Monday, October 25, 2010

Review - Foucault's Pendulum

Foucault's PendulumI picked this book up more than a decade ago. I started reading it once but couldn't get into it. When The DaVinci Code came out, somebody recommended this book to me as a "thinking man's DaVinci Code." And yet it still took me another 4-5 years to read it. I'm sad that it took me so long to finally get to this book.

The first thing I'll say is that this is an incredibly dense book. I'm generally a pretty fast reader. But with this book, my reading speed was generally cut at least in half either by the writing or by forcing myself to slow it down. There is just so much going on that this book truly requires more time spent on each page.

The high level story is actually fairly simplistic. To an extent I would almost simplify it and say that this is the story of what happens prior to the opening pages of the DaVinci Code novel...the book opens in a museum with our protagonist, Casaubon anxiously awaiting some midnight ritual that could result in death but then the next ~400+ pages are told in flashback to let us know how we got to this point. So where DaVinci Code starts with a ritualistic death in a museum and works to solve the mystery, Foucault starts with the musuem but then backtracks to show how we got there and (eventually) ends with the events in the museum.

The story involves a group of overly educated folks working together at a publishing house. As they receive a number of outlandish books about various conspiracy theories, they finally decide to create their own theory from their own knowledge and information as well as by piecing together bits from all of these other books. They create a very coherent plan that outlines centuries/millenia of plotting by Templars and other Holy Orders. Naturally, their plan comes too close to the truth (or does it?) and gets them all in trouble.

Interestingly, this basic synopsis was outlined on the back cover of the book. However, aside from the first few pages in the museum, it takes a few hundred pages before the group of people get together at the publishing house and start working on their own plan.

Instead of jumping right into the action and giving us an intense action-packed novel, the author provides us a "teaser" of the action to come (the museum) but then takes us back in time many years and allows us to follow the educational pattern that eventually provides the adequate knowledge to develop this intricate plan.

We follow Casaubon from Europe to South America and back again over decades. We relive his interesting experiences with different cults, mystics, and others. We're also taken on flashbacks as he talks with one of the other men, Belbo, about his childhood during World War II and there are numerous segments of psychological analysis of his experiences. Indeed, even though we are living the story through Casaubon's narration, there are a number of segments told from Belbo's point of view either as he spoke to Casaubon or as Casaubon reads some journal-type writing by Belbo.

So, the general story of this book is fairly simple and easy to follow. But the amount of information presented is staggering. It took me a number of chapters to get a feel for the narrative style but once I did, I found a lot of passages to be very humorous and witty.

Naturally I didn't have time or energy to go through and validate each of the various historical commentaries made by the characters. They were all presented with a great sense of authority. Indeed, part of the theme of the novel, at least from my perspective, is that readers SHOULD question what they're presented rather than just accepting it as fact. Furthermore, even if there is plenty of truth in what is presented, that doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is true.

Through the absurdity with which Casaubon and his friends develop "The Plan" and the further absurdity by which it is accepted, Eco seems to be presenting the argument that conspiracy theories and theorists are far to eager to jump at their desired solution rather than appropriately seeking out the true and logical answer. I especially loved a scene near the end of the book where Casaubon's girlfriend Lia reads "The Plan" and gives her own interpretation of their pieced together interpretation much more mundane and far less dangerous.

While it took me a long time to get into this book and a long time to finish it due to the density of reading....I really enjoyed this book. I loved hearing the various historical stories (true or not) and the interesting analysis of the motives and ideas of these various cults and groups. The action/adventure of the story was a lot of fun too, though in terms of page volume, that was definitely a very small portion of the overall work.

I'm also intrigued by the idea that the back and forth nature of the narrative may be some experimental metafiction of letting the book behave like the pendulum itself....criss crossing back and forth over a space providing various insights at the intersections.  I don't know if it would play out but I'd be interested to track the narrative trajectory back and forth across the pages and see if any sort of pendulum-like pattern emerged.

I certainly can't recommend it to everyone. But if you're a history buff, a conspiracy theory fan, a literary buff or just looking for a deep and thought provoking read (and you have the time and energy to invest in it), then definitely check this out.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Brian Miller said...

have you read name of the rose....enjoyed that one more than this one...

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I have been meaning to start this one for years and just never have yet.
I have heard that it is a hard one to get through-so Bravo!

Talli Roland said...

Sounds like an interesting read - thanks for the review!

Okie said...

I haven't yet read Name of the Rose yet. I understand it's an easier read...but just as compelling and, from what I hear, a more entertaining read.