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Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

January 26, 2010

You Should Read If: You want to improve your writing, make yourself feel insignificant, and/or wrap your head around  a strange mystery.

You know the books that make you feel insignificant as a writer? The book you can’t stop reading, can’t stop jealously flipping through, the book written by someone alive, young, contemporary, someone who could have been you, but sadly wasn’t? Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl is one of those books.

The story is about a girl, Blue Van Meer, and her father, an erudite, traveling professor named Gareth, as they move from town to town and college to college. At the beginning of the book they finally settle down in a town named Stockton for Blue’s senior year of high school, where she gets caught in a mystery involving a teacher and five cultish students known as the Bluebloods. Add in the fact that we know from page one that the teacher, Hannah, is brutally murdered, and that apparently one of the students, Jade, believed that Blue was somehow behind the craziness that is only revealed to us in the end, and we have a delicious, thick, ready to read brew. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “Nabokovian thriller” (courtesy of Ye Old NY Times)–mostly because Pessl is her own flavor thank you very much–I’ve got to admit that with a few exceptions (a slightly sagged middle; too many parenthesized citations) this was the best thing I’ve read since the last best thing I’ve read.

I’ve decided that since delivering a proper review on this book would require my reading it to you, I’ve written a severely condensed version, narrowing it down to the three big reasons why the book worked:

1) Marisha Pessl has no fear

When Pessl wrote the protagonist, Blue Van Meer, she didn’t have scruples writing about someone who wasn’t perfect. And I don’t mean someone who wasn’t perfect in that cute way, like when a person names their perfectionist/OCD qualities as their greatest flaw. Blue is weak, introverted, and pretty only when pancaked with makeup. She is largely a bystander of her own life, consistently shadowed by her father and made a pariah by her intellect and shyness. Throughout the novel, Pessl allows the reader to be frustrated by Blue’s lack of action–here you are, in her head, hearing all the intelligent observations she has, and yet she does nothing. Most importantly, when Blue finally does metamorphose, she doesn’t change overnight. In the middle of the book, she stands by as (SPOILER) her father’s ex-girlfriend smashes apart the cases of her deceased mother’s butterflies. For me this scene was the hardest scene to read in the novel because you know that Blue could take action, and when she doesn’t, she lets you down. It’s only later when Blue, stripped of her friends and sniffig after the first tendrils of an explanation for the mysterious ‘suicide’ of her late teacher, that Blue finds her inner strength.

2) The book has one of the most interesting characters ever

Blue’s father, Gareth Van Meer, who was apparently based off a professor Pessl once studied under, is practically four dimensional–every line, every movement convinces you that you have met him, known him. He is a forceful, engaging persona, and though one has only his words to read, you can sense his physical presence and oratory skill. For example after discovering that Blue, who has arrived home late and dishelveled, has not been spending her free time in a study group, but rather with her new friends, the Bluebloods:

“Finito. Kaput. I’ve had enough of the deceit. I’ll tolerate it no longer.”

“What are you talking about?”…

“Your fabricated Study Group,” he said.” The flagrant bravado you’ve cultivated when it comes to lying, which, to be frank, is more than a little pedestrian in its execution….I have said little, every time you so eagerly ran out that door resembling a Cocoa Puff, wearing what the freethinking world would unanimously identify as a piece of Kleenex, because I assumed–unwisely, it seems–that given the advanced degree of your education, you’d eventually come to the realization at the end of this hootchy-cootchy-with-the-ho-dawgs game, that these friends of yours, these puppy fats with whom you choose to pal around, are a waste of time, their thoughts about themselves and the world, stale. Instead, you seem to be suffering from a severe case of blindness.”

Gareth is frank, domineering, charismatic. He is the 50 year old Han Solo if Solo were an intellectual, and if Solo believed that sports and other aggressions had no logical merit. Listening to him, the reader can understand why Blue would content herself to devoting her life to Gareth–hell, I would devote my life to him! And just as Pessl so artfully crafts our heroine, who is honest, difficult, shadowed, and vastly under appreciated, so she blows up Blue’s father, this fantastic figure, a man who can make “perfectly realistic women act like–well, as if they were determined to resurrect old story lines of Guiding Light.” He is the gem of the novel, and just when we think we’ve got him figured out, Pessl pulls another fantastic twist at the end, and we find ourselves grappling with the knowledge that as much as we hate him for being so cowardly, for tearing apart our lovelorn fantasies, his action fits with his character–he could have done nothing else–and were we not so initially mesmerized, then the reader would be able to guess this critical action. Pessl knows her characters, and she allows us to hate them and love them, to be simultaneously disappointed and enamored. She fleshes them out even when we wish they’d remained our hopeful ideal.

3) Pessl plays with her writing (also, “Show Don’t Tell”)

The first thing you notice when you open the book is the table of contents. Each chapter is titled after a famous work of literary cannon: Wuthering Heights, A Room With A View, The Trial. In the chapter One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, Blue finds herself abandoned by everyone she loves. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blue is driven insane by the death of Hannah and the disappearance of her friends. Though the chapters could have quickly begun to control the writing, they are only a neat, loose netting around the plot. Pessl also has a knack for voice, allowing Blue to be both intelligent and distinctly adolescent. She  constructs analogies that made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of them  (perhaps one reason why she evokes Nabokov) and, being an intelligent teenager myself (ha!), I couldn’t help but hang on her every word:

It was one of those instances one feels as if one’s skin has abruptly become thin as one layer of phyllo dough on a triangle of baklava, when one desparately doesn’t want the other person to go, but one doesn’t say anything in order to feel isolation in its purest form, as a periodic table of element, one of the noble gases, Iso.

The ending however is the icing on the cake. Because the final chapter is a ‘final exam,’ containing true/false questions, multiple choice, and essay that beat the pants off an epilogue and master the infamous “show don’t tell.” Pessl never promises closure–Blue unravels many mysteries yet Hannah’s death  remains somewhat shrouded. Indeed Gareth himself argues that the best stories end with an ellipse. But the last chapter is written in the same sad, hopeful, undoubtedly entertaining and revealing manner the book has been told in all along, and the reader is left knowing that while everything is not okay, everything is also not not okay, and that Blue will move forward.  Unlike the ending of The Great Gatsby (no particular reason for this comparison, it’s just such a beautifully pessmistic ending) Blue will not be held hostage in the current, paddling in place. She will leap forward, she will conquer, she has finally found her own two feet to walk on. All that from a creatively thought of exam! Pretty cool!

In Conclusion….

Pessl tells the reader in the very first line that she will deliver a good story, and she keeps that promise: “Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.” If you, like me, read her from start to finish and hunger for more, just wait a little longer for her new novel, Night Film, coming out this Fall.

Triumverate Reading Challenge Status:

  • Women: 0
  • Debuts: 1
  • Short Stories: 0
  • ALL OF THE ABOVE: 0
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