Special Topics in
Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
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Essay by Ted Gioia

The postmodern novel is a slippery thing. It easily
collapses into self-parody or even an attack on its own
sustaining principles. After all, when everything is
deconstructed, why should the
deconstructor be exempted?
When the pundit insists that
“no standpoint is privileged
and no discourse is objectively
true,” the most appropriate
response is: “Same to you,
buddy.”

As a result, the most ardently
deconstructive novels of recent
memory—such as
House of Leaves
or Infinite Jest or Special Topics in Calamity Physics—are
perhaps best read as savage attacks on post-modernism,
even while they imbibe it as their mother’s milk.. These
books are multilayered, but not in the conventional way
of inviting interpretation of their symbolic meanings, rather
in their complex attitude toward meaning in general. They
are the literary equivalents of the snake swallowing its
own tail.

Marisha Pessl’s brilliant debut novel,
Special Topics in
Calamity Physics, does just this, but with such panache
and plotting and pacing—the three P’s, despised by
academics but beloved by readers—that it would be
shame to dwell too much on the abstract and pedantic
aspects of this novel, and its parodic treatment of
postmodern excesses. Fat chance . . . Pessl herself won't
let you miss these elements. She hits you over the head
with the faux professorial trappings of her book on every
page.

The individual chapters are labeled as though they were
required texts on a syllabus. Chapter one, for example, is
called “OTHELLO, William Shakespeare.” Chapter two
is named “THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS
YOUNG MAN, James Joyce,” etc. etc. The concluding
section of the novel is in the form of final exam for a
college class in three sections: true or false questions,
multiple choice and an essay. Along the way, Pessl packs
her novel full of citations of other books—ranging from
the plausible to the frivolous (but don’t waste your time
trying to track down the apocryphal sources)—as well as
provides visual aids, and various highbrow and lowbrow
cultural references. The gamesmanship starts with the very
title of Pessl’s book, with its overtones of a
Festschrift and
plot-predicting hints of
Academics Gone Wild (which might
have been an even more suitable name for this novel).

Yet these trappings are misleading in the highest degree.
They convey an image of jaunty playfulness and
Nabokovian-Joycean experimentation. Yet
Special Topics
in Calamity Physics
is one of the most tightly plotted,
carefully constructed narratives that I have read in recent
years. The chapter headings and references may suggest
a book that goes off in various directions, plays with a
range of discourses, and breaks all the rules; but Pessl
has actually constructed an elaborate whodunit, full of
hidden clues, red herrings, misdirection, mistaken motives
and various other old-fashioned tricks of the storyteller’s
trade. For every ounce of Pynchon, there is a pound of
Agatha Christie—but with a self-conscious mastery of
current trends in (no,
not calamity physics) narrative
structure far beyond anything the grand dame of
mysteries would have ever have broached.

The end result is a book that is flashy and fun, but also
as well thought out as an elaborate game of chess. The
opening gambit seems straightforward enough. Blue van
Meer is a precocious teenage girl, trying to adapt to cliques
and cattiness in a new school. Her mother was killed in
a car accident when Blue was five, and her father, Gareth
van Meer, is an academic frequently on the move, leading
to an unstable if stimulating life for his daughter. The
set-up is familiar, but where Pessl takes this story will
defy any predictions you make 50 or 100 pages into the
book.

For her senior year in high school, Gareth decides that
he will stay in the same town for a whole year—an
unprecedented move for this peripatetic scholar—so
Blue can have a placid interval before heading off to the
Ivy League. Alas, placidity will be the last thing she will
find in her new setting. Here the brainy teen is enlisted
into the most elitist, and most peculiar, clique in the whole
school: the so-called "blue bloods," a cabal of eccentric
students who hang out with their charming and mysterious
teacher, Hannah Schneider.

But if you think this is
The Breakfast Club or even The
Dead Poet’s Society
, think again. What seems to be a
standard coming-of-age tale morphs into a murder
mystery . . . then into a book of political intrigue,
among other things. Nothing is what is seems in Pessl’s
story, and almost every character—and the characters
here sparkle and intrigue by turns—presents a puzzle,
both to Blue and to the reader.

Everything
does fit together in the end, and this is one
of those rare novels that really delivers a knock-out
punch at its conclusion. But you would probably need
to read the novel two or three times to comprehend
all the moving parts in Pessl’s construction. Not everyone
will be persuaded, of course, by Pessl’s elaborate Chinese
puzzle box of a narrative, and certainly there are those who
will be hesitant to canonize any first novel so soon after
publication. Above all, a work this flashy inevitably elicits
snide remarks from critics who prefer the small, intimate
narratives that are the stock-in-trade of the publishing
industry (and writing schools) these days.

I can understand all of these reservations. You shouldn’t
try to dazzle, unless you are ready to deliver the goods.
But by my measure, the goods have been delivered and
came in wrapping paper with ribbon and bow. The bottom
line: this is more than just dazzle, and gets into the realm
of razzle-dazzle. (No, Northrop Frye never authorized
those evaluative terms; but I find it so cathartic to toss
them out.) Even so, I’m not sure I would advise other
writers to imitate
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
perhaps we need one of those “don’t’ try this at
home” disclaimers on the cover.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His
latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Publication date of this essay: M
arch 2, 2009.
Click on image to purchase
ROGUES GALLERY:
MARISHA PESSL
Depending on whom you consult, this
author is Hitchcockian or Nabokovian or
just Tartt-ish. (Slow down, fellas….that’s
Donna-Tartt-ish, not Mae West tartish.)   
After two failed previous attempts to

write a novel,
Marisha Pessl
hit the big time
with her third
attempt, Special
Topics in Calamity
Physics. Along came
a six-figure advance,
a debut on The
New York Times
bestseller list, and
a stack of literary

honors and accolades. The biggest scandal
behind the book was the agonizing decision
her editor faced over whether to include an
author’s photo or not. "It would be so easy

to tart up the marketing," editor Carole
DeSanti told the
press.  And in that instance,
it wasn’t concerns about coming across as
Donna-Tartt-ish that were being raised.

But the proof here was in the plotting,
not to mention the prose and pluck of the
thing. This postmodern thriller stands out

as one of the most impressive literary
debuts of the day. And, for no extra
charge, comes with footnotes, illustrations
and a final exam to test your reading
acumen.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Further Clues:

An Interview with Marisha Pessl

Facebook Page for Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics:  What Does it Mean?
(Spoiler Alert)
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Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  


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