Posts Tagged ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’
A few days ago, an interviewer asked me to describe what I saw as my target audience. In response, I fell back on the answer that writers tend to give in such situations: I said that I write the kinds of books I’d like to read. In both literary and popular fiction, I’m drawn to layered, fairly complicated books with a lot of detail and information, and these are inevitably the novels I’ve found myself writing as well. They’re emphatically books for grownups, with occasional adult situations—so it might seem strange, then, for me to confess that my ideal reader, if I’m being truly honest with myself, isn’t a grownup at all. In terms of which reader would give me the most satisfaction, I’d say that it’s a kid of twelve or so, a little too smart for the books at his or her grade level, who isn’t quite ready for adult fiction, but stumbles across my books by accident. It may seem unlikely, but it’s happened at least a few times. And whenever I hear about it, I get very happy.
That said, I’d never try to write a book geared specifically toward children. (Well, “never” is a big word, and I can’t rule anything out for the future, but it isn’t currently on my radar.) Rather, I’d like my novels to be read by kids for whom they’re not entirely appropriate. In my own case, my life was shaped forever by the first adult novels I read: I burned through most of the approved books in my grade school classroom in short order, and moved on to Orwell, King, and Eco. These books were considerably above my own reading level, but I’m glad that nobody warned me away from them. That’s why I’m simultaneously envious and somewhat concerned for kids today, who have entire bookstore sections devoted to young adult literature, which are pitched a little too directly at their interests and age group. These books fill an important need. But I’m still glad that my own limited options forced me to move more or less directly from The Headless Cupid to The Name of the Rose.
In short, I was telling the truth when I said that I write for myself, but it’s really for a version of me that was at its best when I was ten or eleven years old. For most of grade school and middle school, I read voraciously and soaked up information like a sponge: as I recently told my wife, I sometimes suspect that most of what I know was acquired between the ages of eight and thirteen. I read a lot of junk, of course, but also novels that stayed with me. And I read them at a time when I was likely to take them for granted. Looking back at the works of art I enjoyed the most, it’s striking how long it took me to realize how deeply strange Foucault’s Pendulum or Blue Velvet really were. And although there’s a downside to skipping over the intermediate stages—you end up with a somewhat skewed picture of the possibilities of art as a whole—there’s no denying that I owe a lot of the person I eventually became to reading books and watching movies that no responsible adult would have recommended to me at the time.
Not coincidentally, this was also the moment when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Becoming a novelist is really a way of extending my childhood, when I wanted to know something about everything and made up stories about the world without even trying. You can’t always write with a child’s eye, of course, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things since then about craft. But the example is still one that haunts me, and many of the choices I’ve made in the following decades were with eye to what that kid would have wanted. I try to write stories that I think he would like—which, again, doesn’t mean writing for his age level—and I do my best to shape my life, to the extent that I can, into something that lives up to his expectations. I haven’t always been true to him, and there have been years on end when he would have been surprised, and possibly disappointed, by how I was spending my time. But he’s still the best guide I have to what I want to be when I grow up.
If it sometimes seems like we’re living in a golden age for conspiracy theories, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Conspiracies are ultimately about finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and events, and these days, it’s easier to find such connections than at any other point in human history. By now, we take it for granted, but I still remember the existential shock I received, almost ten years ago, when I found out about Amazon’s book search. I responded with a slightly hysterical blog post that was later quoted on the Volokh Conspiracy:
Their Search Inside the Book feature, which allows you to search and browse 33 million pages worth of material from 120,000 books, is just about the most intoxicating online toy I’ve ever seen. But it terrifies me at the same time. Between this monstrous djinn and Google.com, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel…because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition.
Looking back at this post, it’s easy to smile at my apocalyptic tone—not to mention my use of the phrase “Google.com,” which is a time capsule in itself—but if anything, my feelings of intoxication, and terror, have only increased. A decade ago, when I was in college, it took months of research and many hours in the library stacks to find useful connections between ideas, but now, they’re only a short query away. The trouble, of course, is that the long initial search is an inseparable part of scholarship: if you’re forced to read entire shelves of books and pursue many fruitless avenues of research before finding the connections you need, you’re better equipped to evaluate how meaningful they really are when you find them. A quick online search circumvents this process and robs the results of context, and even maturity. Research becomes a series of shortcuts, of data obtained without spiritual effort or cost, so it’s tempting to reach the same conclusion as Jonathan Franzen: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”
Which is true, but only up to a point. Raw information is everywhere, but authors can still be judged by the ingenuity and originality of the connections they make. This is especially true in conspiracy fiction, in which a connection doesn’t need to be true, as long as it’s clever, reasonably novel, and superficially convincing. (Among other reasons, this is why I don’t care for the work of Dan Brown, who only repeats the labors of more diligent crackpots.) Umberto Eco, definitive here as elsewhere, laid down the rules of the game in Foucault’s Pendulum:
- Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else.
