Monday, 15 March 2010

Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)

--The blurb--
""Special Topics in Calamity Physics" is a mesmerizing debut. As teenager Blue van Meer tells her story, we are hurled into a dizzying world of murder and butterflies, womanizing and wandering, American McCulture, The Western Canon, political radicalism and juvenile crushisms. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class (with hand-drawn Visual Aids), Blue's wickedly funny yet poignant tale reveals how the imagination finds meaning in the most bewildering times, the ways people of all ages strive for connection, and how the darkest of secrets can set us free."

--The review--
Picking up a book just on the basis of a wacky or intriguing title doesn't always work. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, for instance, was one of the weirdest and most incomprehensible things that I have ever had the pleasure of trying to get my head around. However, sometimes the golden goose lays the proverbial egg: the eerily similarly-titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday, was one of the most original, funny and innovative books I've read, and Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics also did not leave me disappointed.

Pessl has been accused by other reviewers of having a bit of a tin ear for prose. I can see how this accusation can be made: Pessl is overly fond, for example, of the simile as a writing device. In moderation this works fine (as the works of Stella Gibbons show us), but when it ends up being literally a simile per page at some points, it begins to wear a little thin. However, this does not make her a bad writer (and believe me, as someone who tries to teach English for a living, I see plenty of bad writing pass under my eyes). Her characters are intriguing and well-crafted even if the chances of meeting people like this all in one place are slim; starting with the murder/suicide and then trying to unravel the mystery is a nice technique; and a further dimension to the novel is added by the use of famous novel titles as the headings for each chapter. Again, the formatting of the novel meant that this was not always appreciated (if you don't format it so that the chapter titles are at the top of each page, you can't expect your readers to always follow the thread and see the parallels), but it was an interesting extra; and, furthermore, another advantage of it was that you didn't necessarily need to have read the books by which the chapters were titled in order to have a full understanding of the novel as a whole.

Blue van Meer is a personable character, if a little insipid, and is made by the author to seem like the only normal one compared to all of the nutters that she falls in with. Hannah Schneider is also made to be suitably enigmatic. Blue's father is likeable, and readers are given the impression that he has a good, solid relationship with him, which means that her outburst at him later on in the book does not seem at all in keeping with how we have been led to perceive them thus far. What is more realistic, though, is the novel's ending. The mystery may not be solved, but ultimately this is how it so often is in life. While a mystery novel without a solution may initially seem to be a copout, the crafting of this epic project does at least achieve one thing in hooking the reader onto Pessl's idiosyncratic work. The fact that she was only 29 when this novel was published may account for a few of its weaknesses, and her unique voice can surely only develop more, and positively, with time.

Other works by Marisha Pessl
Night Film (2010)

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