Special Topics In Calamity Physics
Penguin Viking, 16.99
ZADIE Smith, with typically self-deprecating charm, referred to her first novel, White Teeth, as "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old". I'm tempted to describe Marisha Pessl's debut as the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old who is simultaneously spinning plates, performing cartwheels and singing 'On the Good Ship Lollipop' in her own translation into Swahili. Pessl indubitably has talent, imagination and flair. If only she had some restraint.
The central character of Special Topics In Calamity Physics is a 16-year-old girl called Blue van Meer, named after the Cassius Blue moth which her lepidopterist mother devoted her life to catching, until her untimely death in a car crash. Her father, Gareth, is an itinerant lecturer in political science, who spends each semester in a different college, thus making Blue's adolescence and education a disjointed and erratic affair. Gareth has personally developed a curriculum for Blue, encompassing great literature, political theory, quantum physics, natural history, celebrity biographies and countless other technical specialisms. As they motor between provincial universities, she learns 'The Waste Land' by heart, indulges in "sonnet-a-thons" and reads academic works to her father. To put it very mildly indeed, Blue is something of a prodigy.
Her dashingly handsome father is just as unremittingly high-brow. He, however, has developed a predilection for "June Bugs", as his daughter slates them - women who fall hopelessly in love with him, but, not being his intellectual equal, are doomed to be left behind as soon as Blue and Gareth move on. This might be cynicism masking his inability to find anyone as astonishing as his dead wife. It might just be cynicism.
The novel opens in Harvard, with Blue deciding to write her memoirs in order to exorcise a traumatic event. On almost the opening page, the reader learns that she found a friend, Hannah Schneider, hanged from a tree. "Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman, and they saw nothing. Or else that was the problem, they'd seen everything."
We cut back to Blue's senior year, when her father had secured a whole year's teaching in Stockton, a town in North Carolina nestling in the Appalachians. Blue is enrolled in the prestigious St Gallway school, and swiftly ousts the expected valedictorian. But being top of the class does not automatically make her part of the St Gallway elite. Enter the beautiful Charles, moody Milton, flighty Jade, sardonic Nigel and Pre-Raphaelite Leulah, collectively known as the Bluebloods. They are the crme de la crme, so effortlessly superior they don't worry about grades, committed aesthetes interested in the excessive side of things. They have been brought together and encouraged by the enigmatic film teacher: Hannah Schneider.
Blue is gradually accepted into the Bluebloods, and they bask in Hannah's approval while surreptitiously investigating her life. Why does she meet elderly men in seedy motels? Why does a friend, Smoke Harvey, wind up drowned at Hannah's fancy-dress party? Secrets seethe and every revelation unravels. Is Hannah a June Bug? Is her death suicide or murder?
THE SECOND half of Special Topics In Calamity Physics ratchets up the pace and tension admirably, and knits together the narrative with consummate skill. Getting to that second half might prove a rather more dicey proposition. It's not the matter, but the manner, and this is a very mannered book. For a start, each chapter is named after a literary classic - so when Blue goes to her new school, it's headed 'Brave New World', when she gets some new clothes it's 'Pygmalion' and when she's alone it's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. The connections are slightly tendentious, and, well, show-off-ish.
Blue's endless name-checking of great, sometimes totally fictitious, works eventually becomes a kind of white noise, but initially it can be grating. She describes herself as owl-like, and references the Scops Owl in the Encyclopaedia of Living Things, fourth edition. When she discusses her father's desire to be a doer not a thinker, it's bolstered with a nod to The Iconography of Heroes, Gorky, 1978. Of course, Blue is precocious, and her voice reflects that; but it becomes irksome.
Then there's the fey illustrations. And the smart-aleck puns, tiresome neologisms and overwritten similes ("Pepto-dismal pink", "crackly, roast-potato whispers", "horrorfilmesque"). There are obligatory nods to the whimsy of the meta-textual post-modern ("I think Stockton is certainly the most theatrical town in which we've lived. It has all the elements of a good piece of fiction"). There's a couple of footnotes and font-changes. The ending is a series of examination questions on the text. It is a kind of literary masturbation: the author's having great fun, and the reader can look at the ceiling, trying not to be embarrassed.
It occasionally feels as if Pessl decided to set up a committee for quirkiness. Special Topics In Calamity Physics has a Donna Tartt-style thriller in ivory towers plot, with a Safran Foer-y wunderkind narrator. It nods at Scarlett Thomas's radicalist fiction, and winks at the vast, paranoid conspiracies of Thomas Pynchon. The prose has a Zadie Smith zing and a Jonathan Lethem bravura. Hey, Nabokov loved butterflies, wouldn't it be swell to do something with moths? Now, I like scallops and I like dark chocolate mousse, but I don't like them on the same plate.
I'll stand up for experimental fiction "till a' the seas gang dry" (Burns, in the Scots Musical Museum, James Johnson, 1787-1803), but at the same time there's a difference between being intelligent and being clever-clever.
Nonetheless, and with all the above criticisms duly noted, Pessl can write. Special Topics In Calamity Physics may have its flaws, but they are flaws that a tragic hero might have (see Ben Jonson's 'Sejanus: His Fall', 1605, and its lines "I feel my advanced head / Knock out a star in heaven!"). This is a very ambitious, very provocative novel, undermined by ambition and provocation. But it puts Pessl on the literary map despite its aggravations and exasperations.
There is, for example, a scene where Blue is compulsively watching television news to try to discover if the other Bluebloods survived the camping trip on which Hannah was either killed or took her own life. With, for once, an understated genius, Pessl contrasts the headline reports with the utter banality of the link to the next section. It's funny and smart and ultimately heart-rending, as the crumb of information about the characters is segued into the history of the toothbrush, or a people-piece about a very small horse.
I've long believed that every novel has a Freudian slip in it, a moment where the words elude the author to the extent that they become an internal, subversive critique. In Special Topics In Calamity Physics, it comes on page 186: "She was like Keats' Grecian Urn left under a running faucet, overflowing, unable to stop herself." Pessl is now a name to watch. If literature were a talent-show, as Gareth van Meer might say, then this show-stopper takes Pessl through to the next round.