- If everything hangs together in the end, the connection works.
- The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious.
And unlike Eco’s protagonists, who had to enter scraps of information into their computer by hand, we all have free access to a machine with an infinite number of such fragments. An enterprising paranoiac just has to look for the connections. And the first step is to find out where they’ve crossed over in the past.
When the time finally came, then, to construct the Pynchonesque novel of my dreams, I decided to proceed in the most systematic way I could. I constructed a vast spreadsheet grid that paired off a variety of players and ideas that I suspected would play a role in the story—Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, Georges Bataille, the Black Dahlia murder—and spent weeks googling each pair in turn, trying to find books and other documents where two or more terms were mentioned together. Not surprisingly, many of these searches went nowhere, but I also uncovered a lot of fascinating material that I wouldn’t have found in any other way, which opened up further avenues of inquiry that I researched more deeply. I felt justified in this approach, which is the opposite of good scholarship, because I was writing a work of fiction about paranoia, overinterpretation, and the danger of taking facts out of context, which was precisely what I was doing myself. And I came away with the realization that you could do this with anything—which is something to keep in mind whenever you see similar arguments being made in earnest. There’s nothing like building a conspiracy theory yourself to make you even more skeptical than you were before. Or to quote Foucault’s Pendulum yet again: “That day, I began to be incredulous.”
Can a book be so good that it’s dangerous? As columnist Crawford Kilian has argued on NPR and the Tyee, there are, in fact, novels that offer such compelling examples of voice, style, and originality that they can seduce generations of young writers into following their lead, often with disastrous results. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave Kilian and his peers license to “essentially be a stenographer for [their] own teenage writing”—even though Salinger himself quickly moved in other directions. Other books that Kilian cites as bad influences include The Lord of the Rings, On The Road, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, and while one might argue with his choices—it’s certainly better to be inspired by Tolkien than by any of his imitators, and some of Kilian’s selections, such as Blood Meridian, seem motivated more by personal distaste—you certainly can’t say that he’s wrong. And Atlas Shrugged aside, in most cases, the better and more original the novel, the more dangerous it can be.
The problem, to put it as simply as possible, is that most highly original novels are the product of a long process of development, and when a writer imitates the result while neglecting the intermediate steps, he can miss out on important fundamentals. I should know. In my case, my dangerous book was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a wonderful novel, but as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I’ve come to agree with Tom Wolfe that it essentially represents a “literary cul-de-sac.” It gave me all kinds of bad habits, especially a tendency to indulge my characters in extended discussions of ideas, and almost twenty years later, I’m just beginning to escape from its influence, a process that required writing and publishing an entire novel that I’m hoping will exorcise it for good. And I can’t help but wonder where I’d be as a writer if I’d followed a less misleading example. As Henry James says, after comparing Tolstoy to an elephant carrying all human life: “His own case is prodigious, but his example for others dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”
Since then, I’ve become a lot more cautious about my influences, especially when I’m working on a project. Now that I’ve finally begun to develop my own style, it’s probably less a problem now than before, but when I was first starting out, I found myself picking up the tics and habits of the writers I was reading at the time, always in a diminished, embarrassingly derivative form. As a result, as I’ve said before, I tend to avoid reading works by strong, idiosyncratic stylists when I’m working on a story of my own, and also works in translation, on the principle that it’s best to read good prose originally written in my own language. The trouble, of course, is that since I’m always writing these days, I’ve automatically excluded a world of good books from consideration. It took me forever to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, and even now, there are a lot of worthwhile books, ranging from Infinite Jest to, yes, Blood Meridian, that I’ve been avoiding for years for the same reason.
So what books should a young writer read? It might seem best to play it safe and follow the advice of T.S. Eliot, who notes that if a poet imitates Dante’s style, at worst, he’ll write a boring poem, while if he imitates Shakespeare, he’ll make a fool out of himself. The first thing any writer needs to master is simplicity and clarity, so of all contemporary authors, it might make sense to read only writers who embody those virtues—McEwan, say, or Coetzee. But it’s a mistake to start there as well. Like it or not, every writer has to go through a period of being misled by great authors, and perhaps it’s only by writing a bad imitation of Salinger or Jack Kerouac or even Eco that a writer can get it out of his or her system. Clarity and transparency aren’t virtues that are acquired by reading clear, transparent authors to the exclusion of everything else; one arrives at these qualities at the end of a journey that begins with self-indulgence and imitation and finally concludes with simplicity, with plenty of wrong turns along the way. In short, it’s fine to be misled by great books. Just keep the results to yourself.
