Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summer Reading: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Blue Van Meer's "self-portrait"--she's the "apologetically owl-like" girl with glasses. Image: USA Today

If not for the fact that the only books I read in hardcover are Harry Potter, I would have devoured Special Topics in Calamity Physics as soon as it came out last summer. My mom, after reading the back cover and the blurbs, said "This is the book you should have written," and I see what she meant (though I have no interest in writing novels). Calamity Physics got promoted as a brainy, erudite, mystery/coming-of-age novel narrated by a verbally dexterous teenage girl, and there are few things I like better than that. As I read the novel this month, I got a kick out of coincidental parallels between its heroine, Blue Van Meer, and myself. Blue's birthday, 6/18/87, is less than a month away from mine. And she, precocious thing, is 16 years old throughout her senior year of high school, just as I was. It's weird--it even makes me feel a little old--to read a book where the main character is from my generation, born the same year as me, her life overlapping mine in a way. (Then again, it also makes me feel old to realize I'm six years older than Juliet, two years older than Jane Eyre, and the same age as Elizabeth Bennet.) Also, author Marisha Pessl's first name is just one letter away from mine--and "Marissa" (or "Marisha"?) comes from Latin for "of the sea," and "Van Meer" means "of the sea" in German. Coincidence? I think not.

Most importantly, Blue is a girl after my own heart. As the sexy Latino gardener Andreo Verduga might say behind Blue's back, she is one hell of a marisabidilla. A sixteen-year-old who's read the whole Western Canon, plus innumerable detective novels, self-help books, and Hollywood memoirs, she has a citation for every situation and a simile for every smile. She's an outsider, more an observer than a participant (like all great detective characters), her little-brown-mouse social awkwardness mixed with a feeling of superiority toward most of the people she encounters. I'll admit that her voice can get tiresome--too keen to show off her smarts, and too scornful of the everyday middle-Americans she meets traveling around the country with her brilliant Dad. Sentences like "The restaurant with its shines and clinks, its fanned napkins and resplendent forks (in which you could identify microscopic things lodged in your teeth), its dowager duchess hanging there, desperate to be let down to go dance a quadrille with an eligible man of society-it all felt indifferent and damned, hopeless as a Hemingway short story teeming with mean conversations, hopes lost between their bullet point words, voices voluptuous as rulers" (183) are a little dense, don't you agree?

Indeed, Special Topics in Calamity Physics takes a bit long to get going, as Blue tells how she got inducted into the exclusive clique the Bluebloods--five high school seniors and their charismatic Film teacher, Hannah Schneider. This is standard prep-school stuff, even if vividly described, and the Bluebloods' characterizations are not deepened enough. Fortunately, Weird Stuff starts happening a bit later. Page 1 offers the instant hook that Blue discovered Hannah dead, hanged by an electrical cord deep in the woods. There's also a mysterious drowning, Hannah's bizarre one-night stands, etc. A Gothic tone takes hold, and after Hannah's death, the book becomes a real page-turner. I actually dreamed about it last night because it excited me so much--that never happens to me! Its most delightful surprise is that beneath the incredibly clever, verbose language lies an incredibly clever, well-formed plot.

Marisha Pessl has stated in interviews that her favorite author is Nabokov, and reviews have compared Calamity Physics to Lolita or Ada, but I think that's a little hyped up. Lolita (the only Nabokov novel I've read) is full of wordplay and allusion, but less showoffy, less interrupted by its own cleverness. I also wouldn't count Calamity Physics as a book that truly, deeply reveals the joy of reading and learning--Pessl's allusions act as a kind of shorthand, rather than offering new insights into her sources. It's not like Arcadia or Possession, where two characters can have a brilliant literary/intellectual discussion that also is loaded with subtextual emotions. No, for me Calamity Physics is more like The Shadow of the Wind--another classy, page-turning mystery novel that gets promoted as more intellectual than it is.

Am I quibbling too much? Really, I genuinely loved most of Calamity Physics, enjoying the similes and literary references that weren't too far-fetched, as well as Blue's attempts to fit in and her amateur sleuthing. And the twist is so good that it virtually requires a re-reading! If you're wondering whether to read this book, check out pages 56 and 57, which is what completely won me over: a scene where Hannah introduces herself to Blue and her dad by announcing, "Humphrey Bogart wore platform shoes throughout the filming of Casablanca." If this appeals at all to your sense of humor and style, buy it!

I'll admit, I love detective and mystery novels--thanks to a course at my own eccentric private high school. (Our schools are another similarity between me and Blue. At mine, after sophomore year, English classes were not general survey courses, but focused "electives," like in college. One topic was even Film--the same class that Hannah Schneider teaches. I've never heard of Film being taught at any other high school.) Before I took "The Detective in Literature," I had a snobbery toward detective novels, "genre" fiction. But this class turned me on to the prose stylings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Inspired me to read Borges. Made me laugh, then made me think, about the thesis that Oedipus Rex is just a detective story. Most importantly, I was taught that I could be a snob about detective fiction as well--by touting "metaphysical" detective stories over "epistemological" ones. Basically, an epistemological detective story = a whodunit, animated by the question of who committed a crime, and why. Think Conan Doyle, Christie, the noir detectives--you're never in doubt that a crime has taken place and that the detective will solve it by the end. The metaphysical detective story twists this formula, leaves the plot open-ended, pokes fun at the idea that life ties up neatly and all mysteries get solved. Maybe the detective completely misreads the evidence (The Name of the Rose). Maybe a crime wasn't actually committed (In the Lake of the Woods). The theme becomes we can never really know anyone or anything.

And Calamity Physics is a metaphysical detective novel par excellence. For me, it was most reminiscent of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, which I read in my high school class. *SPOILERS* Both novels feature a woman finding more and more evidence for a huge, shadowy conspiracy, but in the end, not knowing whether her conclusions are true, whether someone is playing an elaborate joke on her, or whether she's imagined the whole thing. (And stylistically, both novels employ lots of extended metaphors that can be exhausting to decipher.) Special Topics in Calamity Physics derives its literary excellence not from its incessant allusion-making, but from its plot that simultaneously ties everything up, pulls the rug out from under you, and leaves everything open. That's the thing about a marisabidilla. She can think she knows it all, then learn that she doesn't know a thing. Or, she can really know the truth, but not be able to tell or convince anyone of it. Either way, it's a lonely world.

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