Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This bulky-but-worth-it novel opens with the narrator and protagonist, Blue Von Meer, announcing her intention to tell us her Life Story from her dorm room at Harvard. She begins with her parents upbringing and marriage (her mother's family was extremely wealthy, her father's wasn't), then her mother's tragic death (when Blue was six - she fell asleep at the wheel after spending yet another late night working on her butterflies), then stories of countless small towns and an entire decade worth of time spent driving around America in a car, just Blue and her father, reading everything from Shakespeare to Hollywood biographies aloud to each other as they moved from place to place, sometimes living in 3 different towns a years. Blue's father, Gareth, is a civil war professor and was spreading his teachings to the most rural outposts of America. The story truly begins when Blue and Gareth settle in Stockton, North Carolina, and Blue begins her senior year of high school at St. Gallway, a prestigious private school.

From there, the story begins to closely resemble Donna Tartt's The Secret History - there is an exclusive clique that Blue refers to as The Bluebloods that consist of the five most eccentric, popular, beautiful, and mysterious seniors at St. Gallway. Every Sunday night they have a long and lavish dinner at Hannah Schneider's house, who is the enigmatic part time film teacher at St. Gallway's. After much snubbing and ostracizing, Blue is slowly accepted into the Bluebloods' group, and becomes privvy to many shocking secrets. Then someone is murdered.

But there's a mystery here, which caused me to read everything a bit more carefully than I read The Secret History. Why does Hannah take such a keen interest in Blue? She practically forces Blue on the Bluebloods, much to their annoyance. Hannah is an arresting character - she is gorgeous, tall, knife thin, and has a strong presence - so why isn't Blue's father Gareth, a known womanizer, (Blue refers to all his girlfriends as June Bugs), interested in her? And why doesn't Hannah ever talk about her past? And why does she hang around all these rich high school students anyway? When Hannah takes the group camping and ends up dead in the woods, hanging by an electrical cord, just before she was about to entrust Blue with an important secret, Blue begins to solve the mystery of Hannah's life, and her death.

The mystery plot is solid, and Pessl manages to wrap it up very nicely without making it feel overwrought. I don't think readers have a shot at deducing the who-dun-it, but then again, I'm starting to suspect that I'm a rather gullible reader (Darkly Dreaming Dexter took me by surprise - it didn't seem trite to me at all - and I would never have unravelled the mystery in The Interpretation of Murder, though two of my friends claim to have guessed at the ending immediately). Maybe I'm just a lazy reader. I'm beginning to suspect that when I read for pleasure, I simply don't spend a lot of energy trying to solve mysteries before I reach the denouement. I enjoy being led through a well told story far too much. Or perhaps I'm just trying to justify how bad I am at solving mysteries before I reach the last page. Anyone else surprised by the last page of Jodi Picoult's Salem Falls? Anyone? Really, I didn't see it coming.

Plot aside, the language, voice, and Gareth's character are what really makes Special Topics stand out. This novel is longer than it needs to be, and Hannah doesn't die until you've read more than three quarters of the novel, but because of the imaginative similes and metaphors (comparisons have been made to Lorrie Moore), I didn't mind too much. Blue is a precocious sixteen-year-old who is constantly referrencing books as she narrates, or inserting her Dad's opinion on everything in the form of rather wordy and philosophical quotes. Sound annoying? Well it's not. I actually enjoyed most of "Dad's" quotes - he has some very opinionated, original, and articulate things to say - and Blue is saved from being an unbearably precocious and pretencious character by her standard new-kid qualities. Blue's child genius side is tempered by her archetypal desire to be accepted by the Bluebloods, her unconcealed fascination with Hannah, and the way she openly loves and admires her Dad. Even when Blue is at a bar with Jade and Leulah, (two of the Bluebloods), picking up men, she can't stop talking about her father. She tells strangers about him, and repeats his oft-repeated quotes (if not aloud then in her head) constantly throughout the narrative. Because Blue is at an age where most teens despise their parents (or at least pretend to), her behavior is striking, and helps convey how tightly she clings to her father after the death of one parent.

Though Blue narrates, her father is truly the protagonist of the novel.

When this book was originally sold to Viking, a lot of fuss was made over another high advance paid for a young and attractive female author. It seems like everytime someone young and remotely attractive gets a book deal, the publishing industry and reviewers take a skeptical stance, suggesting it is the author's looks, and their publicity prospects that the publisher has paid for - and not necessarily the story. In the case of Marisha Pessl, this is just not true. To read an interview with the seemingly down-to-earth author, check out BookSlut

I would recommend this book to all my friends who enjoy literary fiction.

3 comments:

Bohemian Belle said...

