Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Books can develop personalities separate from the characters and author.  This is not true for every book – I’m not endorsing some new form of literary theory based on the psychoanalysis of literature.  But sometimes it does happen.

For example – Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy is definitely a sociopath.  Mundane day-to-day existence and violence are so enmeshed that they easily transition in and out of each other without missing a beat.  It has no morality.  The sentences contain no boundaries separating the characters’ speech from the action.  It begins and moves in a single, linear path to its end.  It is written in swarms of words and sentences which decimate whatever lay in their paths like locusts.  It sees and relates to the world only in terms of itself.

You see, books with personalities are so themselves that we don’t need to wait for some reviewer or critic to tell us what they are about, what we should think about them, or worst of all – what they mean.  It’s all as plain as day.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is another.  If you’ve read it, you’ve probably reread it.  And possibly re-reread it again.  It’s that girl who everyone wants to talk to at parties, or the favorite aunt we look forward to seeing at the family reunions.  The one who knows all the family gossip.  Yet, it’s so happy, so witty, and so much fun to be around.  It has the entertaining ability to tell a good story, to point out everyone’s character flaws.  And all done in such a good-natured way that no one is offended.

This leads me to the point:  Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a magician, an illusionist, a master of misdirection.  It’s the rarest of all books – with a plot that midway through changes trajectories and becomes a different book from the one you thought you were reading a few pages ago.  You zig, the story has zagged.  But Marisha Pessl does it in so clever, so subtle a way that there’s no discordant note jarring you out of the story.  You don’t sit there trying to figure out what the hell just happened or locate the jump in continuity.  Instead you thumb back through the pages wondering how you could have been so dense as to have missed the connections.  It all seems so obvious when you reach the last chapter… like the scene when the detective looks around the office at the end of “The Usual Suspects”.  You’ve been so confident in the preconceptions you established all the way back when you read the back cover in the bookshop, that you never saw the twist coming.  And THAT is brilliant storytelling.  Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

So how do I give you a plot summary, without giving away the plot?  Obviously, it is a mystery (the book, not the question).  It is also a coming of age story.  It’s a first novel, and like many first novels it’s written in the first person.  It’s a damn good read.

This is the story of Blue van Meer, told by Blue van Meer, one half of what must be the most engaging father/ daughter team since Atticus & Scout.

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

“Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond – James Bond – you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began – with a wheeze.”

Dad is an award-winning, famous in his field, poli-sci professor.  He and Blue have been traveling in a Volvo station wagon between backwater colleges for the last 10 years, since Blue’s mother died in a car accident.  The total number of schools Blue had attended in that time I think was 24 (don’t quote me).  She was the perpetual new girl, except that “that glittery title was always stolen from me within minutes of my arrival by someone fuller lipped and louder than I”.  At the beginning of this story her father surprises her with the announcement that her entire senior year of high school (prior to attending Harvard) will be spent in one place:  St. Gallway Academy.

During her first week at St. Gallway Blue is begrudgingly befriended by the Bluebloods.  The name pretty much speaks for itself:  they are rich, beautiful and privileged.  The Bluebloods – Jade, Charlie, Milton, Leulah and Nigel, – are in the thrall of Hannah Schneider.  She is their film teacher, their friend, and their muse.  It is to please her that they allow Blue into their inner circle.    In the normal course of events, if they noticed her at all, Blue would be their prey.

Early on, (i.e. – when you pick up the book, turn it over, and read the blurb) you learn that the climax of this story is the death of Hannah Schneider.  The plot hinges on questions:  Who is Hannah Schneider? Why her connection to the Bluebloods?  What is her interest in Blue?  Intertwined with these questions are the stories of the Bluebloods, Blue’s parents, the June bugs and a strangely normal boy named Zach.  But mostly this is Blue’s story.  A story she has unknowingly been at the center of her entire life.

______

Quick Note on the format of the book, which I loved.

Pessl has written the book like a curriculum – divided up into 3 parts, and then into Chapters.  Each chapter title is the title of a book which is on the Required Reading list.  Citations sprout throughout.  In one chapter we even get footnotes.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics could be Blue’s entrance application essay for Harvard.

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2007)
ISBN:  978 0 143 11212 9

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5 thoughts on “Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

    1. It really is a great book, Kim, and an easy read.

      I wish I’d had more time to go into the structure of the book, which is a HUGE part of what makes it so unique. Blue has been, on the whole, educated by her father. (He comes across as rather brilliant). The the book is written in such a way as to allow Blue to pass on that education to her reader. So not only does she provide a recommended reading list, she works the reader through her thought processes as she solves the mystery. It’s pretty nifty… and now I have this sudden urge to pick it up and read it again!

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  1. this one’s been on my shelf since it came out. guess i’m gonna have to get it back on the active ‘to read’ list.

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    1. Definitely read it. You’ll enjoy it.

      It’s not as esoteric as the books I normally associate with you, but I think this will be a good fit. 🙂

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  2. I don’t believe I’ve heard about this book until now (actually, that’s a lie but it serves my purpose – I just recognized it as the original of a book I looked at months ago, except I dismissed the translation because it was, well, a translation from English and… right-on, back to the point!), but it sounds rather good. And not just because it has physics in the title. Or maybe also a little because of that…

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