Foucault’s Pendulum

My which-book-next randomizer led me to Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which has been sitting unread on my shelf for years. The back-cover description is intriguing—it says the book is about three editors who have read too many conspiracy theories and who develop one of their own for fun, using “an incredible computer capable of inventing connections.”

But I got impatient with the opening couple of chapters, in which the narrator describes the contents of Paris’s Musée des Arts et Métiers in boring and (I felt) pretentious detail (though I suspect I would love the place itself), using elliptical language rife with allusions and unusual words and unfortunate sexual metaphors.

From page 10:

“I dreaded [the prospect of] seeing [the exhibits] come to life in the darkness, reborn in the shadows in the glow of my flashlight. I dreaded their panting, their heavy, telluric breath, skinless bones, viscera creaking and fetid with black-grease drool. How could I endure in the midst of that foul concatenation of diesel genitals and turbine-driven vaginas, the inorganic throats that once had flamed, steamed, and hissed…”

That passage just about led me to give up, but I kept going for a little while, drawn in by the Kabbalah stuff and the Knights Templar, and references to listing all the names of God via letter permutations, and so on. But then I got to the part where a colleague of the protagonist tries out a word processor for the first time and writes a bunch of the same sorts of things that I imagine many writers wrote on first encountering a word processor (the book was published in 1988), and then on p. 30 there’s a listing of a BASIC program to list all the permutations of a four-letter word, and I started to feel that perhaps this wasn’t something I really wanted to read.

So I glanced at a couple dozen later bits of the book, none of which interested me, and then I resorted to reading the Wikipedia plot summary, which confirmed that this isn’t a book for me. I liked The Name of the Rose, but I’m giving up on this one.

Side note: As I read, I quickly started to feel that this was essentially a highbrow version of The Da Vinci Code (which was published in 2003, fifteen years after Pendulum), with some additional elements of Illuminatus! and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail mixed in. Turns out that lots of people have made the same comparison to Da Vinci Code, but Wikipedia suggests that Pendulum is essentially a satirical take on the material, using the conspiracy-theory stuff as a plot device to forward the story about the characters and their interactions and transformations. Eco himself said, according to Wikipedia: “I was obliged to read [Da Vinci Code] because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault's Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.”

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3 Responses to “Foucault’s Pendulum”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    Thanks for the review! I JUST TODAY was talking with someone about FP who said it is literary fiction strongly informed by scifi … I am curious what genre expectations you think would be the best way to approach this work, in case I wanted to try it?

    We enjoyed the museum a lot!

    • Jed

      The Wikipedia entry and at least one person who commented on my Facebook post said that it’s satirical. If so, I would expect that that would be the best genre protocols to use. But the parts that I read didn’t come across to me as satirical; instead, they came across to me as very densely allusive, with a higher number of words-I-don’t-know than anything I’ve read since Camp Concentration, and many references to people and places and events that I was unfamiliar with, and untranslated quotations in Hebrew and (iIrc) Greek, and so on. Which I think I can enjoy more if (a) I get at least some of the references, and (b) I like the character who’s making them. Whereas in the bits I read, I was kinda put off by the protagonist, but I’m not clear on whether that was intentional or not.

      I should also note that a couple of friends commented on Facebook that I gave up on it too soon. So I may not have even reached the main body of the book, so any advice I give about genre expectations is probably suspect.

      But fwiw, I guess my overall reaction would be that it read to me like a mix of literary fiction with conspiracy-theory thriller, plus a generous helping of 1980s not-very-tech-literate technophilia.

    • Jed

      And thanks for the link to the museum post! Cool!


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