I had heard so much hype about sexy Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I stilletto’d right out on my lunch break to pick up my hardback copy. My hopes were high. The book had everything you wanted in a chick lit thriller: an Ivillage endorsement, a tantalizing cover, and an freaky, evocative website. I loved the creepy details the kicked things off: the butterflies, the film class secret society, the mystical mother.
Then I got to reading, and things quickly went from titillating to tedious. The set-up of the book, a mock-syllabus, is supposed to be sly, but is instead excruciatingly apt. Special Topics reads like a real syllabus, and I was the student skimming over all the boring parts to get to the juicy stuff. But beneath all the jihad and June Bugs, the juice never really came. Sure, lips locked, people perished and secrets were eventually unveiled, but still (much like an overly-ambitious syllabus) Pessl is never really able to take us beneath the surface of her story. You’re invited as a spectator to her amazingly deep thought pool, but you never really get to dive in and swim with the psychos.
A lot of this distance from the story can be attributed to a lack of character development.
Her characters are apparently cunning and complex, but they feel like overly-intellectual paper dolls, painted, smug. Mere braininess cannot replace the prototype of boisterous, flawed, eager and endearing characters that are chick lit’s bread and butter, and Pessl seems to miss this mark.
For example, one of the main flaws of the book is that we only hear things from the main character Blue’s perspective. In an attempt to make her flawed and endearing, Pessl’s depiction of Blue is so self-deprecating one really feels like the girl is a wretched specimen indeed, as worthless as the common butterfly for which she is named. I am sure Pessl is aiming for a beloved Bridget Jones’s underdog affect, but it simply doesn’t stick because it is Bridget’s bad habits and struggles that make her lovable, not her self-loathing. Blue is so holier-than-thou and flawless, one really can’t relate to her, and by the end of the book you really identify with the other character’s hatred for Blue and how annoying she is. I sense this was not the author’s intention.
On the other hand, Jade, Nigel, Charles, Milton and Leulah all have the potential to be salacious and fascinating characters. Jade especially, with her decadent life and gorgeous rags, could easily inspire the acclaim of say, the bewitching character of Caitlin in Judy Blume's Summer Sisters. But Pessl never allows them to be any more than shadowy, chattery background characters. Even when Milton and Blue make out, one doesn’t really get a sense of him. He remains an affable mollusk who eventually betrays Blue. It is obvious this betrayal is supposed to be spectacular and telling, but it feels very anti-climactic, partly because of Blue’s lack of reaction and because we don’t really know Milton too well, so nothing he does can really stun us.
A chapter told from each of their perspectives would have done wonders for the book, even if they said only what we expected them to say: that Leulah was desperately resentful of Jade, that Nigel had a huge crush on Milton, that Charles loved Hannah so much he fantasized about killing her. A flashback from the intriguing Natasha, maybe revealing that she actually hated Gareth, or a June Bug’s viewpoint of Blue’s Elektra Complex would also have felt fresh and illuminating. These little revelations could have done much to draw us deeper into the plot, but they never occur.
Nowhere is this lack of character development more potent than with Hannah Schneider, the apparent heroine of the book. Hannah is supposed to be this sexy, intriguing woman with the charisma of a cult leader, basically. But a reader never feels particularly drawn to her. She doesn’t ever say anything particularly witty or charming, and she is portrayed always as vague, manic, fluttering and frayed. I don’t know about you guys, but in my life I avoid people like this. They freak me out. All her stay cats, her movie posters, her bizarre ramblings, her terrorist involvement…none of it added up. She just felt sloppy and undone and I was glad when she was gone. Again, I suspect this was not the author’s intention.
What Pessl lacks in character development however, she compensates for in cryptic metaphors. The woman averages a metaphor per minute, per mention, per millimeter of each page. Not just any metaphors either, long, extended, mutating metaphors that felt less illuminating and more egotistical, like reading ten of Ovid’s metamorphosis in a row. Far from adding gravitas or momentum to the plot, these dizzying metaphors serve one purpose: for Pessl to say, “Look how much I know-that you don’t.”
In fact, the entire mystery just feels like an elaborate ruse for Pessl to show off her fancy Barnard College pile o’ knowledge. Nowhere is this more obvious than the end of the book. I hate mysteries that end with information that is not supplied to readers until the very last pages. The readers should have all the same information the author does and be given a fair shot at solving the mystery for themselves. The genius of a mystery is providing information that could be read a bunch of different ways. To withhold evidence the reader could never have possibly predicted is not only unfair, it is-you guessed it-egotistical. Pessl alone wanted to unravel her elaborate ending, to wow us with her research and knowledge of less-known terrorist groups and cult behavior. But you know what? I hate her ending.
