Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Yes, this is a bizarre title for a novel. But a novel it is. And it continues one of the themes suggested in yesterday’s post: the extraordinary but still believable teenager.

Many readers found Marisha Pessl’s narrator (and hence this book, her first novel) annoying. Perhaps I’m biased, because I’ve taught teenagers for many years, but I can’t object when they are merely annoying; you have to look beyond that to the wide panoply of redeeming characteristics. In this case the narrator, Blue van Meer, is a precocious intellectual — precocious to the point of being a definite outlier but not to the point of stretching credulity. That, of course, is my opinion. Yours may differ. In fact, this is one of the rare occasions when I want to look at the opinions of others. Normally I review books, not reviews of books; but I’ll make an exception this time.

Let’s look at some excerpts from the contrasting but not incompatible reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Times. First comes Donna Rifkind in the Washington Post:

A self-absorbed scholar and a young girl crisscross America by car, flitting through college towns where they endure ill-advised sexual encounters, heartache and a potent dose of popular culture. Studded with ingenious wordplay and recondite allusions, their story veers between highbrow comedy and lowbrow tragedy as it careens toward a couple of ambiguous murders and some crafty detective work.

Ten points if you identified this as the plot of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Extra credit if you also recognize it (minus the pedophilia) as the plot of a much-ballyhooed first novel by Marisha Pessl, who tackles the art of fiction by vigorously associating everything in her book with something else. Constructing the novel as if it were the core curriculum for a literature survey course, complete with a final exam, Pessl gives each chapter the title of a classic literary work to which the episode’s events have a sly connection: Chapter 6, “Brave New World,” describes the first day of a new school year, while in Chapter 11, “Moby-Dick,” a large man drowns in a swimming pool.

Along the way, there are thousands of references to books and movies both real and imagined, as well as an assortment of pen-and-ink drawings.

[H]unkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader, who after much patient effort deserves to feel something stronger than appreciation for a lot of clever name-dropping and a rush of metaphors.

As a Harvard freshman recounting the events of the previous year, …, Blue remembers being thoroughly in thrall to her father, a political science professor who changes jobs at third-tier colleges so frequently that by age 16 she’s attended 24 different schools. To compensate for this rootlessness (her lepidopterist mom died in a car crash when Blue was 5), Dad has promised his daughter an undisturbed senior year in the North Carolina mountain town of Stockton, where Blue will attend the ultra-preppy St. Gallway School.

It’s at St. Gallway that Blue’s dedication to her pompous, theory-spouting father begins to waver. Her attention is diverted by the school’s most glamorous figures, a clique of five flighty kids called the Bluebloods who meet every Sunday night for dinner at the home of their mentor, Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher.

[T]he final third of the book charts Blue’s efforts to prove that the teacher did not commit suicide, as the coroner concluded, but was murdered.

Like Hannah, Pessl herself is something of an expert at evasion, nimbly avoiding scenes that might require emotional delineation, hiding behind this Nabokovian sentence structure or that Hitchcockian plot twist, always equipped to defend each dodge with the tacit reproach that, hey, it’s only a high-school murder mystery, lighten up. Yet here and there the author betrays glimpses of sensitivity, in Blue’s genuine expressions of grief for the early loss of her mother and in this moving evocation of loneliness, framed (of course) in a simile: “To the far-off tune of the blue Volvo driving away, it slipped over me, sadness, deadness, like a sheet over summer furniture.”

These briefly poignant moments are enough to make a reader wish for more, for a book that is less about other books and more about life…

And then we have Janet Maslin in the New York Times:

Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. With its pirouettes and cartwheels, its tireless annotations and digressions, it has a similar whiz-kid eagerness to wow the reader.

In Ms. Pessl’s case that means sustaining the mock-academic brio of her title throughout a long, serpentine, seemingly lightweight schoolgirl story. It also means that the narrative…is sectioned into chapters named for works by writers familiar from the classroom.

The extremely good news: Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon jettisons its booster rockets and begins to soar. All Ms. Pessl must do is dispel the suspicion that she is dawdling and indicate that serious ingenuity is at play. At that point the teenage insights of the book’s narrator, Blue van Meer, become only part of a more complex construction, and it becomes evident that Ms. Pessl has hidden a secret history beneath her novel’s surface.

This book’s gradual upward trajectory leads it toward mounting suspense, a hall-of-mirrors finale and a coda that is supremely inspired. In the guise of asking questions, Ms. Pessl resoundingly answers a big one: yes, she knew precisely what she was doing all along.

Everything about Special Topics in Calamity Physics is comparably coy, convoluted, brightly self-conscious and (to use a word blessedly remote from Blue’s jubilant vocabulary) postmodern. Even the physics equation on the book’s back cover has outsized verve. And what begins as a dubious proposition, in a world wholly without need for additions to its Prep School Confidential bibliography, becomes a whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice. No reference points need be invoked. It speaks for itself.

The book’s triumphant coda is a final exam rehashing questions raised by the narrative. True or false: “Blue van Meer has read too many books.” True or false: “Reading an obscene number of reference books is greatly advantageous to one’s mental health.”

Here’s one not from Ms. Pessl. Q: Is Special Topics in Calamity Physics required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction? A: Yes.

So both reviews are somewhat mixed, but I definitely agree with the overall tenor of the second one. Add this to my list of recommended novels about high schools and high-school students.

Categories: Books