Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated.” …Q: Is “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction? A: Yes.
There you go: required. Pessl has been compared to other innovative and much hyped young writers like Donna Tarrt, Dave Eggers, and Zadie Smith. She has also been compared to Nabokov. A review in L.A. Weekly that asserted that the book was definitely not a literary masterpiece stated that she is more accurately compared to Hitchcock.
Then there was a brouhaha about her large cash book advance possibly being related to her looks. (Gawker initially rated Pessl only “book hot”, but then upgraded her to “TV hot” after further review). I can’t let this much buzz about a book go by without picking it up and forming my own opinion. I’m a chump for endless hype.
So the real questions is: did the book live up to the hype?
The Introduction begins, “Dad always said a person must have a significant reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.” So, Pessl sets the bar for her tale at the very outset. There will be a significant reason.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Blue van Meer, a Rory Gilmour-esque teenager. Blue is exceedingly bright and hopefully Harvard bound. She idolizes her brilliant father, Gareth, a vagabond academic who teaches political science at a different bottom-tier university each semester.
As a special treat, Blue’s father agrees to accept a position at a university in North Carolina for her entire Senior year. We find all of this out, though, after Blue tells us that she has stumbled across the body of one her teachers hanging from a tree in the woods. (Not a spoiler: Blue tells us this happened in the first sentence of Chapter 1). So it falls on the remainder of the book to fill in the back story.
Once the promised school year starts, Blue is improbably pulled into a a group of cool kids at her exclusive private school that are known as the “blue bloods”. The blue bloods are widely loathed by the other students for their hipness. The sophisticated drama teacher, Hanna Schneider, is the center of their universe. It was Hannah that pulled Blue into the clique after a strange meeting in a grocery store. Feeling out of place from the start, Blue compares herself to a young Jane Goodall studying the lives of the beautiful people.
With Hannah’s death, the blue bloods come unglued resulting in heaping helpings of teen angst for Blue. Striving to make sense of her world, Blue sets out to uncover who is responsible for Hannah’s death. Surprises ensue.
Blue’s father advises her:
Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids, because, trust me, there will always be some clown sitting in the back – somewhere by the radiator – who will raise his fat, flipperlike hand and complain, “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.”
As a result, Blue provides references for just about everything in the book. If she remarks that someone looks like a frog, she’ll refer you to a specific page in a wildlife guide. A more typical Blue citation might look like this:
Each featured the same carrot topped woman flashing a banana grin that walked the fine line between ecstatic and fanatic (see Chapter 4, “Jim Jones,” Don Juan de Mania, Lerner, 1963).
Blue may the first narrator that I’ve encountered that appears to be conscious of the fact that someone may consider her unreliable, and she does everything that she can to combat it. She even includes a number of self-drawn pictures as Visual Aids. It may or may not be beside the point that most of Blue’s citations, like this one, are bogus. As the story reaches its conclusion, Blue’s reliability becomes more critical.
Blue is also a master of the simile/metaphor. Her prose is peppered with nuggets like, “My thoughts moved slowly like blobs in a lava lamp…” and “(because I was about as cool as Bermuda shorts), they’d drop me like laundry and accelerate into the whispery night with its plum sky and black mountains…” – that sort of thing. The simile/metaphor-a-thon distracted another reader of the book, but I didn’t mind so much. I’m easily impressed.
My reading of the book went something like this. The first 100 pages or so provide a pretty solid and interesting introduction to Blue and her life. The next chunk of book seems to meander a bit, but from page 311 until the finish – it is riveting. It turns out that when you’re finished, you realize a lot of what happens between pages 100-ish and 311lays the groundwork and spreads the clues around for the big finish. I wanted to go back and read the whole thing again. I did re-read the Introduction and First Chapter.
So it’s not perfect. It very nearly lives up to the hype. And that’s OK with me. From the review in LA weekly mentioned above:
When it comes to most art, I’m an advocate of lowering the bar. Call me conservative or simply pessimistic, but I’d much rather watch someone sail gracefully over a low ribbon than witness yet another hapless high jumper smack his poor forehead on that awful obstacle, The Next Great American Novel.
I’m the complete opposite. I cheer for the author to put it all on the line and bite my nails hoping that they pull it off. If they come up a little short, well, hats off for trying. So that’s where I am with this book. I loved it and would highly recommend it with one caveat: read it or not depending on whose camp you’re in, mine or the LA Weekly guy.