Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a murder mystery: we find that out in the introduction. We also learn that Blue van Meer, our narrator, is writing this book during her freshman year at Harvard, and that she’s insufferably literate, citing some book, article, or movie (real or imagined) just about every other sentence. But much is made of the death of one Hannah Schneider, whose relationship to Blue isn’t clearly advertised.
The book begins At the Beginning, by which I mean that Blue starts by narrating her childhood and family life (or lack thereof) and the murder itself doesn’t happen until about page 400. No kidding: the murder is 4/5 of the way through the book, and then is solved mostly by bookwork and deductive reasoning.
No, it’s not really fair to call Special Topics… a murder mystery, because it feels to me as though that portion of the plot is incidental. More accurately, this startling debut from Marisha Pessl is a sort of warped, hyperliterate bildungsroman that follows the senior year of Blue at the über-preppy St. Gallway school in a mountain town of North Carolina.
This book, to me, was paradoxical, because its style of writing was very much adult, but its content, for the most part, was the sort of unbearable teen lit pablum—oh, the New Girl is accepted by the Cool Kids, but ends up Becoming One of Them—that would be more at home in something by Stephen Chbosky. At the same time, Pessl’s tone throughout stays sardonic, a fact she underlines by frequent use of Capitalized Phrases, mocking things she sees as part of some complicated high school social canon.
What I would be most interested to know is if the absurd amount of title-dropping (I’m serious, it’s out of control) is simply an artifact of Blue’s character, or if it’s a nasty habit of the book’s somewhat postmodern author. As I said, it’s her first book, so only time will tell.
Many reviews I’ve read of the book make much hay of its density, and point that out as a flaw. Donna Rifkind at the Washington Post says “hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader, who after much patient effort deserves to feel something stronger than appreciation for a lot of clever name-dropping and a rush of metaphors.” I feel I must disagree, at least in my case. The book was difficult only at first: once I became accustomed to the style, and the plot gained a head of steam, I found it hard to put the book down. It’s ending was, to be sure, a little infuriating, and a lot implausible, but in postmodern fashion, the book became that which it talked about, having only shortly before the end talked about the American desire for conclusive endings and how this robs the reader/viewer of the ability to think and imagine.