There’s something particular about debut novels; sure, some authors start small and refine their craft, becoming better authors later in life. But there’s a particular kind of new author—the brash, young literate authors—whose first novels are fireworks displays, the pent-up combustive energies of potentially years worth of frustrated writing.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics feels like one of those explosions.
When last I read and reviewed Marisha Pessl’s murder-mystery-cum–bildungsroman–cum-Judy-Blum-novel, much of the review (and, it appears, many other reviews of the same book) was focused on the density of its prose and the degree to which it borrowed from and referenced a massive store of literature and cinema.
The prose didn’t phase me this time around, perhaps because I was prepared for it. What I came to realize, eventually, was the Special Topics… is a Frankenstein’s monster (or, less morbidly, a patchwork quilt); the entirety of its story is told in the tropes of media, saturated with metaphor and simile. A man isn’t “tall, dark, and handsome”; he’s “Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind ”. Blue van Meer, out intrepid narrator, doesn’t simply posit an idea; she cites a source, as though she really is writing the book as some sort of term paper.
While I initially thought of this is nothing more than a clever narrative trick—a way to make the prose unique in a world full of unpublished books—I came to realize this time around that Blue’s frantically-literate narration isn’t an infelicity on Pessl’s part so much as her attempt to flesh out Blue’s character. The narrator of any story is inherently unreliable until we know otherwise; Blue, likewise, may describe herself or her history with varying degrees of accuracy, but it’s in her total reliance on these other tropes to tell her story that gives us an insight into her character.
Here is, after all, a girl whose mother died when she was young, and who has spent her formative years being dragged to an average of three new towns (and three new schools) a year by her father, a brilliant but enigmatic professor of political science, whose extraordinarily-high expectations for Blue are likely both healthy and debilitating. What we get, as a result, is a socially-crippled teenager whose literary and investigative brilliance is perpetually qualified by this lens through which she perceives and narrates her life.
While technically a murder mystery, the actual murder and mystery are simply catalysts for Blue’s character development. The vast majority of the book, anyway, has nothing at all to do with the murder in question; it’s a long, detailed—example-filled—narrative of poor Blue’s upbringing, her strange yet close relationship with her eccentric father, her vast store of literary knowledge, and her struggle for acceptance at St. Gallway school. It is only through the ministrations of the beautiful, mysterious teacher Hannah Schneider (whom, we are told in the first chapter, is eventually found dead, hanged with an electrical cord), that she is drawn into a group of favored students know as the “Bluebloods,” with whom Hannah has developed personal relationships.
I won’t spoil the plot itself for you: Pessl actually does an excellent job of building the mystery without being obvious about it; like a Bruckner symphony, it’s a long narrative arc, the ends of which aren’t easily visible from the middle. I will say that despite its promises of ambiguity, there are few loose ends left when the last page is turned. The last hundred or so pages devolve into a blur of problem-solving, Blue’s dizzying name-dropping having segued into a complicated, equally-dizzying flowchart of events and rationales. There’s no Raw Shark Texts ending, no choose-your-own-adventure bifurcation; Pessl provides the wiggle room for Blue’s ultimate conclusions to be wrong, but no plausible alternative is offered, and the reader has to accept—fabulistic though it may be— Blue’s cloak-and-dagger explanation. As fantastic as the “murder mystery” portion may be, it therefore comes almost as a surprise that the interpersonal relationships that Blue has been developing with her high school friends are thoroughly conventional.
The Mean Girls subplot, therefore, to which Pessl appears to devote so much verbiage, is orthogonal to the novel. It’s a lot of white noise into which she slips coded messages about the upcoming mystery, and when the bait-and-switch comes, you realize that you’ve been missing said hints all along.
Of course, this all means nothing if you find yourself unable to get past Pessl’s writing; some reviewers have raked her over the coals for her hyperkinetic style. I personally find it engaging and exuberant—but then, I’m the sort of person who gets unduly excited about interesting prose. If you prefer that of, say, Dan Brown, you’ll be sorely disappointed1.
- Though if you’re a Dan Brown fan, there’s little hope for you.[↩]