Fiction: “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

special topics in calamity physicsDear Library:

First of all, as I hand you a crumpled ten-dollar bill as payment for the largest overdue fine I have ever incurred, let me apologize for keeping this novel out for an entire month past the renewed due date.

Secondly, the next time I come in? Please only let me check out the top two books in my pile, not all five. That will save us all some embarrassment.

Thirdly, I was going to ask why this was on your ‘recommended reading’ shelf, when I remembered that it wasn’t. So, apologies again.


And before I get into the ranting and the not-so-much-with-the raving on this edition, let me give a firm shout-out to my wonderful laptop Sydney and her iTunes choices. Because the first song she decides to play is the immortal classic “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, and all I can see in my head is this:

And it’s actually perfect, in that I totally had to hold on through this book, even though a lot of things with this book made me wanna turn around and say goodbye. But I didn’t let ’em hold me down and make me cry. Cuz I hoped, things’ll change, things’ll go my way if I held on for one more day!

Except it didn’t. Color me very disappointed.

I picked up Special Topics in Calamity Physics because it sounded interesting. Here’s a fun little insight into the psyche of Alaina: in spite of my English and Theatre background (even I don’t really count my Business Administration degree anymore), I am quite interested in science; I just don’t understand most of it. So occasionally, I’m inclined to pick up a book that ostensibly will make me smarter. Special Topics was clearly on the fiction shelf at the library, but another part of me that is unrelated to the science-loving part of me is still looking for that perfect story involving a smart scientist and the goofy girl next door that falls in love with him (and while that may sound like the current plot of The Big Bang Theory, just let me say that there are a LOT of things I would change about that show if I had the chance, number one being breaking up Leonard and Penny and number two giving Penny an actual acting career, but I am not Chuck Lorre and apparently a femin-equal point of view is not to be found in primetime at the moment), and I think I hoped this book would have the perfect marriage of both interesting emotional revelations and science!.

Sadly, it did not. And see, part of my problem was that I was suckered in by the description of the plot — or, rather, the lack thereof of plot summary. Here’s how the inside cover reads:

Blue van Meer: a brainy, deadpan, and preternaturally erudite girl who, after traveling from one remote academic outpost to another with her professor father (see “Gareth van Meer”), has a head crammed full of literary, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. (She is also a film buff and can recite pi out to sixty-five decimal places.) When she is sixteen, due to certain nuclear events, her previously dull life is forever transformed.

The Flying Demoiselle: an archaic means of hanging someone, popular in the American South between 1829-1860. It is also, in all likelihood, how Hanna Schneider died.

Gareth van Meer: a handsome yet maddening man prone to aphorisms, meteoric affairs, (see “June bugs”), and high-end bourbon.

June bugs: single women aged 34-45 who, for reasons unclear to Blue, cling to her father like lint balls to wool pants.

Lion sex: something that happens in Room 222 of the Dynasty Motel.

Valerio: a clue. [inside jacket]

DOESN’T THAT SOUND AMAZING?! A nuclear event? The Flying Demoiselle? Valerio! It intrigued me, so I took it out.

And then it took me a WHOLE FREAKING MONTH to read it. Because guess what? Blue van Meer, the first-person narrator of this novel, is very erudite. Almost too much. And the nuclear event is not nuclear; Hannah Schneider either kills herself or is killed, I’m still not sure which. The whole thing is very unclear, which I just realized is an anagram of ‘nuclear,’ and maybe that was the point all along? Or maybe I’m still trying to find meaning in this? I’m not sure?

The plot, as she is written: Blue van Meer travels with her widowed father, Prof. Gareth van Meer, to multiple towns per year as he goes from college to college, teaching political science. For her senior year, he promises to stay put, so they rent a house in Stockton, North Carolina. There, Blue befriends Hannah Schneider, a part-time teacher at her private high school. Hannah teaches film theory, but also heads up the local clique of rich poser kids — I see them as a snottier version of The Breakfast Club. Hannah instructs the clique — the Bluebloods, and I’m not making that up — to invite Blue to their ranks. Over the course of too many chapters, Blue eventually becomes as true a member in the group as she could, considering she’s still too weird even for them.

Hannah is a mystery to Blue and her closest Blueblood friend, Jade. And when the group goes on a camping trip and Hannah tries to talk to Blue alone in the forest, then goes missing, then ends up dead, the Bluebloods believe that Blue is somehow responsible for Hannah’s death and their misery in getting off the mountain. Blue refuses to accept that Hannah committed suicide, so the last third of the book is her searching for answers.

And look, yes, the book is very well-written. Some reviewers over on GoodReads have said that it’s a murder mystery, a coming-of-age novel, and a treatise on the human condition all rolled into one. My problem is that it was about two hundred pages too long, and it’s all the fault of the narrator. It’s like the author wanted to prove so hard that Blue is exceptionally intelligent, and therefore, prove the author herself to be intelligent, that she completely overdid it. Special Topics‘s gimmick is that Blue is writing the novel a la a course’s syllabus. So each chapter takes its title from a famous work (Les Liaisons Dangereuse, The Woman in White, etc.), and in each chapter, at least three times, Blue makes a metaphor and then follows it with a reference. I didn’t even bother marking any of these examples as I read the book, because they almost — almost — literally happened on every other page. Here: I turn to three random pages:

He sat there, his face burnt-tan and brutal in the gold lamplight, supremely arrogant and unapologetic (see “Picasso enjoying the fine weather in the South of France,” Respecting the Devil, Hearst, 1984, p. 210). [236]

Women, standing in tight circles, fiddled with their hair as they talked, as if putting finishing touches on a sagging flower arrangement. They always glared at us, particularly Jade (see “Snarling Coon Dogs,” Appalachian Living, Hester, 1974, p. 32). [132]

It was like being a Prisoner in a Maximum-Security Prison, wanting to know what a Visitor’s hand felt like (see Living in Darkness, Cowell, 1967). [373]

Seriously, all I did was open the book blindly to three random pages. Ta-da.

I think a part of me didn’t like the overwritten-ness of the book because I partly fear that I’m doing the same thing to one of my stories, but then I’m consoled with the idea that my over-writing is due to not always being able to cut out certain minutia. For instance, if my characters go out to the bar and a guy flirts with the girl and the guy she’s with gets pissed and they fight about it when they get home, the point of the scene should be the fight when they get home, not the whole set-up to why he gets pissed off. So yeah, the more I think about it, I should just cut that whole thing. Getting back to Special Topics, I’m wondering if the editor of the book whole … id-ness of everything (and I know I’m thinking of the wrong thing, but guess what — I don’t care) and just thought every word and scene was a special, unique snowflake that didn’t deserve to melt. Or something (see “Failed Metaphors,” Things Alaina Does Very Well, Patterson, 2013, p.fuck you).

Grade for Special Topics in Calamity Physics: 1 star.


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