Day: June 25, 2011

Special Topics In Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics cover

I finally got around to reading “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl.  It was published in 2006 and is the author’s first published novel.  According to Wikipedia (not the most truthful of all sources), Pessl had several attempts that failed at getting published.

The book is often compared to “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, which I have also read.  I don’t know that that is a fair comparison, although while reading this book, the comparison did cross my mind. Ultimately, the books are quite different, and I think that any association is just because our minds work well with analogy and similarity.

Personally, I think this book draws from an autobiographical standpoint.  Pessl was born in Michigan and went to a private, co-ed school in Asheville, NC. This is very much like the main character of the book, Blue van Meer.  The dust jacket describes Blue in this fashion:

“….a brainy, deadpan, and preternaturally erudite girl who, after traveling from one remote academic outpost to another with her professor father, has a head crammed full of literary, philosophical, and scientific knowledge.  (She is also a film buff and can recite pi out to sixty-five decimal places).  When she is sixteen, due to certain nuclear events, her previously dull life is forever transformed.”

The book is told from the point of view of Blue.  And Blue will consistently and thoroughly inundate the reader with a variety of “references.”  Some people might find this tedious.  Unless you’re a reader of such an appetite like Blue, then you will probably find that her endless quoting of books she’s read is overbearing.  However, I didn’t mind at all, and frankly, enjoyed most of those parts as much as or more than the storyline itself.  What the dust jacket said about Blue is accurate, especially the point about Blue being “deadpan.”  She is often shy and socially-inept which appears throughout the book as a deadpan innocence.

Overall, its a good book, and that is looking at it from a distance.  As you get closer to the book, its not quite as good as one thinks that it is.  Its certainly not a bad book, but it just isn’t on par with great books.  One of my main thoughts about this book is that Pessl was never really certain where the story was going – as if she just sat down to write, using her life as a vague guide, and just wrote whatever hoping the storyline would fall in step.  It kind of does and it doesn’t all at once.  The book seems like a real investigation of the relationship between Blue and her father and their nomadic lifestyle across the USA.  A reader might expect that the book would be focusing on Blue’s struggles to get accepted at Harvard University.  However, somewhere in the second half of the book, the book veers off this course and there are a couple of dead bodies and suddenly its a murder mystery – but without the suspense and thrill.  A whole pack of characters (Blue’s peers at school) are heavily developed, reworked, reworked again, and then discarded as meaningless and with distaste.  And in the end, the reader feels a bit unsatisfied because there are several items left unsaid, which, frankly, someone ought to just say, but we are left to surmise on our own. In this type of book, I do not think leaving things unsaid or incomplete works.

One of the pitfalls that Pessl falls in from time to time is the over-metaphoring of things.  Sometimes, when trying to write as a genius, erudite Blue, Pessl describes something or someone or some event with a bit too much metaphor.  Its easy to fall into this – thinking that everything has to be over-metaphored.  Overall, though, Pessl keeps most of it witty and/or interesting. But sometimes it does get tedious. Its a tough balance to strike, and I can see how Pessl overdid it. What I cannot see, is why the editors did not point some of this out.

There are some hysterical lines in the book, though.  At several of them, I penciled in “LOL” so that whomever reads this copy next will know that I agree that these lines are amusing. Sometimes such lines are both witty and also demonstrate that Pessl does have a knack for describing the awkward and thoroughly human moments that people experience.  For example, driving to a house, Blue shares:

“At the end of this nauseating parade of woods and pastures and nameless dirt roads… I’d find not a house, but a black door barred by a velvet rope, a man with a clipboard who’d look me over and, when ascertaining I didn’t know Frank or Errol or Sammy personally (nor any other titan of entertainment), would declare me unfit to enter, by inference, to continue living.”

3 stars