Special Topics in Calamity Physics

April 4, 2009 at 1:43 pm 4 comments

Stately dignity can be possessed by all, in two ways:

1. Diverting the mind with a book or play

2. Reciting Keats

The first thing you need to know about this book is that I would seriously consider giving up my left arm to have written it.

The second thing you need to know is that while Marisha Pessl takes a lot of other works and traditions as inspiration, she manages somehow to come up with a wholly original and gutsy novel that is so beautifully written that I had a hard time accepting that it was over. In fact, I am willing to testify (and Corey can verify) that it’s quite possible that the quality of prose in this book actually made me high.

Blue gets her name from the Cassius Blue butterfly.

Blue gets her name from the Cassius Blue butterfly.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is structured in a fairly original manner; Pessl starts with an introduction from main character Blue Van Meer, a freshman at Harvard, who went through a rather interesting time during her senior year of high school and would like to tell us about it. It’s all very The Catcher in the Rye in that sense, but what makes it different is that the table of contents is listed as “Core Curriculum: Required Reading,” with each chapter of the book headed by another great literary work (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, or Wuthering Heights). The chapters in question take themes or events from the aforementioned works, and the English student or even an avid reader will definitely find those references rewarding.

Another unusual thing about Pessl’s novel is that she cites other works parenthetically throughout the story. This impressed me very much, until I Googled a few of the books and found that, in the tradition of William Golding and Susanna Clarke, Pessl has created fictional works that she cites throughout the text to give her work authority. This is an absolutely brilliant trick — not only does it give the reader a sense that Blue Van Meer is brilliant, as brilliant as Pessl says she is, it places all readers on the same level regarding Blue, as no one could possibly have read the books she has. This places the reader at the mercy of the narrator, which is useful for Pessl’s purposes, and gives an authority to her work that’s almost impossible to get through other means.

I think we can all agree that the coming-of-age, high school angst story has been done before, again, most notably in The Catcher in the Rye and Prep. As noted, Pessl echoes Catcher in her opening, as well as in the general sense of separation Blue feels from those around her (if you want to stretch the reference some, you can make the argument that Hannah is Blue’s Stradlater). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Pessl has read Prep as well, since the idea of a female outsider who gets in with the in crowd despite her newbie status and (almost) ends up ferscholocking the boy of her dreams only to find out, in one dramatic and heart-wrenching scene of betrayal, that actually he’s just not that into her, is almost too reminiscent of Curtis Sheffield’s novel to be a coincidence. At the very least, Pessl is drawing on whatever sources Sheffield was drawing on.

Final note: Don't read the back cover before the book. It has nothing to do with much of the plot.

Again, though, Pessl sets herself apart by doing something Corey called ‘insane’ and I call ‘ballsy’; she works a conspiracy theory into the last third of her plot. It’s crazy and insane and far fetched and everything in between, and if this was an ordinary novel, the author would have rejected that plot idea as too crazy and instead gone the way of Salinger. Blue would have had an inexplicable breakdown and Pessl would have ended the book with her saying something that sounds really deep but you can’t get the meaning of it, like “Christ is the fat lady” or “You start missing everybody,” leaving the reader wondering what the hell just happened.

Somehow, though, Pessl finds the literary chops to go the distance on her crazy-ass plot point. While, yes, it’s insane, the fact that she even pulls it off is testament to her brilliance and it’s even enough to make me forgive her for Zach Soderberg’s ‘metamorphosis’  and the odd, Kerouacian ending. In the end, I suppose, without her amazing prose, she couldn’t have pulled it off — but really, her writing is so witty, wry and fluent that I can’t help but forgive her for whatever she throws my way plot-wise. Definitely a Book Worth Buying (and not just shipping home, but bringing in a carry-on).


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction. Tags: .

Shine On A Daughter and a Lady

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  April 5, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    We’ve already had our little conference about this book, but I definitely agree with you that if she hadn’t been such a bloody good writer, the end surely would not have worked at all. As it was, it was insane, but it sort of worked.

    And I really liked the Zach/Kerouac end bits. They seemed so resoundingly normal after the crazy plot!

  • 2. KT  |  April 8, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    They did seem normal, but they were SO high school/happy ending/wish-fulfillment that I felt like they were a cop-out. While Blue was a bit of a snob to poor Zach when he had his floppy hair, and his completely unfazed attitude towards life is exactly what she needs, what actually happened is so unrealistic as to be on par with the Night Watchmen thing. Though maybe that was the point.

  • 3. Corey  |  April 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I don’t know if it was THAT unrealistic. It seems to me that her main gripe against Zach was that her “friends” thought he wasn’t cool enough. I guess I was seeing it as she ditched the bad friends, realized she should reexamine Zach (even though he isn’t as well-read and thinks she’s like a lonely boat) and took a road-trip. I agree that it’s completely out of left field for this book, but it sort worked, I think.

    Or maybe Marisha was just throwing us a little normalcy bone after following the rest of the crazy book along.

  • 4. Weekly Geeks: MIA, so TBR « Literary Transgressions  |  April 13, 2010 at 12:56 am

    […] Admittedly, it’s more the latter sort than the former, especially as I decided to reread Special Topics in Calamity Physics last week, which ate up a large chunk of my time. Here’s a rundown of the books currently […]


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