Special Topics in Calamity Physics

10745276.gifI feel decidedly so-so about this book, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. For one thing, I thought it was too long at over 500 pages; I have no problem with 500-page novels generally speaking, but the pacing of this particular long novel struck me as odd. It meandered along for 300 pages or so, with some interesting events and character interactions but without a strong sense of forward motion, and then at page 300, something really exciting happened and the book took off in a new direction. I won’t even hint at what the exciting event or the new direction is, so don’t worry about continuing to read this post if you plan on reading the novel in the future. But before this exciting event I found myself putting the book down without too much trouble, and after, it was much harder. I suppose the good news is that the book does eventually take off, but the bad news is that it does so so late.

The story is about Blue Van Meer, a teenager, and her father Gareth, a Political Science professor; Gareth is constantly taking on new Visiting Professor positions and so the two of them move just about every semester. Blue has learned very well how to make her way in strange new schools and new towns and talks about the dynamics of the High School social scene in jaded, cynical terms. But during her senior year, her father finally takes a year-long appointment, and Blue settles into the St. Gallway School, an elite private school known for sending its students to the Ivies.

Here Blue meets a beautiful, mysterious film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider. Blue notices that Hannah spends a good bit of her free time with a clique of five students whom Blue calls the blue-bloods; they have a meal together every Sunday, and soon Hannah invites Blue along. From this point on, the story is about the agonizingly slow way Blue befriends the blue-bloods, although her status in this group is always tenuous, and about the fascination the students have with Hannah’s personality and her past. Hannah seems suspiciously careful not to give away any details of her life before she began teaching at St. Gallway.

But none of this tells you much about how the book is written, and here I come to some of my other doubts about the novel. First of all, Pessl uses a syllabus format to organize the story; “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is the name of the course and the course readings become the titles of individual chapters. Every chapter is named after some work of literature; we begin with Othello and end with The Metamorphoses. The novel’s introduction explains that Blue couldn’t figure out how to tell her story (the novel is in first-person from Blue’s perspective) until she hit on the syllabus idea, which gives her an organizing structure. The novel ends with a final exam. This format is original and amusing, but I found it only incidental to the unfolding of the story; sometimes I’d notice parallels between the chapter title and the chapter’s content, but often I’d forget I was supposedly reading through a syllabus, and I don’t think I missed anything by it. The structure struck me as more clever than useful.

As part of the “academic” format of the book, there are citations sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes these take the form of documenting books mentioned in the narrative; for example, Pessl will give us something like this:

One Sunday, I watched in awe while Hannah fixed her own recessed doorbell with electrician gloves, screwdriver and voltmeter — not the easiest of processes, if one reads Mr. Fix-It’s Guide to Rewiring the Home (Thurber, 2002).

Often, these citations are of books not mentioned in the narrative, but provided as “documentation” of whatever point Blue is making. Usually these citations are an ironic counterpoint to the story’s details, for example:

It was the first Friday of November and Jade had gone to considerable lengths to pick out my outfit: four-inch malevolent gold sandals two sizes too big and a gold lame dress that rippled all over me like a Shar-pei (see “Traditional Wife’s Bound Feet,” History of China, Ming, 1961, p. 214; “Darcel,” Remembering “Solid Gold,” LaVitte, 1989, p. 29).

All this means the book has a very odd narrative voice. There are really two voices at work in this book, the knowledgeable, hyper-educated, fledging academic voice, and, hiding behind it, the voice of a lonely and scared teen. Blue comes across as incredibly well-educated, as old and experienced and world-weary, although, of course, she’s very young. But she also comes across as extremely vulnerable, and the novel’s rather bizarre ending bears this out. The academic trappings of the story come to seem like a coping mechanism, a way of finding order and meaning in a very chaotic life.

I feel like I can appreciate some of the things Pessl is doing here, especially with the narrative voice, but ultimately all the playfulness and experimentation didn’t come together for me. I just didn’t feel engaged, or at least consistently engaged, with the story.

I am curious to hear about other people’s experiences with the book, however, because I can see how other people might have enjoyed it very much.  It just didn’t work that well for this particular reader.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Special Topics in Calamity Physics

  1. Brandon

    I can understand the points you made about the book. It was pretty slow and takes a strange twist a little late, but I also liked the slow build-up. I guess I liked Blue so much that I didn’t mind the slow pacing. Like you, I found it easy to put the book down, and there were some parts where I didn’t feel like reading any more–I’d usually wonder, “Where is this going?”–but I thought Blue was engaging enough so that, instead of focusing on the oddball nature of the story, I always found myself looking forward to her observations. I didn’t think Hannah Schneider was very interesting, and I didn’t care what happened to her, so her scenes were where I put the book down. It’s kind of interesting to read other takes on books you’ve read, to compare what readers get out of a book, what they remember.

