Friday, August 5, 2011

On "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl ****

I tried to read Jane Austen in high school, the book Sense and Sensibility. I got about fifty pages into it and had to give up. A few years ago, having read a passage from Pride and Prejudice in another book and loving it, I decided to try Austen again. And again, after the brief opening passage expurgated in the other book, her world seemed dry and dull to me. I labored on this time, however, until the midway point and then, like some kind of metal clamp, she got hold of me and wouldn't let me go. I was reading the second half every chance I got. It took 150 pages, but the long setup was well worth the last 150 pages.

I felt similarly about Pessl's five-hundred-page tome. For the first two hundred pages, I was somewhat bored; then for the next one hundred, I was at least interested in the characters if not exactly being drawn forward by the plot. Around about page 300, however, the story takes off, and it's a crazy ride till close to the end. Could she have cut the first three hundred pages? Somehow, I think not, because it is that long setup that gives us a little to feel for when the gal with all the gold starts to put her chips down for us.

I could make a lot of comparisons to other books for Pessl's text. Beyond Austen in its pace, it reminded me in ways of Nabokov, though as a poor imitation of that master, in its erudition. It reminded me of Pynchon in its interest in secret societies, in paranoia, and in the inability to provide us with a concrete ground for our feet to walk over. And it reminded me most of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, with its central concern around a particular set of friends and a crime, though with Tartt's great novel, I found myself arrested by the narrative from the start.

The text of Pessl's story is one of narrator Blue van Meer, a child of exceptional brains (whose smarts, I found, especially at first, to be cloying and annoying). Van Meer is the type to drop mention of specific books--even to cite them--at any remote suggestion that they might have some kind of relation to the narrative (e.g., Salinger, Catcher in the Rye). Many of these citations seemed dropped in for no real good reason (see example above).

Van Meer's father moves around the country a lot, a permanent adjunct teacher, but he decides to stick to one place for Blue's senior year. Soon after her entry into an elite private school, she is befriended by a group of five other kids, a clique called the Bluebloods. Early on, they seem actually not very interested in her, despite their invite: it is a teacher, Hannah, who has weekly get-togethers with the Bluebloods, who insists that Blue be allowed to enter this elite social circle.

And what a circle it is--not. Were the five teens incredibly smart or witty or out to save the world or something, perhaps my interest might have been stoked. But it was because they were, in fact, so unexceptional that my interest took such a long time to build. These are run-of-the-mill high school students, interested in being cool, in drinking, in partying, not terribly brainy--pretty unimaginative and dull. Why, I kept wondering, would Blue become so smitten with them, even if it is an elite club of sorts?

But with time, as we get to know these kids, they stop seeming to be such brainless twits, and we begin to care for them as, in a way, Blue does--and Hannah. And then, the real plot kicks in, and it is here, in the last half of the book that I was left spellbound, wondering how Pessl has managed to pull off such a complex and compelling storyline. Basically, at the book's center, the group goes hiking with their teacher Hannah, and something goes terribly wrong. The rest of the book tries to unravel what has happened, and nothing is as it seems. Or at least, it may not be--we can't really know the world in which we live, the text seems to be saying. (In the end, do we even know the brainless Bluebloods? Why their connection to Hannah? Is there some link even Blue hasn't managed to find?)

I forgot to mention one other book I was reminded of--Barthelme's Snow White. In that text, Barthelme presents readers with a questionaire about the novel itself, and Pessl does the same thing here. It's a fun way to end the book, fitting, I guess, for a character like Blue, but as I find with many a novel, I was left laboring through the last thirty or so pages, once things began to wrap up, feeling like I should have been done already.

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