Thursday, January 29, 2009

Books: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

I started this book expecting to hate it; I have a disposition against female authors, and this one in particular, judging by her jacket photo, was younger and prettier than I, in addition to being, of course, a more accomplished writer. The flap’s synopsis looked insipid (a high school heroine named Blue?!), and the table of contents gimmicky (each chapter is named after a classic). The pages were even littered with coy illustrations. Having just come off of The Emperor’s Children, I thought that this would be another girly dud.

But once I started reading, I fell for it instantly. Blue Van Meer is an over-read, under-socialized girl starting her senior year of high school. She’s been raised by her father, a traveling professor of all things revolutionary, and has attended countless schools in as many US states, often moving every semester, getting the bulk of her education on lengthy cross-country drives with dad, forced to read aloud from old Hollywood biographies and recite Romantic poetry and Transcendental quotations from memory. Suddenly, she finds herself fixed, for an entire year, at a prestigious and pricey private high school, struggling to navigate a confusing social scenario, in which the most popular set is forced to include her at their pet teacher’s behest.

Pet teacher? Yes—this is one of those very special teachers whom students idolize (she teaches only one class: Film). This teacher invites her favorite six students to her house for weekly dinners, outlandish affairs with wine, show tunes, and globe-trotting menus. She takes them on camping trips. One might think it strange—if not a bit disconcerting—that a teacher would develop such close relationships with her students (it’s even intimated that she might have had a sexual affair with one of the boys, who is particularly attached).

And it does become disconcerting, when she takes them on a camping trip and—holy cannoli—commits suicide by hanging herself, right there for Blue Van Meer to discover her. The girl's social life is wrecked when the popular set then turns against her. Things get worse when Blue’s father disappears, after she tells him about some research she has done, linking both him and the mysterious teacher to a group of urban terrorists active in the 1960s.

It was at this point that I fell out of love with the book, racing to finish it and untangle the mystery. I felt cheap about doing so. I was no longer reading for the pleasure of the prose, but for a simple answer. The pages caught fire.

And so, it turns out, Pessl is just another Messud. Her voice is younger, smarter—more precocious, and more prone to fantasy, but engaged in the same scheme: creating a literary page-burner. The prose is littered with allusions and quotations, and the savvy, well-read and well-cultured reader picks up on these and delights in them, but is ultimately driven by the juicy, gossip-filled plot: will Blue lose her virginity to the mysterious Black, on whom she crushes? Is the mysterious teacher having a secret affair with Blue’s father? We know at the start to expect something bad, because the entire novel is written in flashback, from Blue’s dorm room at Harvard, where she can’t stop seeing the specter of two dead feet dangling in the air. And so we wait for that bad thing to happen, deliciously nervous, racing through page after page.

Is this bad? I don’t know. I felt let down at the end, as though Pessl assumed I needed a fantastic twist to keep me engaged in an otherwise perfectly good coming-of-age tale. As an epilogue, though, she includes a quiz (including multiple choice and an essay question), the questions of which imply that Blue may simply be an over-imaginative, over-read teenage girl, that the surprise ending may be nothing more than a fantasy she has constructed to protect herself from the truth (that the beloved teacher actually did commit suicide, rather than being silenced by a murderer in the dark). This possibility sits better with me—ambiguity is always a safe haven for uncertain writers.

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