June 27, 2007

Book review: "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," by Marisha Pessl

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
Viking / ISBN: 0-670-03777-X

Okay, I'll admit it -- that whenever I hear of another young, good-looking first-time author in New York getting an obscenely high advance on their first book and suddenly becoming The Talk Of The Town, I automatically become suspicious, as sure a response from me as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of their little bell. And that's because I've been around various people in the New York literary industry now long enough to know, that many of the decisions in that industry are made with the same immature dysfunction of a high-school Homecoming dance; that those who are chosen to become the next "Belle of the Ball" have been chosen perhaps because they're physically attractive, or popular, or are having sex with the captain of the football team, or have personality types that are easy to sell to others, or any of another thousand reasons besides that they simply deserve it.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

And indeed, as I started making my way this week through Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the latest book from the literary world to be guilty of all the things mentioned above, the news didn't seem good; that for its first couple of hundred pages, the entire thing comes off as a grandly pretentious excuse for MFA holders to justify the years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars they wasted to get that degree in the first place. The story of gifted child and snotty high-school senior Blue van Meer, the novel at first seems like it'll be going down the same well-worn path made most famous by the 1989 movie Heathers -- wherein a group of precocious teenagers who worship the pop culture of their grandparents' generation stand around not acting like teenagers at all, spouting world-weary attitudes that most high-schoolers have difficulty even understanding, much less affecting. And it doesn't help, of course, that Pessl's writing style simply screams "please love me for all the big words I know, and I hope my cutesy intellectual diversions keep your mind off the fact that the plot isn't actually very good" (see Your Superfluous Postmodern Footnotes Make Me Want to Stab You in the Head: Why No One in their Twenties Should Ever Be Allowed to Read David Foster Wallace, J. Pettus, 7th ed.).

But then...but then. But then I started getting further along into the book, started getting used to the odd halting style of Pessl's writing. And I started realizing that there were other intriguing things going on in the story as well, multiple layers that Pessl was laying down in such a subtle way to not even be noticable at first -- for example, like the infinitely complex relationship Blue has with her intolerably snotty professor father Gareth, of the hermetically tight situation they have formed because of Blue's mother being dead and the two of them living in a different city every year. Or of the way Blue finally and slowly starts acting like an actual teen as the book progresses; the way she lashes out emotionally in awkward situations, her tendency to take the things said to her much too literally, even as she believes herself to be too smart and much too educated to succumb to such immaturity.

What quickly starts becoming most intriguing about Physics, though, is the mysterious adult character at the center of it all -- Hannah Schneider, that is, a film-studies teacher at the private North Carolina high school where Blue ends up spending her senior year. In her forties, still strikingly beautiful, dressed at all times like a noir-era femme fatale, it is Schneider who actually puts together the band of misfits who become Blue's friends; known as the "Bluebloods," the group has been secretly meeting at Hannah's house for years now, for Sunday night dinners and talk of all the great things they'll all do once they can finally get through the misery of high school. It is Hannah who takes Blue under her wing; Hannah who lets them drink and smoke in front of her; Hannah who is constantly recommending an endless series of Italian New Wave films to the group.

But there are mysteries to Hannah as well, which is where the novel first got my attention -- a childhood she doesn't like talking about, a lack of friends, a relationship with one of the Bluebloods that hints of a possible sexual past between the two. And why this got my attention in the first place was not because of the mysteries themselves, but because of the ways the various teen characters react to these mysteries; because in this case Pessl gets it down perfectly, of the ways that young people's minds can sometimes race completely out of control given only innocuous information, the ways that teens can concoct the most outlandish stories given just the barest amount of facts available, in many cases for no other reason than that they're bored, and wish to believe the outlandish stories simply as a way to escape the ennui of their high-school lives.

In fact, this becomes a major theme throughout the first two-thirds of the book, and what I found to be the most delightful aspect of the entire novel; of the various unknown qualities of all the major characters, of how such unknowns can be interpreted in a whole variety of ways depending on the person doing the interpretation. Just why does crush-object Milton have a giant tattoo of a naughty angel on his arm, anyway? Why were Gareth and his professor friend arguing during the van Meer's Christmas trip to Paris, and why did they so suddenly stop when Blue entered the room? The world can be full of danger and conspiracy if we want it to, even when the fractured truth behind the postulating turns out to be as bland as humanly possible; and Pessl's complex and humorous examination of this subject is what finally starts getting one turning the pages in glee instead of trepidation.

And then there's that ending; ah yes, that famous mind-blowing ending that people who have read the novel can't stop talking about. Because, you see, for those who don't know, Physics is a murder-mystery on top of everything else; right in the very first chapter, in fact, we learn that Hannah is eventually killed under some very dubious circumstances, and that the rest of the book is a giant 515-page flashback of the events leading up to it. And I have to admit, I have to plainly admit, the ending of this book is stunning, one of the best last 50 pages of a novel I've ever read in my entire life, with all the technical prowess of a story like Memento but with an emotional wallop that will leave you in tears in the middle of public by the time you're finished (if you're anything like me, that is). In fact, I'll go as far as to say this -- that for the first time in my life, I'm willing to recommend Physics just because of its last 50 pages alone, and to personally promise you that the wade through the first 450 merely mediocre pages will have been completely worth it by the end. No, seriously, it will; just trust me on this one, despite what your gut is telling you around page 200 or so.

Physics is a frustrating novel to be sure, very very frustrating at some points; and that's because when Pessl is on top of her game, it's clear just what a brilliant writer she is, and it makes you want that much more for her to be on the top of her game on every page, which she unfortunately is not. In fact, if you want to blame anyone for the uneven quality of this book, blame editor Susan Golomb, who clearly lacks even a basic understanding of Pessl's true strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and I suspect just left everything in so that the page count would justify Pessl's insanely large advance (which for those who are curious, has been confirmed as at least US$100,000 [50,000 pounds, 80,000 euros], and might have been a whole lot more). It's too bad Physics couldn't have been released at half its current size; then you truly would have a masterpiece on your hands, a book that really does announce the arrival of the lit world's newest genius, instead of a book that may or may not have been falsely hyped because of Pessl being attractive and socially well-connected. Just my two cents when it comes to Pessl's next novel, whenever that might be, which I'm already highly looking forward to.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.4
Characters: 2.2
Style: 5.0
Overall: 8.1

Read even more about Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:02 PM, June 27, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |