Mystery · Reading

Completed: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Marisha Pessl
Viking, 2006

It was complete chance that I noticed the peculiar title peeking out at me from the library shelves. Title ascertained, the inside book flap was investigated, revealing a “Glossary of Terms” (“Blue van Meer,” “The Flying Demoiselle,” “June bugs,” etc.) in place of customary plot summations. The back cover was more illuminating:

Calamity Physics

The resulting explosion of energy, light, heartbreak, and wonder as Blue van Meer enters a small, elite school in a sleepy mountain town…

Blue’s highly unusual past draws her to a charismatic group of friends at St. Gallway (see page 2, “wild, wayward youths,” Everyman Parenting) and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. A sudden drowning, a series of inexplicable events, and finally the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries. And Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural lexicon to guide her.

On reflection, the back description provides everything one needs to know about the book: basic plot outline and a taste of the style, including the frequent references to others works (articles, novels, non-fiction—I suspect most are inventions of the author). Unfortunately, however, I was hoping for quirky, not merely due to the unexpected glossary, but the mock-formula—which itself summarizes the novel rather neatly—printed beneath the description, and whose solution provides the book’s title. Despite these oddities, the story itself is made of rather standard pieces: one part coming-of-age and one-part mystery. Blue has spent her previous ten years traveling with her professor father, Gareth,  from town-to-town-to-town, never staying longer than a few months in any location. Gareth’s decision to allow Blue her entire senior year in one town provides the opportunity for Blue to form friendships with an unusual and elite group at her new high school and their mysterious favorite teacher, Hannah Schneider whose death provides the central mystery which leads Blue to seek the truth behind many other unanswered questions.

Although disappointed in the lack of whimsy, I was initially charmed with the story. Pessl has created some innovative turns of phrase and unique descriptions which I initially found amusing or delightful, as appropriate. A typical description fairly early in the novel also showcases the aforementioned frequency of references:

“Jade was the terrifying beauty (see ‘Tawny Eagle,’ Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993). She swooped into a classroom and girls scattered like chipmunks and squirrels. (The boys, equally afraid, played dead.)” (“Madame Bovary,” 88.)

I was particularly charmed, however, not by the people descriptions, but by the atmospheric ones:

“…staring at the windows with its swollen blue and white curtains where night melted so slowly it hurt.” (“Madame Bovary,” 107.)

“Heavy sun drooped over Main Street, made it a compost heap of mushy shadows falling off the hot cars hunched along the curb…” (“The Big Sleep,” 384.)

After a while, however, the constant referencing, the not-quite-standard descriptors, the unusual metaphors began to feel overdone, as if style for the sake of style rather than growing organically from the narrative itself. Most, if not all of these phrases and references are in the voice of the first-person narrator, Blue, a highly intelligent teen who perhaps reads too much and experienced first hand too little prior to the events she narrates. I could believe the style as Blue’s, rather than Pessl’s, however a greater moderation in the descriptions would have benefited the novel.

I will admit, half-way through the novel, I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish it. After a promising beginning, it began to drag, the necessary passing of time between September’s catalyzing events and March’s traumatic death (no spoiler—both the book jacket and the second page reveal this much) is spent too slowly. Perhaps there were too many conversations, perhaps too many small occurrences, or perhaps I simply didn’t care enough about the cast of troubled teens, but for almost the entirety of Part II, I kept wondering if wouldn’t Hannah just die already. It wasn’t until well past the half-way point that the book picked up (prefigured by Blue’s announcement, “And so I come to the perilous part of my story.” [“Deliverance,” 311.]). It was at this point that my interest was hooked for good and that the real mystery at hand began to become apparent. To completely contradict myself, in this latter part of the novel, I fully appreciated the deliberate slow-downs of the narrative: the tiptoeing towards Blue’s discovery of Hannah’s body, her anguish afterward waiting to learn what really happened to Hannah (and her friends), the long path towards her final illumination.

In the end, I am not really certain if Blue’s discoveries—and more importantly, conclusions—are all “true.” In some ways, her conclusions seem too melodramatic, too over-the-top to mesh with the life she has previously known: although unusual, it at least had a greater feel of reality than Blue’s conclusions, which seem more appropriate to a paranoid thriller than a coming-of-age mystery. On the other hand, the foreshadowing throughout, a persistent theme of “blindness”—mentioned even by one of Blue’s greatest deceivers—create a world where perhaps her seemingly wild ideas are not merely possible but likely. Nothing is left definitively stated, however; many threads are left unresolved or incompletely answered. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions, but not completely unaided: the book concludes with a “Final Exam.” None of the answers to the T/F and multiple choice questions are explicitly stated in the story’s text (that I can recall), but are left for the observant reader to discover.

My final assessment of the novel is mixed. On the one hand, after reaching the end, it appears more tightly plotted than I originally thought. I would have to re-read to be sure (despite my early misgivings, part of me wishes to do so), but I suspect that there is little in the narrative that is not deliberately placed. Flipping back through the novel to verify quotes, I was astonished at how much of what was stated took on a new light. When I consider this as well as the combination of story “types,” I am inclined to think this one of the better contemporary novels I’ve read recently. However, at the same time, there isn’t anything about the novel which feels lasting to me. I doubt I will remember it five years from now. Then too, there are the occasional problems of pacing and style. While better than average, it doesn’t reach the heights.

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