I finished reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics a few weeks ago, but wanted to let it simmer before I wrote anything about it. There are some books about which I rave while I read them. This overwhelming positive feeling will continue for a week or two after I have finished. The book then blends with the great mass of books, no longer special.
There are a few books that buck this trend, The Master and Margarita being an example. I wanted to see if Calamity Physics would loose a little of its luster when I had more time to think about it. Now, over a month later, I can only say, maybe.
When first reading Calamity Physics, I was immediately captured by the writing style, which I loved. But, like The God of Small Things, the rich text soon wore on me. When it was at its best, I no longer noticed it. When it was not working, I wanted to put the book down. Pessl can put a sentence together, but this is not a short first novel, and there are times when the tone annoyed me. Of course, that may just have been the narrator annoying me. What seemed bright and sharp about the writing dulled as I went on, the way leaving soup on the stove too long can blunt some of the fresher flavors, without necessarily ruining the soup.
Pessl’s novel follows one Blue Van Meer through her last, traumatic, year of high school. Other reviews can harp on the details of the plot, they’ve been out there longer. No doubt you’ve read one or two if you cared to. The book is not new. Blue’s last year contains, the suicide of a teacher, revelry with her schools ‘it’ crowd, and several other events, some of which would only seem enormous to the very young and some that would be painful at any age.
The trouble with Blue is that she is often just as horrible as the social detritus she is most horrified by. You don’t have to like your narrator, but I sometimes felt that Pessl thought wit excused all. Some of Blue’s targets have only committed the crime of being teenagers. While that makes them easy targets, Blue doesn’t seem to realize how much she’s making herself a target.
The book is billed as a mystery, but the mystery is a long time in coming. What you get before that is a social drama with some mildly eccentric characters who are unique in that way that only teenagers can be. Every high school has a would be director, a hottest girl in school, etc. The quality of the writing, and the interesting nature of Blue’s perspective keeps everything under control. But I still wasn’t sure if the whole thing was worth the price of entry.
While I was mulling it over, I thought about how Pessl has been compared to Nabokov, a comparison she seems to have… cultivated. I thought that I might gain some insight by reading Mary, Nabokov’s first novel, helpfully translated by the man himself (well, he assisted on the translation).
The comparison is not fair, to either author. On reading Mary, I was instantly reminded what I loved about Nabokov. Even in translation the sentences were marvelous. He has a delicate balance of flash and forward momentum. It is short, at just 114 pages, with a tight plot that still has time for insight into its character’s minds. All in all, a remarkably mature first novel.
Pessl’s book is long, with sections that are enjoyable to read, but which do not contribute much to the plot. Several characters who get a great deal of narrative time, turn into afterthoughts at the end of the novel. In fact, they are worst than afterthoughts, actively revealed to be a massive red herring, to throw the reader off the true thrust of the narrative. Its an interesting gambit that actually does work quite well, but trimming it up a little bit (the loss of 60 or so pages?) would have helped. The citations sprinkled throughout the book, some real some fake, are nice at first, but the device started to feel a little cloying over the course of a whole novel.
So, it’s not a perfect novel. That’s fine. It’s not the second coming of Nabokov. That’s fine too. For a long time it seemed like every modern novel I picked up was been the story of an average person, thrust into a situation that might happen to any of us, but won’t happen to all of us. Credit goes to Pessl for writing a book that is entertaining, meaty, and bold enough to risk a strange setup and abnormal narrator. I look forward to seeing what she does with a second novel. Hopefully she will just be Marisha Pessl for that one, and not ‘Marisha Pessl Who Some Compare to Nabokov’ as she was in half the reviews I read.