Monday, November 20, 2006

BOOK: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
Viking Press, New York, 2006

It is impossible to find a review of Marisha Pessl’s first novel “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” that does not mention her attractiveness (and if you were looking for one here, you still haven’t found it). In fact, her looks have been at issue since news broke that another “hot” young author was awarded a six-figure advance for a debut.

While patently unfair to Pessl, I think the attention to her looks is reasonable for two reasons. I wouldn’t have read it but for the publicity photo, an intense come-hither stare enticing one to believe she is slowly unbuttoning her blouse just outside the photo’s frame. But more importantly, this is not only the novel by a beautiful girl, it is the novel as a beautiful girl. We are willing to feign interest in dull and damaged friends, overlook affectation and overanalyze leaps of faith only because we are smitten.

The novel is a mystery slowly unraveled by the narrator, Blue van Meer, an intellectually gifted teenage girl who has spent her life crisscrossing the country with her widowed father, a brilliant and charming professor of political science. Framed as an account of Blue’s life told from the vantage point of her first year at Harvard, it looks back most specifically at her senior year of high school, for which her father briefly halted their parapitetic existence to allow Blue to attend a private school in Stockton, NC. The significance of the story, we find in the opening chapter, will be to unravel the events around the death of one of Blue’s teachers, Hannah Schneider.

As a perpetual new-kid-in-school and the daughter of an aggressively intellectual man, Blue experiences much of life through a filter of books, which Pessl chooses to indicate through Blue’s annotation of her own life story with literary references, some real and others contrived, a quirk that quickly dissolves to affectation. Were all the references real, I’d applaud the work involved, or were the fake references funnier, the wit, but too often they fall unsatisfyingly in-between.

As a whole, the novel reflects our cultural tendency to listen to whatever the pretty girl says. At 514 pages, the book is seriously in need of an iron-fisted editor (a la Gordon Lish). Pessl’s metaphors are often overwrought (“all guests in the hotel… were emptied out into Pace Verdome like cream of potato soup from a can”), and the pace of the novel rambling. The mystery requires so much set-up, and is so quickly dispatched, that its convolutions are unsatisfying, and made no less so by the excrutiatingly contrived final chapter’s attempts to highlight the potential for doubt the novel leaves open.

And yet, as the final chapter clumsily attempts to illustrate, there is indeed substance here, questions of identity and the power of narrative at the forefront, and the writing is at times as alluring as the writer. It is chick-lit meets The Crying of Lot 49, peddled, unfortunately, by editors that realize sex sells better than Pynchon.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 500 words



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