Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Synopsis:
A brainy high school senior narrates the events that led to the death of her charismatic and disturbed teacher.

Review:
I stayed up until 1:30 am last night blazing through the last 200 pages of the book, in a state of amazement (and not a little jealousy) over the superb plotting Pessl married to her delicious prose and intriguing characters.

Before you rush out and buy the book, I should admit a fondness for looooooooong reads. I would rather there be more words than less. I had a copy of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover sitting on my nightstand for three years but never picked it up because it was slim with widely spaced text. Not that I’m unable to appreciate the literary merits of the short story or novella–I adore Flannery O’Connor and have a penchant for good children’s literature–but for me, nothing compares to a thickly plotted, heavily peopled, prose-y book.

Pessl has crafted a solid story with motion and depth, with an active plot that works perfectly in tandem with her strong characters. It’s also defiantly literature–this book could never become a movie, and I have to say I’m glad of that. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a book I have read several times. It has the same capacity to enthrall, using esoterica, hints of dark sexuality that never quite surface, and a misfit protagonist who stands in for the reader as observer to a world where one misstep will close the door to knowledge forever.

Unlike Tartt, who used a remote narrative voice, Pessl allows surprising moments of girlishness to surface, such as when protagonist Blue van Meer wonders if there is anything more devastating than being told that one is a bad kisser. She never loses sight of the fact that her characters are adolescents, and imbues them with an immaturity that adds an element of playfulness to the narrative.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

9 thoughts on “Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl”

  1. I’m 2/3 finished with “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” There are very few books that I can’t stop reading. I usually set myself a chapter goal. I’m also re-reading “The Spoils of Poynton” and will take several weeks to get through it, although it is a short novel–at least for Henry James. I agree that Pessl’s book is defintely “literature.” But I can’t define why it is. Or is the asking wrong–like “What is this painting about?”

  2. I think we can start by asking “What is literature NOT?” I think a lot of people would say that genre fiction does not “count” as literature, even though genre books can and do engage with the biggest issues in life. I think any definition of literature needs to reject the false dichotomy between genre books and “serious” books.

    What do you think?

  3. I agree. This book does engage with “the biggest issues of life” and that alone may be my answer. I guess I have to take a literature course again. I seem to now know what I like but not why. When I try to read a book like “The DaVinci Code” I am painfully aware of the poor writing and carelessly developed plot and its basic untruthfullness to how real people think and act. Any suggestions on what I might read (nonfiction?) to help me get back in touch with what I might have known when I was getting my Master’s degree in English at NYU a long long time ago? (I am now trying to finish a one-act play and immersion with thoughts on good literature might help.)

  4. You might like Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer–I read it recently & it addresses a lot of what you’re talking about. It’s all about immersing yourself in literature.

  5. Reposting a comment from email:

    I blogged a while back about checking out Special Topics in Calamity Physics from the library. I never really got into it before I had to return it — it seemed, at least at the beginning, to have crossed my (somewhat arbitrary) mental line between “fun intellectual jokes” and “pretentious”. What do y’all think? Does this
    change as the book gets rolling, or should I give it up and move on to re-reading The Remains of the Day? 🙂

  6. I stayed up late finishing this book, too; that doesn’t happen very often, given that I am not a late night person!

    I really enjoyed the literary quality of it. I have a master’s degree in English, and I got a hoot out of Blue’s constant referencing of source material for her observations, how the novel was structured as a course syllabus, and the final examination. Excellent read.

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