A review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, huh?
It’s actually an interesting book to write about, because I came to the book with a whole set of ideas and expectations that don’t have much to do with the work itself. The story of my relationship with the book started when my dad told me how excited he was about it - “I hear she does a Nabokov-meets-Donna-Tartt, all framed around a Great Books curriculum.” What’s not to love, right? Particularly my dad is super smart about books (and, well, just about everything else)?
Even before I’d read it, though, I was wondering how she could carry it off without seriously annoying me. I admire the attempt to do something relatively cerebral with the structure of a novel, but something about how proud of it she seemed … well, I couldn’t tell if that was the book itself, or just the way people talked about it, so I wasn’t exactly going to say no.
The good news is that I loved a lot of things about the book. I particularly liked the narrator, Blue van Meer. Pessl manages to create a young woman who’s quirky, erudite and thoughtful, but whose self-awareness and awareness of the world develop significantly over the course of the novel. The story might have worked better if she’d had a few flaws - other than being Misunderstood by the Stupid Rich Kids - but nonetheless I identified with her very strongly. I was a quirky, erudite teen who spent most of her time with her head in a book, and I rarely see myself represented in fiction in a way that rings true.
I also really loved the ambiguity of the book’s ending. You rarely see books that expect to be read more than once - The Quincunx is the only other one I can think of, and there you might miss it if you don’t read the last line very carefully. I thought it was a courageous choice, which was both dramatically and thematically appropriate.
The bad news is that I was also seriously irritated by the book. It was often pretentious - which would be forgivable, if it didn’t lead Pessl to drown her dramatic scenes in a sea of allusion. I also often felt like she was making things happen just in order to have them happen: to set up for a later scene, to create the allusion to the chapter’s title, or just to pass the time until the next planned event could happen. While I found Blue’s internal life very convincing, the plot that happens around her often isn’t. There isn’t a single other character in the book whose inner life one can even conceive, which makes it hard to make sense of the sex-and-murder sensationalism scenes.
And dude, you don’t set yourself up as Nabokovian unless you can really pull it off. Okay? Okay.
In short, I’d like to see Pessl write a book that’s more about the characters and plot, and less about proving how smart she is. But for what it’s worth, I think she’s more than capable of doing that - if she wants to. Otherwise I think we can expect a lot of future books about the Awesomeness of Marisha Pessl, and I’m not sure I need to read any more about that.