Thursday, September 19, 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, 2006).

As I mentioned earlier this week, I recently read a couple of novels only knowing exactly one thing about them: they were each written by an author who has a new book out with a feature review in Entertainment Weekly and I'm reading these earlier works while waiting in the library queue for the new one. I knew nothing else whatever about them.

So, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: boy, howdy, I found this a complex and troubling read. It is a book that does not wish to be embraced. It is cold and prickly and mean and does not answer any of the really troubling questions that it poses. There is an element of detective fiction at the core of its faux memoir template - it is written by a college freshman about the events leading up to a traumatic event one year previously - but it does not play by the rules. I accept, on its own terms, that it is a challenging and difficult story that the fictional memoirist certainly needed to write, but it would have been a more satisfying read had she waited until (a) she had the maturity to not write so damn much like an overeducated, pretentious bore and (b) some of her questions were eventually answered.

Our protagonist is Blue van Meer, who has traveled all around the country with her dad, Professor Gareth van Meer. It's been his habit for almost a decade to take little visiting professorships at small, rinky-dink colleges and universities for just a single semester, challenging the bejesus out of his students while publishing impenetrable studies of civil unrest and geopolitics in obscure journals. He finally agrees to settle for an entire year in a western North Carolina town (it seems to be an amalgam of Asheville and Murphy, smaller than one and larger than the other), allowing Blue to attend St. Galloways School for her senior year.

We know from the introduction that a teacher named Hannah will die by hanging and that Blue will find her body. I really enjoy Pessl's use of foreshadowing. The buildup - it's endless - and all the attendant weird mysteries about Hannah's unusual life, and why she rubs her father the wrong way, kept me engrossed so much that when Hannah finally dies, it's almost like a relief. The tension is amazing.

But the tension's not for everybody. As befits somebody who's been educated by a condescending, pretentious perfectionist like Gareth, Blue has learned how to write with no grace whatever. It's not breezy or light at all; her construction is deliberately obtuse and academic on the one hand, while relying on overused, familiar phrases as a teen would on the other. I am impressed by how well Pessl captures Blue's voice, because it can't have been easy, but nor is it easy to read. For all Blue's naivete, she's almost as smug and self-important as her father. I looked at one of my freshman essays not long ago. I wouldn't care to read a second, put it that way.

I'm really torn by how Pessl proceeded from the tragedy. I like how, on the one hand, things get so much worse than Blue led me to believe they were going to be. I enjoyed the feeling of being knocked over when we learn more about Hannah, and about her father. What I didn't enjoy was the lack of resolution. There are things about her death that are not answered, and probably wouldn't be for years to come. That's when Blue should have written her memoir; not simply because she would be a better writer, but because she's unable to dig any further than she did. What she did unearth was tragic, painful, and horrible, but, enjoying as I do the relentless pursuit of capital-T Truth by the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, I couldn't help but feel that Blue walked away too soon. I don't blame her - this is ugly and she's a kid - but Pessl could have made it go another way. Recommended with reservations.

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