Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl
book jacket, as mentioned below
Photo: Deborah Lopez, The New York Times

I found Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics as charming and fun to read, was as impressed by her cleverness, as anyone. It was on the New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year (2006). Charming, fun, clever- but its strengths are its weaknesses too.

The book has its own charming, though slow, website:
And a movie is said to be in the works by Scott Rudin, the producer who snagged The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and produced The Social Network, The Queen etc.

I was particularly impressed by Pessl's creation of the character of the father, who came across so three-dimensional that you could assume that it must be Pessl's real father, and the story a memoir. Sometimes we love him and sometimes we are appalled, but always we are fascinated and wish we knew him. The narrator's voice is fairly distinctive also. The Hannah character wasn't too bad either. But no creation here comes even close to the father's character.

charming "photo" (found online) of Blue van Meer,
the heroine/narrator of Special Topics*

A lot of critics were irritated by the style..

..full of startling, seemingly unrealistic metaphors. They thought the metaphors stretched self-consciously too far. But it is these metaphors that I loved the best about the book, next to the father. The metaphors don't right away seem relevant on the surface. Often a description using one sense (ex vision) is compared to another sense- say, sound, or a feeling, giving an unexpected depth. Or one form of being, into another. You don't read it, you have to close your eyes and sink into it, and then It rings true on an intuitive level and makes you see things in a new way. 

quite a different image of Blue van Meer,
in Pessl's own illustration.
(dark-haired girl in glasses, mid-right).

This image perhaps comes closer to
Blue's character as intended.
Which image do you think
will be used for the movie?

Here are examples from the first chapters:
"I did my best to wave away this remark as if it were nothing more than an unpleasant odor  coming off a beaker or a test tube" (movement into smell).

"She laughed, a short Ha laugh, like a foot kicking a rock" (sound into movement).

"I am aware as ever that she, and maybe the others too, would occasionally float over to me like pollen off a withered dandelion with news of sugarplum marriages, gooey divorces. . ." (human into botany, and into feeling ["float"]).

". memory of life in Mississippi stutters and stallls like an engine that refuses to turn over" (concept turned into concrete sound and movement).

".. .her milky hair covered almost all of her right ear, though the edge still peeked out, barely, like a fish fin" (human into animal).

Also successfully, Pessl has a very cute gimmick, that the narrator is constantly interrupting the action, sometimes several times on a page, to refer the reader to books that relate in some way to what she has just said- with parentheses to give author, title, publisher and year.

Since the book was recommended to me, I did not need to look at the author's picture on the bookjacket to make my decision whether to read it. So I purposely didn't allow myself to look- I was happy for the opportunity to judge a book without the picture. I did not need to see the picture, however, to know pretty quickly that this was a very young writer. I didn't know if it was male or female, but age I did know. 

Viking (Penguin Group) 2006

No review is complete without some criticism. As I said, the New York Times put it on their list of Ten Best Books of that Year. A writer cannot be faulted for writing a book at a young age. But the New York Times can be faulted for choosing a young person's vision over another to honor, no matter how "clever." The world is so much deeper than this book. Perhaps it deserves mention as a recent book for, say, teenagers; and It's definitely worth reading, for fun, but do save high honors for when her work matures.

The plot drags considerably, carried along by sheer inventiveness of style, fun and wit, and the character of the father. There is no clue as to where the book is going or what to make of it, no "narrative tension." It seems merely the experience of a not-so-popular high school girl who suddenly finds herself in a popular group. We nerds can all relate- that is, when we were in high school. But that was a long time ago.

The only thread to pull us through were the lines, right away in the Introduction, when the narrator was lying awake seeing in the shadows her vivid memory of Hannah hanging by a cord. So we know that Hannah will somehow hang by a cord- eventually- but for the most part, nothing happens. I'm not saying I want plot and excitement. I like books without plots, in fact. Nearly 200 pages into Proust's Swann's Way, nothing's happened yet in that book either, and I strongly suspect that nothing will. But it plunges me into a woozy new consciousness- brings me the substance of an entire world; substance is what I want, not sophomoric high school experience.

Finally, close to the very end of Calamity Physics, everything suddenly begins moving, moving fast. But in what a direction! It's like picking up a second book entirely. For one thing, Hannah finally hangs by the cord. But once Calamity Physics delivers excitement- it becomes its most boring, more expository, less like a novel. Certainly you'll read faster, hoping for a solution of the mystery; but basically, both parts of the book deliver little meaning, each in their own way. 

The end does give us one character to ponder on, however; but I'm not going to spoil that here. I wonder if that was the whole point of the book. Certainly it was for me.

I loved Calamity Physics and I'm glad I read it. Don't get me wrong. I even urge you to read it. It's a great experience and lots of fun. Just don't be fooled by that Ten Best list, don't expect a seasoned writer or a deep vision. But like I said, one can't be faulted for one's age.

Yes, I know I'm five years late. I shall check in on Ms. Pessl's latest, at some point, to see how she's faring.

'Print to Projector,' a clever column at 'Film School Rejects,' covers books that have been optioned for film, and gives its own suggestions for who should be the actors, director etc. It is quite charming: here is the link for Calamity Physics:

Here's a video interview with Rudin's proposed screenwriters (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden):

*I'm sorry, I will not give you the website this photo was found on. They give too much of the book away- not a nice thing to do!
It is quite easy to locate- but do not look until you have finished- and I do mean finished- the book.

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