Sunday, December 17, 2006

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: A Novel, 2006.

This odd novel is the story of a young woman, Blue, who, with her father, settles in a town for an entire year from his nomadic existence as a constant visiting professor of political science. She is absorbed into the elite group at her new school, under the wing of an odd and yet luminous teacher, Hannah Schneider. Meeting the group each Sunday for dinner—pretending to her father that it is a discussion group of Ulysses that never progresses past “Telemachus”—Blue is drawn into a world of drinking and licentiousness, made better only by the group’s relationship with the mysterious Hannah… until Blue finds Hannah has killed herself (such fact not to be construed as a spoiler; revealed on page two before we even meet Hannah).

It’s an odd sort of bildungsroman, entirely unsatisfying as we don’t really see Blue grow or develop as a person, or not much anyway. The mystery side of the plot is intriguing, and reasonably well done. The style of the piece is why I had a difficult time reading the book. Laura Miller, in her review in Salon writes: “If only Pessl wouldn't try so hard to convince us that she is a novelist of grand, American-style ambition; she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers' heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Miller’s inclined to forgive Pessl because some of the metaphors are wonderful: I agree, but am not convinced that this is an excuse. I wonder, though, how much of that is Pessl, and how much is Blue, because Blue is the narrator.

The book itself is arranged in a syllabus. Each chapter is titled with the name of a (at least semi-) canonical work, beginning with Othello and A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man and ending with The Secret Garden and Metamorphoses. There’s an odd postlude of a final exam (14 true/false, 7 multiple choice, 1 essay—and we’re instructed to take “all the time you need”). The structure is too precious by half, but what really bothers me is the pseudo-post-modern references to other works. Barely one paragraph goes by without some reference to another book, film, painting. In part, this technique fits both with the syllabus conceit and with Pessl’s establishment of Blue as a voracious reader. What bothers me is that it never seems anything other than sloppy writing. I suspect this is personal preference, but I feel that allusions should be allusive—half-hidden, not always fully revealed, casting a glance to another work. Pessl’s technique, though, names another piece and asks that an understanding of it be sorted by the reader into the novel. I never stopped thinking that it was sloppy writing. In fairness, Pessl is far from being the only writer who does this: but I want them all to stop it. Between this and Eliot, there’s room for sensible allusions!