Released in 2006 to much fanfare and hype Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a divisive book. Despite finding its way onto the New York Times 10 best books of the year 2006 and receiving comparisons to literary leviathans such as Nabokov from some critics, dissenting voices are not difficult to find in literary pages and blogs the world over. Critics have focused on the large advance paid by Viking Penguin for a debut novel, resulting in much dark muttering about the author’s good looks being a major contributing factor to her success.
Here I would like to state that I have no problem with authors being well compensated for their endeavours ditto for them being photogenic. Criticisms which focused on Pessl’s good looks seem to me have an air of pettiness not to mention sexism about them. So what about the book itself? As it stands we have reviews on one side singing Pessl’s praises and comparing her debut novel with maestros of the medium and on the other, condemnations which accuse her of being a writer of limited talent who like a siren has lured unsuspecting publishers and readers into her thrall. Where does the truth lie? As is the case in many of these situations we may find the answer somewhere in the middle.
Pessl’s debut novel is about a young lady of much reading but little experience called Blue Van de Meer. Blue is undergoing the awkward transition from childhood to the adult world and like her literary forbear, Holden Caulfield, will come to realise that the world of the alleged grownups is not as neat and tidy as it may seem on the surface. Matters are not helped by Blue’s hero worship of her overbearing father, Gareth Van Meer, an elitist professor and the nomadic lifestyle he has chosen for both of them. The death of Blue’s mother many years earlier has contributed the claustrophobia of this father daughter relationship. Due to constantly moving from town, Blue has no real friends and has taken solace in literature.
Arriving in Stockton, Blue has entered her senior year of high school attending St.Gallways school. Here she gets involved with the in crowd, a bunch of wealthy archetypes who are referred to as the Blue Bloods. This group comprises of moody Milton who is a high school rebel, flamboyant, yes that does mean gay, Nigel, alpha blonde Jade, pseudo hippy Leulah, and matinee idol-a-like Charles. The centre which this group of unpleasant privileged brats orbits around is film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. Hannah’s eventual death prefigures the novel as we are told of it on the opening page.
Hannah has taken an interest in these students beyond the confines of academia and regularly has social evenings with this exclusive group of students in the confines of her bohemian abode. Hannah takes a particular interest in Blue for reasons that are initially unclear. Under Hannah’s aegis Blue becomes an official member of this angst ridden milieu. What promises to be a fairly standard teenage acceptance narrative pulls the rug from underneath us at page about three quarters into the novel and suddenly and unexpectedly a genre change takes place. Pessl executes this risky manoeuvre skilfully and what could have been a disaster in fact works quite well.
So where do the problems in the novel lie? For me they may be located in the protagonist Blue. Due to her itinerant lifestyle Blue is a little socially underdeveloped. To compensate for this she navigates the world through a system of seemingly endless references to literature and cinema without really understanding much of what she encounters. Here the shadow of Dave Eggers looms large as Pessl decides to supply us with notations for each and every reference made by Blue in the book. And here we find the point where the critics divide depending on whether or not they think that kind of thing is a good idea or just a showy gimmick.
In my personal opinion this technique works well enough initially in terms of it seeming consistent with the character of Blue. But unfortunately as the book progressed it started to grate on my nerves. In effect we are watching the all singing all dancing author showing us her jazz hands on every page which results in cleverness fatigue. I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was watching a dog walking on its hind legs and jumping through hoops which is certainly a feeling I have never gotten whilst reading Nabokov. This raised an important question for me. Was the immaturity I felt emanating from the pages a product of the authors skill as an author immersing us in the world of the teenager? Or was it more simply the immaturity of an immature writer?
While I have no definite conclusions certain factors point to the latter conclusion. The most prominent of these is the existence of a plot device involving a website which features “good” terrorists. You know those unambiguously good terrorists, not like those terrible Al Qaeda fellows. Without wishing to give away a major plot point, this clunky device is used to exonerate the actions of a central character by removing any moral ambiguity from their motives. What it succeeds in doing is reveal the startling lack of political sophistication in the author. I was baffled by this juvenile device and wondered at its existence. Was it there to placate a mainstream post 9-11 American audience? Was it actually serious? Was Pessl, for want of a better term, taking the piss? For a clever writer it seems exceedingly stupid.
Despite these criticisms there is enough of interest to hold a reader to the end. I was struck with the unshakeable feeling that had I encountered this book as a teenager I would have loved it. On that basis I give Pessl the benefit of the doubt and suspend judgement until her next novel is released. Special Topics is an oft times frustrating read but somewhere within it lie the rudiments of a writer. I would suggest giving it a try and if you find it a frustrating read gift it to your cleverest most bookish niece.