Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
Viking, 528pp, 16.99
WITH ITS PIROUETTES AND CARTWHEELS, ITS tireless annotations and digressions, Marisha Pessl's novel is the most flashily erudite debut novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated.
In her case that means sustaining the mock-academic brio of her title throughout a long, serpentine, seemingly lightweight schoolgirl story. It also means that the narrative - described as "Core Curriculum - is sectioned into chapters named for works by writers familiar from the classroom.
A fledgling author who invokes Shakespeare, Flaubert and Allen Ginsberg for a tale of boarding school intrigue had better live up to her aspirations. Otherwise she risks sounding pitiably overeager to impress. Foer wound up far exceeding the expectations he created, but Pessl starts out on thinner ice. Whether she is reinventing, satirising or dissecting the conventions of school literature teaching, she has confined herself to a small canvas and a wearyingly familiar world. Or so it seems.
This novel's blatant gimmickry also promises trouble: Pessl endlessly recycles the idea of citing literary attributions or historical antecedents for every thought. Like this: "I decided to take control of the situation (see 'Emma,' Austen, 1816)." Or: "I knew I'd probably flee without warning, like Hannibal's elephants during the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C." Sometimes the references are real, but more often they are bogus: "She was now disturbingly peaceful (see 'Lake Lucerne,' A Question of Switzerland, Porter, 2000, p. 159)." Most of the fakery is witty, but occasionally ("Margaret Thatcher: The Woman, the Myth") it falls flat.
Pessl shoehorns so many of these asides into Special Topics in Calamity Physics that her narrative unfolds in a state of perpetual interruption. At first this takes some getting used to - and it thwarts rather than invites, close attention. A 500-page headache is as possible as a bracing joyride.
The good news: Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon jettisons its booster rockets and begins to soar. All Pessl must do is dispel the suspicion that she is dawdling and indicate that serious ingenuity is at play. At that point the teenage insights of the book's narrator, Blue van Meer, become only part of a more complex construction, and it becomes evident that Pessl has hidden a secret history beneath her novel's surface.
As the book progresses, suspense mounts and leads toward a hall-of-mirrors finale, then a coda that is supremely inspired. In the guise of asking questions, Pessl resoundingly answers a big one: yes, she knew precisely what she was doing all along.
Blue's life revolves around her beloved dad, a lady-killing academic with a resemblance to George Clooney, a delivery like Jack Nicholson's and a penchant for wisecracks that his daughter adores. Anyone else would soon want to throttle Dad, but the book presents him, perhaps coyly, as a renaissance man and parental ideal.
Dad, who lectures on such topics as "Modes of Oration and the Brawn of Language," has a teaching career that leads father and daughter to St Gallway, a North Carolina boarding school founded by an industrialist, Horatio Mills Gallway, "not in the name of altruistic principles like civic duty or the persistence of scholarship, but for a megalomaniacal desire to see SAINT in front of his surname".
Dad, aka Gareth van Meer, is a big fish in a small pond. And that pond is stocked with vibrant versions of standard characters, from the louche clique that adopts Blue (including a ringleader, Jade, "blessed with the enviable properties of a mink coat - graceful, unreasonable and impractical no matter what she was draped over, whether it be couches or people") to the resident teacher of film , Hannah Schneider, who Auntie Mames the students into a fascination with her outsized, mysterious glamour. (Pessl likes to use nouns as verbs, in a book that van Goghs the reader with dazzling, wildly dynamic imagery flung everywhere.)
The story holds many mysteries. The most conspicuous one: How did Hannah wind up hanging from an electrical cord during a hike through Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Her death is mentioned in an introductory chapter. Then Pessl goes back and iceberg-tips a version of how Hannah fits into the social and intellectual paroxysms of life at St Gallway.
These descriptions are accompanied by a smattering of illustrations identified as "Visual Aid 2.1", "Visual Aid 2.2", and so on. They have been executed by the author in either a genuinely or an artificially naive adolescent drawing style; Pessl is just too darn tricky for us to tell. In any case, everyone supposedly drawn by Blue has the same prettily regular features and almond-shaped eyes.
Everything about Special Topics in Calamity Physics is comparably coy, convoluted, brightly self-conscious and (to use a word blessedly remote from Blue's jubilant vocabulary) postmodern. Even the physics equation on the book's back cover has outsized verve. And what begins as a dubious proposition, in a world wholly without need for additions to its Prep School Confidential bibliography, becomes a whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice. No reference points need be invoked. It speaks for itself.
The book's triumphant coda is a final exam rehashing questions raised by the narrative. True or false: "Blue van Meer has read too many books." True or false: "Reading an obscene number of reference books is greatly advantageous to one's mental health."
Here's one not from Pessl. Q: Is Special Topics in Calamity Physics required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction? A: Yes.