On Saturday, my wife and I were lucky enough to see Anthony Grafton, the Princeton professor and historian of ideas, speak at an event sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Grafton is something like the American Umberto Eco, a scholar of enormous diligence and erudition who is also humorous, approachable, and deeply concerned with the perspectives his academic work affords on the culture around him. (I’d also love to see him write a historical thriller, preferably with Sue Grafton.) His talk, “The Book: Past, Present, and Future,” was larded with fascinating tidbits—like the fact that the Vatican Library used to lend books with chains attached, to remind the borrowers to return them, or that the London Review of Books has seen the length of its submissions increase by forty percent since the invention of word processing—but it was also characterized by a passionate interest in what the future holds for the book itself, especially for scholars.
Grafton’s perspective is particularly worth hearing because he’s a great reader and explorer of libraries, rather like one of his favorite objects of study, the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon. Casaubon (who inspired the names of lead characters in both Middlemarch and Foucault’s Pendulum) was arguably the most learned man of his time, and for him, reading was a sacramental act: he combed his hair before ascending to his study to read, usually for hours each day, and may have died from an enlarged bladder caused by extended periods of sitting. (An engraving of Casaubon’s bladder, a slide of which Grafton cheerfully displayed, is included as an illustration in his collected works.) And Grafton’s own research has some of the same obsessiveness: he reconstructed Casaubon’s library, which had been dispersed across the collection of British Museum, by the expedient method of requesting every copy of every book published before Casaubon’s death, opening it up, and looking at it.
Listening to Grafton, I found myself wondering whether this kind of reading and scholarship will survive my own lifetime. I’ve spoken at length about my love of physical books, but one thing I haven’t talked about is how books themselves constitute a kind of living history. The underlinings and other marks left on a book’s pages preserve part of the reader himself, like a mosquito in amber: Casaubon’s marginalia, for instance, are legendary, as are Coleridge’s and Mark Twain’s, not to mention Fermat’s. The books that a reader owns gradually become an extension of his body and mind. And it’s reasonable to worry about how much we lose when an author’s notes, manuscripts, and correspondence—and even much of his reading—have migrated online. Much of what we know about someone like Casaubon, like his interest in Hebrew, are thanks to notes and jottings that have survived by accident. And it’s going to be very hard for such things to accidentally survive in the future.
Grafton is particularly eloquent, and urgent, on the ephemerality of our web-based culture. He laments the end of GeoCities, with its gloriously ugly webpages that nonetheless represent an important part of the history of the Internet, all of which are gone—the original hard drives have been erased and overwritten. In response to a question from an audience member, he also pointed out that archival material of the kind we’re used to seeing for contemporary writers—the fascinating volumes of correspondence for authors as different as Margaret Mitchell and Saul Bellow—may no longer exist. It’s true, as Grafton says, that the Ransom Center in Texas has started to collect hard drives as well as literary archives, but a great deal of material will be lost as discs age, formats die out, and operating systems change. In the future, I hope, we’ll still have scholars like Grafton, laboriously going over the literary remnants of authors from our own time. But what will be left for them to find?
Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.
The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)
My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.
The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?
Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)
For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.
It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:
The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.
Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.
So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:
Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.
Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.
Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.
Originally this post was going to be about The Simpsons, which has obviously been a major influence on everyone’s inner life, but since my wife pointed out that I could easily do a whole week’s worth of posts on the fourth season alone, I’ll be saving it for another day. Instead, since my novelette “Kawataro” will hopefully be appearing in bookstores next week, I’ll be talking about the work of art that has influenced my published fiction more than any other. Because until The Icon Thief comes out next year, I’m really just the author of this blog and three novelettes in Analog, with a fourth to come, all of which have been deeply influenced by The X-Files.
Television is a funny thing. One’s experience of it, more than any other art form (aside perhaps from music), is usually the product of timing and proximity. If you grew up in a house like most in America, in the days before our lives were taken over by other glowing rectangles, the television was always on, and your tastes were inevitably shaped by whatever happened to be on the air when you were at an impressionable age. I’m hugely thankful that I born at a time when I could watch the best years of The Simpsons as they aired—especially now that the glut of more recent episodes is driving those episodes out of syndication, so that many younger viewers won’t have seen them at all—but I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was thirteen years old on September 10, 1993, when The X-Files premiered.
