Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

It may seem surprising that the plots of many books involve school--particularly high school--but the experience of growing up, learning, and discovering sexuality, existential angst, and personal philosophies roots itself deeply into the soil of our individual excursions into that nameless void of life. High school, a rare universal in the lives of most Americans, acts as a microcosm for spying on all of those little questions and urges that sprout into actions, beliefs, and deeds. We cannot study these ambitions and drives, if not in that sacred grove, that breeding ground of hormones and desires and rivalries, that bucolic and sought-after glade of nostalgia: the corridors of high school and the hallways of the home.

In her debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl channels erudition, wit, and wisdom through the wry observations of Blue Van Meer, a Harvard freshman who, a year afterwards, reflects on her senior year at an exclusive school in Stockton, North Carolina. Blue’s father, a professor who accepts visiting positions at a slue of universities, uses travel time in their Volvo station wagon as an opportunity to make his daughter recite poetry and read from books about trivia, history, political theory, and philosophy. The narrative, recounted from Blue’s first-person perspective, invites the reader into these transits from one town to the next, and as Blue and her father traverse the nation--marking their place in a Rand McNally atlas with pushpins--the reader embarks on a journey through Blue’s story and through a bevy of pop culture references, product placement, citations, and literary movements.

But Blue remains human, despite her head-in-the-clouds level of intelligence, despite her father’s penchant for spitting out a wildfire of quotations, because she is a teenager, ravaged by sexual awkwardness and the desire to fit in. Blue, whose mother has passed away, becomes a special adoptee, in a particular way, of schoolteacher Hannah Schneider, who introduces Blue to the elite clique of Stockton students known as the Bluebloods. They effect in Blue a social and psychological makeover, but her ties to Hannah and the Bluebloods initiate a sequence of fatal events that test the limits of Blue’s intelligence, her resourcefulness, and her perception of meaning and value.

Pessl’s novel is a clever exploration of the intersection between literary tropes, between the lofty abstractions of ideas and the tangible, earthy quality of daily life. Pessl blends genres through Blue’s wide reading list and intelligent witty remarks; at moments, Special Topics is undeniably Gothic--the narrative has a surreal quality, marked with delusions and the notable absence of Blue’s mother because of an automotive accident--while at other times the novel treads the terrain of a detective story or a how-to book or popular nonfiction.

But this movement between genres and modes, between moments and memories, between forms and functions, succeeds because Pessl, from the very beginning of the narrative, asserts Blue’s primary purpose for working out this story on paper: She has to write this story, record her experiences, and use storytelling as a way to determine what she believes and how she understands her own life. At the center of this novel, like a monument in a city square, is the idea that, for Blue, all of these events and reading assignments somehow weave together. Blue is human, after all, and wants to make sense of what and how she feels. Knowing all of these fragmented pieces allows Blue to assemble a map of her own narrative as well as others' tales, a reminder to us of how our minds might nail together a series of random occurrences, fateful encounters, or odd happenstances into a logical, cohesive story.

Pessl, Marisha. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Viking-Penguin. 514 pp. $25.95.


Post a Comment