Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was something of a breakaway sensation when it was released in 2004, commercially but also for the most part critically. This debut novel centers around the precocious and erudite-beyond-her-years High School Student Blue van Meer and her relationship with her seemingly universally learned father.
It is almost impossible not to draw comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History while discussing the book. I shall try to limit myself to commenting that even though both revolves around milieus of so-called higher learning and a little clique of students that for some reason considers themselves set apart from the common philistines – and there is a murder mystery and possibly hidden dangers, etc. – the books are structured quite differently. I also think Tartt’s grasp of prose is – at least judging by her two novels so far – of a higher order than Pessl’s. Granted, I base this mostly on Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, but even in her first novel, she wasn’t so … mannered as Pessl seems to be.
It is of course open to debate whether it is Pessl or her protagonist, Blue, that is in love with seeing everything as something else. One of her better phrases goes like this: “Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman, and they saw nothing”. This is a typical – and actually restrained – example of all her sentences. Everything is like something else, or this or that. Building bridges that connect seemingly unconnected or disconnected parts of existence with the help of language is one of the tasks of literature, and if done right can be very pleasing to the reader. However, Pessl does this all the time and in the end, if everything is like something else, then nothing remains itself. Also, I like symbols and metaphors a lot, but Pessl’s don’t kill me.
The second irritating aspect of the language in this novel, is a tendency to pile up such an amount of tiny – and, as it turns out – insignificant details in her descriptions of what is going on, that rather than be endeared by her “poetic eye for details” one wants an editor to turn up and slap, if not the author, then bloody well the protagonist. This literary tick definitely includes her usage of adjectives, the most dangerous of literary qualifications. Here is another example from the same page as the last quotation (page 6 in my edition):
“Still, being an inveterate optimist (“Van Meers are natural idealists and affirmative freethinkers”, noted dad) I hoped lurid wakefulness might be a phase I’d quickly grow out of, a fad of some kind, like poodle skirts or like having a pet rock, but then, one night early in February as I read the Aeneid, my roommate, Soo-Jin, mentioned, without looking up from her Organic Chemistry textbook that some of the freshmen on our hall were planning to crash an off-campus party at some doctor of philosophy’s but I wasn’t invited because I was considered more than a little “bleak” in demeanour (…)
One must also ask oneself what is the purpose in mentioning that she is reading the Aeneid. We already know she is (overly) well read, and by god shall we be knocked on our collective heads by this fact again and again in the course of the novel. An editor of merit would have commented upon this, and in this sentence advised to remove some of the adjectives/adverbs: e.g. (lurid) wakefulness, (quickly) grow out of.
Maybe Pessl will surprise and write a completely different second novel in terms of style. In that case, if the narration and style in which Special Topics is delivered is intentionally a reflection of only this character’s idiosyncrasies, we might indeed expect to see interesting novels from Pessl in the future.
I don’t, however, mean to say that it is a bad novel. It is not. It is for the most part entertaining, although entire scenes, not to say chapters, could’ve been cut and the book would be the better for it. One must also consider it an accomplishment that Pessl manages to make us not hate the wise ass girl we follow for more than 500 pages. Her knowledge of everything that has ever been written in the world stretches credulity, but the plot is more or less of interest (even though the story could easily have been told in half as many pages).
Another thing that got on my nerves after a while, is the constant referencing while making any observation: “Obviously, I am the half-obscured, dark-brown-haired girl wearing glasses who looks apologetically owl-like (see “Scops Owl”, Encyclopedia of Living Things, 4th. ed.)” I don’t feel that the reference to the encyclopedia brings any clarity to the image she is showing us, nor does it say much about who she is that we haven’t already learned elsewhere. Also, as the book progresses, she – Blue or Pessl – takes a more scattershot approach to the references and seemingly forgets about the device for some chapters before they return with a vengeance (see Death Wish, Michael Winner, 1974).
It must be said, though, that many of the references in the book are fictional; most of the literature she quotes has never existed. What is a bit disappointing is that we are asked to believe that Blue is extremely well read, but she’s really not that smart. Of course, this might be intended from the author, but if that’s the case, I don’t feel we are given sufficient information to sustain such a view. Even though she is supposed to have read at least one biography of the famous British painter, William Turner, she’s not able to neither analyze the painting herself, nor even understand what other people talk about when they interpret the painting for her.
Another thing a capable editor should have picked up on, are some of the mistakes Blue does when she references works of popular culture (which she is supposed to know like the back of her nail bitten hand, as Pessl would probably write) or relatively well known literary works. At one point she compares herself to “that nurse from For Whom the Bell Tolls”. I’m afraid she confuses one novel of Hemingway with another. I, at least, can’t remember any nurses from that novel. A Farewell to Arms, however, has nurses a-plenty…
Here, again, it is possible that Pessl wants to show that Blue is not infallible, but I doubt it.
A last critique of the novel is that I don’t feel Pessl manages to tie up all the loose ends. To do so is not an absolute must in a novel, but this being a mystery of sorts, I think one is entitled to some sort of reward for having followed the threads Pessl has laid out for us. Maybe part of the problem is that the structure of the book itself feels forced. The novel begins with an introduction, which is Blue after everything that has happened explaining that she wants to “write a life story”. Why, if it has to be at all included, couldn’t this have come at the end? It would also have given the author a chance to heighten the narrative drive towards the end by extending her explanatory space, so to say. Then, every chapter is titled after a famous work of literature. I can’t find any good reason for this except as a kind of gimmick.
Still, after all this, I quite enjoyed the book. As I’ve mentioned, there are many things that do work in the novel, and it’s seldom without any interest, especially if one is at an age when one has just enrolled at university, maybe. But let me stress that if even a grumpy, soon to be middle aged man like myself can enjoy it, she must have done something well. It is not often I enjoy contemporary literature and even more seldom that I bother to write about it.. This being Pessl’s literary debut, she can be quite pleased with herself, if not with her editor.