Looking back, it’s hard to say why this particular show grabbed my imagination. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise—I couldn’t see how these two FBI agents could have a new adventure every week and then never refer to it again—but once I got past the anthology format, I found that this was the television show that I’d been waiting for my entire life. It was suspenseful, beautifully crafted, often very clever, and built on a compelling sense of mystery and paranoia. (This was also the year in which I read Foucault’s Pendulum and saw JFK. Take that year away, and I’d be a different person entirely.) My discovery of a vast online fandom played a major role, as did the world of fanfic, where I wrote my earliest stories, and which set me on the course on which I continue today, at least as far as my short fiction is concerned.
The big lesson that The X-Files taught me was the importance of formula. Formulas play a huge role in all episodic television, where the pace of production means that writers and producers need to fall back on certain basic structures. Watching a television series over the course of multiple seasons is the easiest way to get a sense of a formula’s strengths and limitations. What set The X-Files apart is how it discovered, almost by accident, a formula of extraordinary versatility and suppleness: two investigators, an atmospheric location, and an inexplicable event. (It’s so good a formula that I’ve happily appropriated it for some of my own stories.) There’s something reassuring about how each episode falls into the same rhythms, and even more so when the show pushes against its own conventions—another illustration of the power of constraints.
Which brings me to Darin Morgan (whose Wikipedia page I created years ago, although I take no responsibility for its current state). Morgan is a television writer who wrote only four episodes of The X-Files and two more of Millennium, and yet his work continues to resonate. He was the Charlie Kaufman of television, long before anyone had ever heard of Charlie Kaufman: funny, ingenious, and formally inventive, with a deeply despairing view of existence, in which the true secret is not some government conspiracy but the fact that we all die alone. And his work was most interesting—notably in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—in its struggles against, and subtle contempt for, the show’s own limitations. Perhaps this is why Morgan fell silent for more than a decade: he needed the formula to give shape to his flights of originality, and without Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black, he was never the same. Which only demonstrates how powerful a formula can be.
(Even as I write this, though, I learn that he’s resurfaced as a writer for Tower Prep, of all things. I’m very curious about this…)
[Umberto] Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.
Perhaps because I just saw Sneakers again, I’ve been playing a lot with anagrams, especially for the titles of my own novels. Kamera, may it rest in peace, never had much of an anagram to its credit (A Maker is the best I could do), but one of the nice things about The Icon Thief is that its title provides a secret clue to the debt I owe one of my favorite writers. Hint: Eco thief.
Foucault’s Pendulum, by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, is probably the novel, for better or worse, that has influenced me more than any other. I say “for better or worse” because it’s far from clear that its influence has been a good thing. I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, along with The Name of the Rose, when I was thirteen years old, which was just the right age for me to be completely blown away by Eco’s intelligence, ingenuity, erudition, and above all his way of engaging a world of ideas through the mystery and conspiracy genres. When I was a teenager—and this hasn’t changed much—I wanted to know something about everything, and Eco, more than any other author I had read up to that point, had seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book. (It’s only as I’m writing this now that it strikes me as appropriate that his translator is named William Weaver.)
The trouble, of course, is that the vision of the world expressed in Foucault’s Pendulum isn’t nearly as complete as I had once believed. There are no truly persuasive characters in the novel—merely vehicles for astonishing conversations, which, as Salman Rushdie points out, are “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” For Eco, it’s idea, idea, idea, which is great when you’re thirteen and craving intellectual structures, even satirical ones, but not so much when you’re thirty and trying to write real novels. It wasn’t until a year or two later, when I first began to read John Fowles, that I began to see how massive erudition could be conjoined with genuine plots, characters, prose, and formal invention. But the damage had already been done. For the rest of my life, I’d be more comfortable writing about ideas than human beings, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move gingerly in the other direction.
And yet even that isn’t the whole truth. The fact remains that Foucault’s Pendulum has given me more pleasure than just about any other novel. My original copy, which still sits on my bookshelf, is flaking and falling apart, but if there were a fire in my apartment right now, it’s one of the first ten things I would save from the flames. Eco turned me on to Borges (his master), the cabalists, and The Golden Bough. The Icon Thief, with its elaborate verbal conspiracies, would be unthinkable without his influence. And Eco himself remains the perfect intellectual. In some ways, I still wish I’d discovered him after Fowles—my entire inner life, not to mention my writing, would have been immeasurably different as a result. But it’s also possible that Eco simply encouraged an artistic tendency that was already there, and showed me its greatest possible realization, as well as its limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond him. But perhaps, very gradually, I can become something else.
The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.