Saturday, August 18, 2012

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

26. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Recommended to me years ago, I've been meaning to get to this book. I've got the "advance uncorrected proofs" procured from Bookmooch, but I assume it's essentially the same as the published novel.

While I knew from the start that this really doesn't having anything to do with physics-it REALLY doesn't. This novel is the unusual life story of Blue van Meer, culminating in her senior year of high school and the mysterious death of her teacher.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, especially those that promise to be clever, witty, and wicked. The Table of Contents is billed as the Core Curriculum, structured into three parts, sub-divided into chapters, and concluded with a Final Exam. The references come thick and heavy, and are the core of the book's charm. A twelve-year-old who fancies herself in Wuthering Heights, and a seventeen-year-old who comfortably alludes to Nietzsche is truly a priceless, if precious, character.

It's almost impossible for any otaku teen or young adult not to relate to Blue's colorful comparisons and unabashed self-centeredness. However, Blue's "friends," who, really, barely deserve the appellation, are harder to relate to and their mistreatment of Blue makes them unpalatable to the reader. The central enigma, teacher Hannah Schneider, who brings Blue together with this clique is fortunately more intriguing. Blue's father Gareth also takes a star role here, somewhat unusual for a parent in a coming-of-age story. Gareth van Meer is neither a stereotypical abusive monster nor ultra-permissive hippie parent, but entirely his own.

Unfortunately, the plot is distracting, and unless I'm missing some of the references (very possible in a novel like this one that is extremely dependent on foreshadowing), neither makes much sense nor is difficult to figure out. Hannah's death is a given from the Introduction, and the vague undertones of why are apparent all along and even the actual vehicle is also apparent, though so implausible that it baffles comprehension.

I suppose, in conclusion, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is worth reading for its tongue-in-cheek allusions and skillful use of imagery alone, but stripped of its language-there's literally nothing there. The characters don't breathe, the fictional "Stockton, North Carolina," gave me a sense of the author's native Asheville, which I visited recently, but nothing too compelling. Marisha Pessl is clearly a very bright person and talented writer, but this won't be the book that she's remembered for.

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