Originally posted at: https://lastredoubt.substack.com/p/foucaults-pendulum

I have a general rule of thumb when it comes to books that still holds true from my high school days - if a book outside of the true classics is beloved by the NYT bestseller/NPR/old ladies book club crowd, stay the hell away.

It has stood me in good stead. Other knee-jerk preferences have fallen by the wayside. I no longer head straight to the SF&F shelves at the bookstore. Outside of authors I’ve gotten to know or recommendations I’d gotten from friends, I basically ignore the genre. Especially if it’s from TOR. All of the big SF&F houses have fallen prey to the same sickness, Baen only to a lesser degree, that infests the “good” literature.

Nevertheless, a heuristic, not matter how valid, can have false positives for “bad book.”

Which brings me to Foucault’s Pendulum and Umberto Eco.

I regret not reading this earlier.

For anyone familiar with the zaniness of the Principia Discordia or Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, you’d think a story where some publishers make up a conspiracy theory on a lark involving Templars, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, ancient civilizations, the whole nine yards, and end up stuck in the middle of one as their game turns out to be far too resonant with strange reality would be right up my alley.

But yeah, when it came out I was young, in school, averse to what the literary crowd loved, and never picked it up to read a few pages even out of curiosity.

See above: “regret not reading this earlier.”

But the fact is that it doesn’t take long for the experience of the Numinous to unhinge the mind.

The book loosely follows a structure of starting in the “now”, at or near the end of the story, before going back to the beginning to show you how things got there. Thus, even as we meet Casubon, his thoughts and choices, which obviously have meaning, are bereft of the context needed to fully understand them, other than he is there to watch a meeting of a secret society, in hopes of discovering what happened to his friend Belbo. His thoughts are obviously colored by his obsession with conspiracies and drawing patterns and inferences out of everything.

After a brief introduction to the word processor that Belbo dubbed Abulafia, we go back to Milan in the 70’s. Casubon is still our narrator, but at this point merely a student researching the templars. We are deftly introduced to each of the main players, starting with Belbo, and some signs that there are sinister consequences to delving too deep into the conspiracies. From there, it takes time. Casubon travels to Brazil, and back to Italy, joining with Belbo at his publishing house, and nearly halfway through, they hatch the plan to make money off of the popularity of conspiracy theories by coming up with their own, one which accounts for the others.

First of all - for a book about conspiracy theories, and it certainly references and incorporates a lot of them, it’s not really about conspiracy theories. It deals in obsession, and how the things we obsess over change us. As they dig deeper and deeper to better build their farce, Casubon, Belbo, and Garamond the publisher slowly shift from skeptics joking at the poor saps they’re rooking to believers, and unwittingly, place themselves at the very center of the grandest conspiracy of all.

Belbo, the frustrated writer who only writes into his word processor, and will never publish, convinced despite his passion that he is not worthy. Casubon, the scholar, who wants to learn more and understand everything, pushing the limits of what can be known, who’s brushes against the not always entirely rational and scientifically explainable leave a mark on him, shifting his thinking. Garamond, the publisher who commissioned the project to make money off of gullible writers, and may very well have actually been in on a conspiracy from the start.

Every paragraph is engaging. There is not a wasted word, but neither is the style terse. It flows. It doesn’t sketch characters so much as paint them and breathe life into them.

So there I was, in the midst of the Revolution, or at least in the most stupendous imitation of it, seeking an honorable faith. It was honorable, for example, to take part in rallies and marches. I chanted “Fascist scum, your time has come!” with everybody else. I never threw paving stones or ball bearings, out of fear that others might do unto me as I did unto them, but I experienced a kind of moral excitement escaping along narrow downtown streets when the police charged, I would come home with the sense of having performed a duty. In the meetings I remained untouched by the disagreements that divided the various groups: I always had the feeling that if you substituted the right phrase for another phrase, you could move from group to group. I amused myself by finding the right phrases, I modulated.

Even this paragraph early in the book shows you how Casubon was never quite anchored, why he was susceptible to his mental state shifting as he delved deeper in to the conspiracies he studied - he always shifted to make himself fit in. It also shows how the seeds of obsession with knowledge were already there. Later, even his wife Lia could only provide an anchor of reality for so long.

More, I could recognize bits in here of myself, as I could in all the characters - they were all relatable in some way, giving you the bridge needed to understand what happened to them and why.

It is a denser read than most fiction, even most works that the literary and critical crowd go aglow over. It required and awarded attention. It only obscures that which needs to be obscured to tell the tale, not for cleverness, and clearly illuminates that which needs to be seen. To the extent the language has suffered from translation, or not, the final result is a testament to both the skill and dedication of the translator, as well as the original prose.

I will be getting a hard copy for my shelf.