Review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by

Book cover for Special Topics in Calamity Physics

This book is not about physics.

Of course, if you are not shallow (like me) and did more than just judged the book by its title and cover, you would know this. And don’t take this as an indictment of the book for its non-physics focus. I just thought I should warn anyone who, like me, mistakenly begins reading the book by thinking it’s about physics. It isn’t.

Attempting to describe this book to people as I read it was a baffling experience. Well, to be honest, I am terrible at talking about books I’m reading, or have read, any time. (Excellent at writing about them, but terrible at speaking.) Special Topics in Calamity Physics presented me with a particular challenge, because it seems to be so many things. Then, by the time I arrived at the end, I was wondering if it was any of those things at all.

In fact, if I had to judge this book by its cover, I should have gone off the back cover. It sports a blurb from Sir Literary Author Himself, Jonathan Franzen, Esq. I have nothing against Jonathan Franzen and will in fact shortly be reading my first Franzen novel … but he says of Special Topics, “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.” And if that’s not a warning sign that we are about to enter the land of silly over-extended metaphors, then I don’t know what is.

See, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is not just literary. It is OMG, LITERARY literary, with neon lights and pink glitter and embarrassingly ill-fitting pantsuits. Not a sentence goes by without some sort of allusion to a book, movie, or television show—complete with actual citation. Blue van Meer, our protagonist, is just that kind of girl. She describes everything in an overwrought, self-annotated technicolor. As a reader, one can either take this book seriously, at face value—and very probably enjoy it—or one just has to laugh at its earnestness. Marisha Pessl tries to create a “dark, strong drink” by turning it into a strange brew, and the result is … patchy.

I feel like Pessl wants to keep one guessing as long as possible about what type of book Special Topics might be—she wants to avoid collapsing the wavefunction, if you will, for as long as possible. And like anything of indeterminate shape or texture, this is not very interesting. The book meanders drunkenly from genre to genre. First it’s your typical “bookish new girl falls in with wrong crowd at high school” story; I didn’t ever expect it to stay that way. Yet it takes strange turns. Pessl has characters of questionable motivation—oh, she supplies more than enough motives for every character, but the difficulty becomes selecting which motives are true. Instead of a straightforward linear narrative, Pessl attempts to use ambiguity to create a sense of choice where there isn’t any. It is an intriguing attempt, but I’m not so sure it’s successful. Essentially, Pessl inverts the trope of unreliable narrator, giving us an unreliable story in which the narrator is desperately groping for some semblance of reality.

Thanks to Goodreads, I recently learned that Umberto Eco has a new novel out. I love Umberto Eco. He is one of my favourite authors, and in particular, Foucault’s Pendulum left me awestruck in a way few novels have, before or since. Believe it or not, Special Topics shares something in common with that book, for both involve conspiracy theories that become more real as the sceptics spin them. There is something almost but not quite metafictional happening. But Pessl is not Eco, and Special Topics is not Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco has subtlety and a deep, placid sensibility that is manifest in his writing. Pessl has skill—I won’t deny that—but it’s the skill of a raw, wild, passionate young writer. Special Topics is a story that has not been honed in the way it should have been—one can tell this just from the length, if nothing else.

The other contribution to this book’s “please notice my literaryness” comes from its narrator. Blue is ridiculously well-read and ridiculously skilled at writing. (She also has a vast and nebulous forest of daddy issues.) I like her well enough, and while she sometimes gets on my nerves, she is really the only interesting character in the book. The others—including Hannah and Blue’s Dad—are devices that belong wholly to the story. Any idea that they might have volition of their own is absurd. No, Blue is the only actor on this stage. At times her narration is a delight, but for the most part it is the purplest of prose.

This book took me a long time to read. Some of that isn’t the book’s fault; this has been a busy, stressful week for me. I probably should have picked a different book to read. But as I approached the middle of Special Topics, any interest I had in it seemed to flicker, gutter, and come perilously close to extinguishing. I had to push myself to read, when normally I will happily spend hours devouring a book if I have the time. The last fifty pages seem to go downhill, as Pessl becomes more and more evasive with the “truth” behind this story; also, I skimmed about twenty pages prior to that, tired of Blue’s endless descriptions of her impromptu detective work.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics wore out its welcome with me. I wish I could say nicer things about it, because it isn’t a bad book. It isn’t pointless or even poorly written, and I could probably see someone making a case that it is inspired and, yes, suitably literary. Alas, Special Topics is also relentless, unforgiving, even uncooperative. We tussled, this book and I, and I do not feel all that much improved for it.

I guess I fail the final exam?


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