The Devil’s in the Details
Review by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
The quotation-spouting, citation-dependent young narrator of Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, can be forgiven her tendency toward attribution. With a peripatetic, charismatic, cynical and movie-star-handsome professor father who is given to haughty pronouncements (“It might remind us that no matter the tragedy there’s always the world beyond it. ‘Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?’”) and a beautiful mother who died far young, Blue van Meer is a teen who not only has learned her lessons too well but has taken them to telltale (Poe, E. A.) heart.
Pessl’s pyrotechnic prose (annotated! illustrated!) masks a largely predictable prep-school murder mystery plot (which, in fact, is not entirely solved after 500 pages at the book’s end) and a cast of characters “straight out of central casting” (credit my friend Beth for that one), with enough parenthetical asides that one can visualize the entire opus being uttered out the side of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth. Whether the reader is meant to be dazzled or dazed (or perhaps both: As Pessl’s narrator would not hesitate to point out, both words come to us from the Old Norse root, dasa, to become weary) matters little in the end, as the reader, limp and exhausted, is, if nothing else, left certain that not one detail has been left unturned.
Having crawled into the thick of this miasma, your intrepid reviewer was seized one dark and stormy night by a middle-of-the-night urge to begin writing this review by flashlight, not because of the dazzle but rather the daze: i.e., she couldn’t sleep. This may be fine for those still in their 20s, like Pessl herself, but for those of us in more advanced years, having our sleep interrupted by sophomoric precocities is, to put it at its most succinct, annoying. Still, middle-aged whining aside, Special Topics in Calamity Physics does have a certain je ne sais quois. A sampling of its rave reviews reveals writers trying to surpass even their usual adjectival splendor: “The most flashily erudite first novel since … Everything is Illuminated.” (New York Times) “Gripping and dark, funny and poignant.” (USA Today) “Witty and exuberant.” (Vogue) “Dazzling.” (People)
So part of the novel’s charm lies in Blue’s voice, one part confident tour guide, one part self-conscious outsider and one part Lost Child. Blue can be enormously funny, as here, when she spends her lunch consulting Spanish textbooks and dictionaries at the library in order to communicate with the handsome Peruvian gardener her father hired:
Me llamo Azul.
My name is Blue.
El guardabosque, Mellors, es una persona muy curiosa.
The gameskeeper, Mellors, is a curious kind of person.
¿Quiere usted seducirte? ¿Es eso que usted quiere decirme?
Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
¡Nelly, soy Heathcliff!
Nelly, I am Heathcliff!
As Emily Gould points out in a September 2006 interview (bookslut.com), “Though the comparisons to Nabokov et al. sound like the run of the mill agent-ese, they’re not entirely unfounded. Pessl purposely mimics and reinterprets Nabokov’s signature stylistic conventions in genuinely hilarious ways.”
How does a 27-year-old pull off such a tour de mime? Pessl started writing while a freshman in college and after graduation worked as a financial consultant for Price Waterhouse Coopers, while continuing to write on the side. It wasn’t until she moved to London with her now-husband, however, that she began working in earnest on Special Topics, whose seed, Pessl says, was “the relationship between a daughter and an incredibly narcissistic, amoral, controlling and very charming father.”
Like many writers who’ve earned their kudos via plain, old-fashioned hard work, Pessl wrote two practice novels before she began Special Topics. In the first, she notes, she “hadn’t found her voice yet,” and the second “was a Southern novel.” (Pessl herself grew up in Asheville, N.C., with annual visits to her father, divorced from her mother when she was three, in Austria.) It was her third novel that ultimately became Special Topics, and she guarded the manuscript fiercely, not showing it to anyone until she sent it off to 10 agents, one of whom agreed to represent it.
Often asked if she is Blue or Blue is she, Pessl answers that “a writer is every one of their characters … But is Blue a ‘thinly veiled portrait’ of me? Definitely not … I’d rather be someone else!” That said, Pessl’s commonalities with her youthful narrator include growing up in a bookish family. “My mother was always reading aloud to my sister and I—I started out reading the Chronicles of Narnia, Misty of Chincoteague, even Nancy Drew—and eventually it was the Victorian and Gothic romances … if you grow up reading stuff like that, that’s what you crave as an adult.”
Clearly, that Pessl is still in her 20s (and adorable) is not the only reason Special Topics in Calamity Physics has received its accolades. In addition to its aforementioned citations, the book’s conceits include chapters named after great books, pen and ink drawings ostensibly by Blue but actually drawn by the author, smoking guns and hangmen’s (or, in this case, hangwomen’s) nooses, love, lust, prep-school angst and hijinks, and finally, a coming of age as earnest (and as well-earned) as Holden Caulfield’s.
Marisha Pessl will be reading from, discussing and signing Special Topics in Calamity Physics at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. 344-8139.
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