Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
A Story So Smart It's Like Taking the SATs
A review by Yvonne Zipp
Reading group discussion questions aside, most of us don't like being quizzed on our summer reading. So, it takes real chutzpah to stick a final exam at the end of a book -- particularly when the book in question is a debut novel.
Chutzpah, Marisha Pessl has - and in abundance. Her thoroughly impressive debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is a murder mystery/coming-of-age story that is organized as a course on great books, complete with copious annotations (both real and made up), visual aids (deliberately, I hope, amateurish pencil drawings), and the aforementioned exam. (Sample question: "Blue Van Meer has read too many books. T/F")
Fans of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and those who enjoyed the footnotes in Susannah Clarke's fabulous Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as much as the plot, head for the bookstore with all speed. If you prefer a more Shaker-like type of storytelling, devoid of verbal curlicues and ironic flourishes, you might want to drop out of this particular class.
Teenager Blue Van Meer has averaged three towns a year since her mother's death, when Blue was in kindergarten. Her charismatic father has made a living as a peripatetic professor at bottom-feeding colleges around the US, rarely staying more than a semester and leaving broken hearts behind him. (Blue calls his disappointed lovers the "June Bugs." None of them lasts more than a month.)
Gareth Van Meer doesn't talk, he declaims, making pronouncements that Blue carefully chisels into stone (along with loving yet candid commentary). " 'Always live your life with your biography in mind,' Dad was fond of saying. 'Naturally, it won't be published until you have a Magnificent Reason, but at the very least you will be living grandly.' It was painfully obvious Dad was hoping his posthumous biography would be reminiscent not of Kissinger: The Man (Jones, 1982) or Dr. Rhythm: Living with Bing (Grant, 1981) but something along the lines of the New Testament or the Qu'ran."
Blue approaches each school like Jane Goodall observing a new family of chimpanzees. Students aren't individuals, they are types: "Tanned Sporto With Shiny Legs," "Spoiled Pretender," and my favorite, "The Goody Two-Shoes Whose Uptight Parents, Ted and Sue, Wished to Prevent Her Ascent Into Adulthood as if It Were the Mumps."
For Blue's senior year in high school, they settle in Stockton, N.C., where Blue enrolls at the prestigious St. Gallway School, named after the paper industrialist Horatio Mills Gallway, who'd founded it "not in the name of altruistic principles like civic duty or the persistence of scholarship, but for a megalomaniacal desire to see Saint in front of his surname."
There, Blue attracts the attention of film teacher Hannah Schneider, who forces Blue into her clique, known as the Bluebloods, much to the other students' displeasure and the bemusement of Blue, who's had a lifetime to perfect her brilliant loner routine. Still, Blue starts showing up regularly for homecooked Sunday meals at Hannah's house, along with the others.
The Bluebloods' obsession with Hannah (whose charisma we'll have to take Blue's word for) leads them to spy on her after hours, uncovering apparently unsavory secrets. Then they crash a costume party at her house that takes a tragic turn when a guest is found dead in the pool.
Later that spring, Blue finds Hannah hanging from a tree by an electrical cord. Her death is ruled a suicide, but Blue uses her finely honed powers of research and analysis to make sense of the tragedies. Whatever you do, don't skip the final, which synthesizes questions raised throughout the novel. On a second read-through, the first chapter proves that, beneath the verbal flamboyance, Pessl's plotting was meticulous from the start.
The fact that Hannah isn't nearly as enthralling for a reader as she is for her besotted teens is a problem. But aside from that and some overly elaborate similes -- "Dad wore indifference like a socialite thin as a cheese cracker forced to lunch in a football jersey" -- the most unfortunate thing about this book was the publisher's decision to invite comparison with The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
In the annals of elite-students-gone-wrong, Tartt's novel stands alone -- a book with an undertow so inexorable you almost can't breathe while reading it. By contrast, while reading Calamity Physics, hyperawareness of the words sometimes makes it hard to simply sink into the story. Yet that won't prevent readers from marveling at Pessl's inventiveness. One can only wonder what she's going to do for extra credit.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
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