SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl

2_physics_060706092159503_wideweb__324x499As you may be able to tell from the cover, this is not about Physics. It is actually about a high school girl, her doting but pompous, self-important professor father, an elite group of snotty kids in a private high school, a slightly mysterious and slightly wacky teacher of films who befriends these kids, and a possibly no-longer-existent rebel group akin to the Black Panthers, the SDS, etc. of the 60s, whose leader is now dead/or now underground/or never existed in the first place.

It is a real Swiss army knife of a novel, over 600 pages that are in turn intriguing, annoying, fascinating, tedious, captivating, boring, but always provocative.

It stars a teen girl, yet doesn’t quite have the feel of a YA work;  it is a coming of age tale, yet without the feel-good finale of an era all wrapped up nicely provoking nostalgia for a day gone by.  It contains a mystery, but one whose solution is guessed at yet never solved.

Blue Vandermeer (don’t you wish you had such a great name?  I do.)  is a kid whose mother died when she was 5.  Her father became an itinerant professor of political science, territorial conflict and revolution and rebellion.  They moved just about every semester, and Blue became a deep reader, and fond of movies.

Told in first person narrative, Blue comes across as a jaded, cynical observer of the passing scene, describing her father’s always very short-lived affairs with the native female population, and neatly pigeonholing the high school populations into characteristic slots.

In her senior year, dad decides to stay at one university long enough for Blue to have a complete senior year there before going on to Harvard, where with her grades and experiences she is sure to be accepted.

At the private school St. Galways, near Atlanta, she is taken up by Hannah Schneider, the somewhat bohemian teacher of film at the school.  Hannah  has already befriended the snotty group, and foists Blue onto them, which they dislike intensely.

In the spring, she insists they take a camping trip into the nearby Smoky Mountains, and after going off with Blue one night for a private conversation, disappears, and several hours later, Blue finds her hanging by an electric cord.   Suicide?  Murder?  Therein lies the mystery.

A lot of the tediousness of the book comes from it’s self-conscious style.  It is structured as a class syllabus, with chapter titles like: Othello, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc, and the entire, yes the ENTIRE, manuscript is littered with annotated references to book or article titles, including authors, publishers and dates, that support a thought or an incident, all of the, of course fake. They appear so frequently that after a while, you just have to start skipping over them, because at first they are charming, then they are slightly humorous, but eventually they are just too awful.  Maybe it is supposed to be that way.  She tells us in her explanation for writing this accounting of her life that her father said to always include references and lots of visual aides, because there is always someone who insists on contradicting you.

I found the structure and this annotation just too too precious, and I don’t feel the chapter structure lent anything meaningful to the work, but it was a rollicking good tale nonetheless.   You know me, I am all about the story.

I found it to be a book that stays with you.   The intricate plotting, the interweaving of characters, just the whole preposterous notion of it all, keeps you thinking about it long after you put it down.

Oh, and thanks to Deb Atwood for the recommendation.  OK, maybe more of a challenge than a recommendation, since she asked if I had read it.  No, not only had I not read it, I never heard of it either.

And I never did quite figure out how the title applies.  Calamity Physics?  I’m probably just not smart enough to figure it out.

 

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2 comments on “SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl

  1. Deb Atwood says:

    Ha ha! Sounds like your reaction was mixed. I did enjoy the book. Actually, I listened to the audio version, which probably gave a different flavor to the many literary allusions. Although, truth be told, I do like that stuff. I recently finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Every chapter begins with a work of fiction the character refers to as he journals his life. I really ate it up!

  2. Marti says:

    I liked the book a lot. I just found the constant referencing tedious, especially since none of them were real. I thought it was a great story.

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