Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political science (her mother having died in a car accident several years previously), until her senior year of high school, when he deigns to let the two of them stay in the same town for the whole year. At her new school, Blue becomes drawn into the world of the glamorous, captivating film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider; and the select circle of students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, whom Hannah keeps close. Then, on a camping trip later that year, Blue finds Hannah’s body hanging from a tree — apparently suicide, but could it have been murder? What Blue discovers subsequently may draw into question everything she thought she knew. This is her story, in her own words.
I had never heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics before seeing it in a bookshop on holiday, but it seems that it caused quite a stir on publication, being lauded as the startling debut of a young, talented author. I’ll be honest and say that I was half expecting the book to be insufferably pretentious — and, in some ways, it does try one’s patience. But it’s actually quite fun to read once you get into it; and there is much to admire within — which may be the novel’s main problem: plenty to admire, but less that’s easy to truly love.
First, the prose. Blue van Meer is a very bookish girl — very bookish, and it shows in the volume she has ‘written’. All the chapters are named after books, the text is full of quotations from books (many of which, in keeping with the novel’s playfulness, have been made up by Pessl — even one of the chapter-title books exists only in the pages of Special Topics), and Blue has a habit of making comparisons by referring readers elsewhere: ‘Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle”, Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993)’. Pessl also writes Blue as tending to overdescribe and digress; in short, the narrative voice is full of quirks that become wearying over 500 pages… but not as much as you might think. If these quirks get tedious, they’re quite easily ignored; and for the most part, they make the book sparkle.
What’s less easily ignored is the voice of Gareth van Meer. We often get to hear what he thinks of this or that (he’s usually critical), in his pompous drone that makes one feel almost like tuning into some mindless, lowest-common-denominator TV show, just out of spite. Blue does come to question whether all her father’s ideas are as right as they appear; but that doesn’t stop his interjections dragging the book down. A bigger problem, though, is that, for all Pessl’s undoubted verbal dexterity, she comes up with some real clunkers. I like some of her insights and images, such as ‘Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint’; more often, though, we get lines like ‘[a] gold, five-tiered chandelier at the center of the room hung like an upside-down duchess shamelessly exposing to the paying public her ankle boots and froufrou petticoat’. It works insofar as you can see what the author means; but it doesn’t half feel awkward.
Moving on from the prose, the characterisation in Special Topics is an interesting issue. I’ve read an interview with Marisha Pessl in which she says she deliberately wrote the novel to be ‘larger than life’, and this it certainly is. Would any teenager be as immersed in books as Blue van Meer, or as beuatiful as the Bluebloods? Would any teacher be as extraordinary as Hannah Schneider, or any academic as relentlessly intellectual as Gareth van Meer? Probably not, but then again… I remember how adult some sixteen-year-olds semed to me when I started high school; and I’ve encountered my share of people who seemed as remarkable as Hannah Schneider does. They might not have been so in real life, but that’s what these characters are like: not real people, but mental images of people viewed at a distance — not how they might really be, but how one could imagine them to be.
Of course, there’s a trade-off associated with larger-than-life characters, which is that the author has to work harder to make us care about them. It’s a task that Pessl doesn’t always succeed in: for example, a scene where Blue confronts her father, and ends up throwing books at him, ought to be one of the most emotionally charged in the book; but Blue lists every single book she throws (complete with author and year of publication), and it comes across as absurd. So, although it’s possible to make real people in one’s mind out of these extraordinary characters, and it’s possible to see Blue in particular learn, grow and make mistakes; one has to dig pretty deep to be able to do so.
And then there’s the plot. Special Topics is very cleverly plotted, with many apparently incidental details brought back and reinterpreted in the final act. The trouble is, the solution to the mystery hinges on information not known to the reader in advance — information that, moreover, is entirely fictional in nature. There’s absolutely no chance of ‘playing along’, no feeling of ‘I wish I’d noticed that’, because you could never have noticed. It’s like watching someone else completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle, rather than being involved yourself.
So, as I said at the beginning: there’s plenty to admire here, but not so much of what can bring a book close to my heart. It’s possible to admire Pessl’s ability to make words dance, but not necessarily what she says with them. It’s possible to admire her depiction of extraordinary characters, but less easy to fully care about them. It’s possible to admire her ability to construct a detective puzzle, but not necessarily to enjoy that puzzle. In the end, I like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I don’t love it. It will, however, be interesting to see what Pessl writes next.