometimes the hindrance—of their teachers, but chiefly relying on their own wits and those of their close friends, they attack Big Questions, Big Books, and Big Problems.
Like the Hypnerotomachia, many of these turn the students who choose them into so many Ahabs. The great white-whale topics flirt with students. They seduce. Then they duck under the surface and avoid capture. Most students escape becoming obsessed with them—as Tom does in this novel—and produce a modest, reasonably good argument or analysis before they go on to other things. But many find this whole strange experience hypnotically fascinating. Some are caught in the web of words or symbols or data, and awake, a year or two later, in the nerds’ Venusberg, graduate school. Far more of them shake off the compulsion of these strange materials and stranger questions and go their way into professional or corporate life. Anyone who teaches long enough at a good college will meet an alum, smoothly dressed and well up the hierarchy at a bank, a law firm, or a software company, who asks, “Was I really that interested in all that old stuff? It seems so esoteric now.” But for a moment, amid the raging hormones, the desperate job searches, and the eager social jockeying, thousands of young people across America—thousands more than ever seek a doctorate or a teaching job—know something of the mysteries that scholars and scientists call their own.
These projects compose one of the least celebrated mysteries that take place on American campuses. They are not as exciting as the news Fitzgerald offered his readers (hey, kids make out), or the revelations Tartt gave hers (kids take strange substances and spew colorful liquids), or the report Tom Wolfe is about to give his (adults have absolutely no idea what a university is like nowadays). Most academic fiction treats research as an interruption to the real business of college. Most outside observers chant antiphonally about the perfidy and careerism of professors, the illiteracy and disinterest of students, and the pressing need for universities to hire teachers from the Real World instead of supporting all this academic blather. If you don’t spend your time on a campus, you wouldn’t know that these different circuits ever close at all. But they do, year after year, mysteriously, unexpectedly, wonderfully, everywhere from Maine to San Diego.
Students learn—mirabile dictu—that scholarship and science weave a spell of their own—a spell that can pull them in and take their whole lives. And even those who get away take the experience with them, just as young Germans did in the old days when a spell of Einsamkeit und Freiheit, loneliness and freedom, at Heidelberg or Göttingen made the necessary prelude to any significant career in banking, government, or publishing. This isn’t something most students like to admit: only roommates and professors are allowed to hear much about these strange, ungainly interests, so disturbing, so scandalously appealing, and so uncool. And it certainly isn’t something that happens only at Princeton. But as the real jewel at the heart of Caldwell and Thomason’s lotus—and much more than their version of the secret of the Hypnerotomachia—it’s one to bring pleasure to an old professor’s heart.
September 23, 2004