  2. This sonds like it could be an interesting/fun read. I like the idea of the format, but you would think it would relate well to the story or what was the purpose otherwise. It wasn’t a book that I had on my list to read, but I might take a look at it when it comes out in paper. 300 pages is quite a lot to read before the book really takes off, but as Brandon mentions if the narrator is engaging sometimes it is worth the wait to see when the action picks up. Some books are like this–maybe only so-so–it would be great if they were all completely engaging, but that’s rare for all the books you read to be like that.

  3. I don’t really have an intelligent comment to make. But I’m intrigued by the violent difference between the cover for the UK market – http://www.theage.com.au/ffximage/2006/07/21/2_Physics_060706092159503_wideweb__324x499.jpg – and US cover. I’m at a loss to explain the UK cover (Romance saga much?) – what are they trying to say about the novel; who are they trying to attract?

    I also have to ask whether Marisha Pessl shares any of the teen narrative tics of Curtis Sittenfield?

  4. Del

    I’ve been looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this book, as I’ve been thinking of buying it since I saw it in a bookshop several weeks ago. After reading your post, I now think “life’s too short” – thank you!

  5. I’ve been holding off reading this one because I feared it would be as crashing a disappointment as the equally lauded Thirteenth Tale (ugh). Now, I think I’ll give it a go as it seems to have passed your hype-detector without setting off too many alarms. And I confess a certain weakness for those tricksy sort of book-citation effects…

  6. I wasn’t at all sure about this book when I read the reviews because I feared it might be all cleverness and emotional superficiality. I think I can see that it is not superficial, but I’m also underwhelmed by the thought of the experimental devices. You could do a lot with chapters named after iconic texts, and it sounds like a missed opportunity to me. Probably not one for my TBR shelf – thank you so much, Dorothy, for clearing that up for me!

  7. Humph, well, I still plan to read the book because it sounds like it was enjoyable, I will just lower my expectations of how enjoyable because it does not seem I will be “blown away.” And thanks for the warning of sorts about the first 300 pages.

  8. I agree Brandon, that Blue is a great character. I really liked the combination of her vulnerability and her toughness and experience. And yeah, Hannah wasn’t as fascinating as the students thought she was.

    Danielle, absolutely, not every book can be super engaging, and I’m glad I read this, even though there were things about it I liked. I wouldn’t have stuck with it if I’d hated it, after all.

    Thanks for pointing that out Victoria — what a HUGE difference! There’s some teen romance in the novel, but it’s really not the point. As for comparisons with Sittenfeld, the ending pretty much blows them away — it’s so NOT typical. The two main characters are both isolated kids, outsiders, there’s some icky romance (icky in the sense that the female characters get treated pretty badly), but the endings are very different.

    Del, well, some people have liked this (actually a lot), but if you’re looking for an excuse not to read it, I’m happy to provide one!

    Sandra, I hope you like it better than I did (which you very well might); I usually like tricksy sorts of effects too, but not here …

    Litlove, I don’t think it’s superficial at all, so that’s not a problem, but still, there were enough problems, I thought, and I’m happy to help you make a decision!

    Stefanie, I will eagerly await your thoughts on it, which may be very different from mine…

  9. I found it a hard book to review – there were aspects I liked about it (the characterisations) but then I hated the irritating citations. I am still not sure what I truly think..

  10. If it’s not integral to the book, I suspect that the framing device will put me off, but the prospect of Blue’s double voice makes me want to pick it up all the same. Are there any “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” parallels at work (mysterious charismatic teacher, the blue-bloods and the creme de la creme, and so on)?

  11. Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that didn’t occur to me — definitely, Kate S., there are “Prime” parallels at work. It’s very much a cult of personality that Hannah has going with the students and they must grow up by defining themselves against her. Reflecting a different age, perhaps, the students are both more intimate with and less worshipful of Hannah than the students in “Prime” are of Brodie.

  12. chris

    During those first 300 or so pages when you possibly felt less engaged with the book what was it that kept you going?
    I found those same pages filled with delight, difference and humor. The long unfolding plot not-withstanding, i found her voice refreshingly engaging and i ripped through those earlier pages with an eagerness usually reserved for a box of bon bons.
    Too long? Yes. And the end, and the l o n g unfolding plot? Really not all that exciting to me…but the voice, ah the voice what a gem of a talent.
    I would say it’s a really good, important, read and i hope she grows the talent using less space to do what she is so obviously capable of doing.

  13. Good question, Chris — it was her voice that kept me going. I agree with you completely about that, and I’d be willing to read another novel of hers, when she’s written another one.

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