Saturday, December 01, 2007

Special Indeed

Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Author: Marisha Pessl

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.”

Given such rigid parameters, I always assumed I wouldn’t have my Magnificent Reason until I was at least seventy, with liver spots, rheumatism, wit as quick as a carving knife, a squat stucco house in Avignon (where I could be found eating 365 different cheeses), a lover twenty years my junior who worked in the fields (I don’t know what kind of fields – any kind that were gold and frothy) and, with any luck, a small triumph of science or philosophy to my name. And yet the decision – no, the grave necessity – to take pen to paper and write about my childhood – most critically, the year it unstitched like a snagged sweater – came much sooner than I ever imagined.

The above paragraphs open Marisha Pessl’s wonderful novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. (And it has a fantastic website, too. Follow the link!) Reading them in the bookstore, I felt the “book bug” sleeping inside me stir and flutter feebly. My “book bug” is a finicky creature. He emerges only when I’m head-over-heels in love with a story, completely infatuated. Despite my reading addiction, this happens but rarely – maybe once or twice a year. So when my “book bug” begins to uncurl, I pay attention. I eagerly swiped my credit card for Special Topics and prayed that the story didn’t disappoint. After all, so many books have great pick up lines, but wilt pathetically halfway through the night. And nothing annoys my book bug more than being stood up by a date.

But hurrah, Pessl lived up to – indeed, exceeded – expectations! Special Topics is so much more than a one night stand. Funny, dark, and unabashedly literate, it might even be my new favorite book.

Special Topics is narrated by Blue van Meer, whose nomadic life has revolved around books and her obscenely intelligent father. For years, Gareth van Meer has flitted from college to college on a string of visiting professorships, dragging his daughter with him. As a result, the extraordinarily bright Blue is a perennial outsider, with more knowledge of history than people. She’s the type of girl who thinks the number pi is sexy, musing, “I think it would be sort of electrifying if some kid heatedly whispered it into my ear. 3.14159265…”

But everything changes when Dad enrolls Blue at the prestigious St. Gallway academy. The halls of St. Gallway are ruled by the Bluebloods, an exclusive clique that has gathered in fascination around the school’s enigmatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider (see, The Prime of Jean Brodie). For reasons unbeknownst, Hannah takes a liking to the motherless Blue and forces the Bluebloods to accept her as one of their own. The Bluebloods aren’t happy about it, but comply, giving Blue new clothes, new hair, and an entirely new appreciation of the different varieties of fine liquor.

But the fun turns sour when Blue finds Hannah dead, her bloated body hanging from a tree during a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Was it murder? Suicide? Blue sets out to discover the “who, what, when, where, why.” And along the way, she inadvertently rips her life to shreds.

The plot is a noirish whodunit-bildungsroman. The characters are vivid and appealing – particularly Blue’s Dad, who’s the most amusingly arrogant asshole academic you can ever hope to meet. But Pessl’s gorgeous writing is what truly sets Special Topics apart – her gorgeous, gorgeous, oh-my-god-it’s-better-than-chocolate writing. Her use of words is acrobatic, virtuoso, and just so damn fun. Everything whirls and glitters, and I found myself laughing on nearly every page…when I wasn’t shuddering.

Special Topics has a uniquely witty, yet academic, tone. Blue lays out her history as if it were a class syllabus, naming each chapter after a great work in the literary canon that thematically connects with the chapter’s plot. (For example, the chapter where Hannah dies is called “Deliverance, by James Dickey.”) Literary and cultural allusions abound, and Blue continuously references sources – both of the academic and popular variety – as she relives her involvement with the Bluebloods and Hannah’s death. Some of these sources are a product of Pessl’s imagination, but since they’re universally humorous and clever, this only adds to the fun.

I’ll admit that Special Topics might not be to all tastes. Some might find Pessl’s writing annoying, or the plethora of references pretentious. But I adored Special Topics precisely for its flamboyant wordiness. The book is an escapist fantasy for the literary-minded, full of sparkling intellectual chatter. It’s smart, but never dour; erudite, but not preachy. I look forward to reading it again – and again – and again.

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posted by Elizabeth at 12:35 PM


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