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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

By Brian Prisco | Books | May 4, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | May 4, 2009 |

TylerDFC described Marisha Pessl’s debut as a combination of Heathers, Dead Poets Society and The Usual Suspects. It also reminded me of Daniel Handler’s first novel (who some of you may know as Lemony Snicket), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s like finding a soul sister, as Pessl aims a woodchipper at her teenage private school coming of age mystery and blasts it with a non-stop barrage of astounding metaphor and pop-culture references. It dizzies the mind.

Blue van Meer — a hell of a moniker that actually works appropriately in this work — is an observer. She bounces from town to town in the tow of her professor papa, Gareth, who constantly takes on semester long stints at various lower tier academies, raising hell as he raises his daughter. She moves constantly, existing on the constant forage of higher learning materials and intellectual stimulation that her father engorges her brain with. This results in Blue hiding a vicious wit behind laconic social skills, and so while she’s not much of a talker, she’s a hell of a witness to the craziness of her senior year. The entire novel is written as a flashback during Blue’s freshman year at Harvard.

Pessl allows her murder mystery of sorts to unravel slowly. The Usual Suspects metaphor plays in here, as the events sort of backhand you as you read. The murder is revealed early, as a ghoulish spectre that haunts Blue. Hannah dangles from a tree, strung by an electrical cord, casting a pall over Blue’s memory. It is only slightly later that we discover Hannah was actually a teacher, not a student as first expected. Blue becomes part of her Algonquin Round Table of privileged and arrogant followers, a gaggle of bitchy teens that wouldn’t look out of place drinking Drain-O and crashing through glass tables. The novel unfolds slowly as Blue drifts along in her senior year, dazzled by Hannah and her allure.

If I had to lodge complaints against the narrative, and don’t I always, but I felt like Pessl imbues her heroine with just a little too much knowledge. Blue’s supposed to be a 17 year old, and despite the amount of material shoved into her skull, it’s still a bit much for her to exude such a canny knowledge of the vast cannon of pop-culture. Her intellect spans back to classic lit, current jive, and through film, poem, and tome. I can buy this coming from Pessl in her twenties, but for a teen it’s a bit of a stretch.

Also, the novel reads like a massive chain restaurant dessert. It’s meant to take a while to consume, stretched out over hours. It’s so dense and rich and satisfying, but it’s also takes a long time to eat. The ending isn’t a clever twist, so much as slow submerge in cold water to shock you and then chill you as you adjust. It’s hard to even talk about the events or characters of the novel without revealing too much.

I think the framework of the flashback is the only failing of the novel. It reveals too much ahead of time. Pessl’s coy about tantalizing with details, knowing how this is going to end and smirking behind her hand while she tells you. I can see people not bothering with this book, being irritated by the finale, feeling how it could be a cheat and troublesome to concern ourselves with the woes of rich people. It’s just what I got done scorning The Informers for. But frankly, Pessl doesn’t want you to feel sorry for Blue. She might want you to admire her, which I don’t, but it doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book.

Anyway, I look forward to her future work. She supposedly got something due later this year or early next year. She’s got an amazing style, one that can be overbearing if you aren’t savvy.

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