I feel decidedly so-so about this book, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. For one thing, I thought it was too long at over 500 pages; I have no problem with 500-page novels generally speaking, but the pacing of this particular long novel struck me as odd. It meandered along for 300 pages or so, with some interesting events and character interactions but without a strong sense of forward motion, and then at page 300, something really exciting happened and the book took off in a new direction. I won’t even hint at what the exciting event or the new direction is, so don’t worry about continuing to read this post if you plan on reading the novel in the future. But before this exciting event I found myself putting the book down without too much trouble, and after, it was much harder. I suppose the good news is that the book does eventually take off, but the bad news is that it does so so late.
The story is about Blue Van Meer, a teenager, and her father Gareth, a Political Science professor; Gareth is constantly taking on new Visiting Professor positions and so the two of them move just about every semester. Blue has learned very well how to make her way in strange new schools and new towns and talks about the dynamics of the High School social scene in jaded, cynical terms. But during her senior year, her father finally takes a year-long appointment, and Blue settles into the St. Gallway School, an elite private school known for sending its students to the Ivies.
Here Blue meets a beautiful, mysterious film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider. Blue notices that Hannah spends a good bit of her free time with a clique of five students whom Blue calls the blue-bloods; they have a meal together every Sunday, and soon Hannah invites Blue along. From this point on, the story is about the agonizingly slow way Blue befriends the blue-bloods, although her status in this group is always tenuous, and about the fascination the students have with Hannah’s personality and her past. Hannah seems suspiciously careful not to give away any details of her life before she began teaching at St. Gallway.
But none of this tells you much about how the book is written, and here I come to some of my other doubts about the novel. First of all, Pessl uses a syllabus format to organize the story; “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is the name of the course and the course readings become the titles of individual chapters. Every chapter is named after some work of literature; we begin with Othello and end with The Metamorphoses. The novel’s introduction explains that Blue couldn’t figure out how to tell her story (the novel is in first-person from Blue’s perspective) until she hit on the syllabus idea, which gives her an organizing structure. The novel ends with a final exam. This format is original and amusing, but I found it only incidental to the unfolding of the story; sometimes I’d notice parallels between the chapter title and the chapter’s content, but often I’d forget I was supposedly reading through a syllabus, and I don’t think I missed anything by it. The structure struck me as more clever than useful.
As part of the “academic” format of the book, there are citations sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes these take the form of documenting books mentioned in the narrative; for example, Pessl will give us something like this:
One Sunday, I watched in awe while Hannah fixed her own recessed doorbell with electrician gloves, screwdriver and voltmeter — not the easiest of processes, if one reads Mr. Fix-It’s Guide to Rewiring the Home (Thurber, 2002).
Often, these citations are of books not mentioned in the narrative, but provided as “documentation” of whatever point Blue is making. Usually these citations are an ironic counterpoint to the story’s details, for example:
It was the first Friday of November and Jade had gone to considerable lengths to pick out my outfit: four-inch malevolent gold sandals two sizes too big and a gold lame dress that rippled all over me like a Shar-pei (see “Traditional Wife’s Bound Feet,” History of China, Ming, 1961, p. 214; “Darcel,” Remembering “Solid Gold,” LaVitte, 1989, p. 29).
All this means the book has a very odd narrative voice. There are really two voices at work in this book, the knowledgeable, hyper-educated, fledging academic voice, and, hiding behind it, the voice of a lonely and scared teen. Blue comes across as incredibly well-educated, as old and experienced and world-weary, although, of course, she’s very young. But she also comes across as extremely vulnerable, and the novel’s rather bizarre ending bears this out. The academic trappings of the story come to seem like a coping mechanism, a way of finding order and meaning in a very chaotic life.
I feel like I can appreciate some of the things Pessl is doing here, especially with the narrative voice, but ultimately all the playfulness and experimentation didn’t come together for me. I just didn’t feel engaged, or at least consistently engaged, with the story.
I am curious to hear about other people’s experiences with the book, however, because I can see how other people might have enjoyed it very much. It just didn’t work that well for this particular reader.