Here’s why: I hate that Blue’s Dad, the one truly charming and evocative character in the book, turns out to be a bad guy. The implication that he knew about Blue being taken out into the forest by his crazed mistress to be left for dead is just disturbing. The fact that he could just up and leave her after all that “You are the most important concept I have ever known” crap also doesn’t ring true. I also hate that the Bluebloods just drift into the background and nothing definitive ever happens with them (there’s no epilogue, no ten years later, no dazzling secret society unveiling). I hate that Servo turns out to be Gracey. Once again, a cult leader’s gotta have some charisma, the heady, irrepressible kind that bubbles out no matter how much you repress it. I get that the whole bumbling old man Falstaff thing was supposed to be a pose, but someone as perceptive as Blue should have felt something sexy brimming under his surface. Instead she declared that she hated him, a phrase she herself admitted never using. This is not the reaction one should have against someone who inspired Hannah, at a similar age, to resign herself to a life of killing and pillaging purely on this fellow’s urging. Despite the old man guise, Servo still could have been a spell-binding storyteller, had an electric sense of humor, an encyclopedia brain, strange apartheid mementoes in his house, anything that would have made him less patently dull and more darkly subversive. The whole not- taking- pictures thing does not a guru make.
Here’s my list of preferred alternate endings: A) If the Nightwatchmen thing had to go down, I would have much preferred that Andreo Verduga the gardener be Gracey. He was more sultry and brooding and obviously had the sort of appeal that made formerly sensible young girls want to fall to their knees and follow him. Meow! That’s the stuff a good chick thriller is made of.
B) Hannah takes them all out into the forest. We learn later that Charles insisted on this trip and originally wanted it to be the two of them. Hannah agrees but insists on bringing the others along. While there, Charles comes on to Hannah but she refuses. Later he finds her hooking up with Milton. This is more realistic because chicks always go for the implacable drifter over the pretty boy who tries too hard. Charles decides to kill Hannah. He makes her go into the woods with him and then hangs her. Blue finds her. Suddenly they are all lost in the woods and no one knows who the killer is. Was it Nigel, the apparent sociopath? Was it Leuluh, seemingly unassuming but desperately resentful of Hannah’s beauty and charm? Was it Jade, out of paranoid suspicion or revenge on her mother figure? Was it Milton, the man who was too emotion-less to be real? Was it Blue herself, because she found out Hannah was responsible for the death of her mother? Pessl had actually set up this story line perfectly, but decided not to use it. As a result, this book started out with potential to be a juicy thriller, but ended up like a flat lesson in irrelevant history. The most exciting part was hearing about the seven-person homicide at the costume party. That’s the kind of trivia that keeps you turning pages, not obscure wars and weird political figures.
Perhaps I am judging Pessl too harshly in light of her contemporaries, but it is impossible not to compare her to her peers. Her syllabus motif has none of the pomp and cheer of say, Becky Bloomwood’s bank statements and letters to her bank managers. Her underdog Blue has none of the lovable slob qualities of the beloved Bridget Jones. The eccentric camaraderie of the BlueBoods can’t hold a candle to the motley protagonists and plucky personal lingo of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Her mysteries don’t intersperse social satire and real women’s worries the way Jennifer Weiner’s or Susan Isaac’s do.
But I think in terms of contemporaries, my biggest disadvantage was reading this book on the heels of the astounding duo by Melissa Banks: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot. The difference between Pessl and Banks may be as simple as their first names. Marisha’s debut just feels like a dressed-up, desperate version of Melissa’s strong, sure prose. Marisha postures with cryptic references and intellectual allusions you have to wade through. You fight to stay awake and wonder what it is she’s trying so hard to prove. Melissa’s books rely not on intellect but incisiveness, guiding you definitively through the equally complicated stories that weave in and out, but you never feel lost or caught in a web, just mesmerized by the author’s honesty and beautifully spare prose. Melissa Banks’s metaphors bring you in deeper, make you feel closer to her. When she talks about feeling like a solid at a liquid party, you sigh “yes!.” When Pessl goes on about some random South American coup in 1952, you go “Huh?”.
Banks is by far the better novelist, providing empathetic material in an unsually elegant form. Pessl is clearly suited more for the type of essays, high brow lectures, and fist-pounding soliloquies expounded by her father in this disappointing debut novel.
I do think Pessl is a brilliant person. But like most super-smart people, Pessl’s intellect is so over-the-top as to be alienating. Her amazing brain packs a wallop that overwhelms her plot. Bank’s subtle genius merely winks at the reader as all the while her gentle prose slowly transforms you. So I’ll take Fishing over Phsyics any day of the week (syllabus notwithstanding.)

Rainy-Day Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rainy-Day Kate said...

The mere names of the authors to whom you are even comparing Pessl, Bohemian Belle, shows that you have no idea what kind of book this is and that you were never its intended audience. Special Topics is not a pulpy throwaway airplane-paperback thriller, and it is definitely not a chick lit book.