No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, September 28, 2007

#57: Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- Marsha Pessl

On Friday, March 26, with the same innocence of the Trojans as they gathered around the strange wooden horse standing at the gate to their city ... Hannah drove our yellow Rent-Me truck into the dirt lot of Sunset Views Encampment and parked in Space 52. The lot was empty, with the exception of a swayback blue Pontiac parked in front of the cabin (a wooden sign slapped crookedly over the door like a Band-Aid: MAIN) and a rusty towable trailer ("Lonesome Dreams") chucked under an evangelist oak. (It was in the midst of some violent enlightenment, branches stretched heavenwards as if to grab hold of His feet.) A white sky ironed, starched, folded itself primly behind the rolling mountains. Garbage floated across the lot, cryptic messages in bottles. Sometime in the last week or so, it had sleeted cigarette butts.
I had to buy this as soon as I saw the title, and I'm pleased to report it was a damned fine read.

Blue van Meer is a precocious and over-educated American teenager, reared peripatetically -- 36 schools between five and sixteen, I think it was -- by her brilliant left-wing father after her mother's death when Blue was five. This odd upbringing has produced a girl who provides a reference for practically every metaphor, weird statistic or astute observation that she comes out with. I'm still trying to decide if it's irritating or reassuring.

Because I like Blue. She reads far too much (each chapter bears the title of a Great Work of Literature, from Othello to Che Guevara Talks to Young People). She's a geek, or possibly a nerd: top of the class in every school she's attended, remarkably mature for her age and possessing a confidence that does a great deal to conceal a lack of social skills. Or perhaps she just falls in with the wrong crowd - the Bluebloods -- when she starts her senior year at St Gallways, in Stockton, North Carolina.

Right from the start it's clear that this is a murder mystery, that Hannah was murdered and that Blue was the one who found her. The novel is about how Hannah dies, but not only about that: it's about lies and secrets and the past, about people who disappear and people who create new identities, about things that aren't at all what they seem (I can't count the layers of deception) ... about Blue's transformation, at the hands of Jade Vine, from plain Jane -- oh, did I mention the visual aids? drawings by the author, presented as photos, throughout -- to all-American teen ... about, really about, Blue's claustrophobic love-hate relationship with her father, Gareth van Meer.

I don't think I can do justice to the convolutions of plot, and I don't think I should try. The writing, the prose, was what dazzled me (in good and bad ways). Sheer pyrotechnic writing, wordplay and sly humour (I'd say more than half of the references are sheer fabrication), acerbic observation (Blue is especially dry on the vagaries of the June Bugs, her father's serial girlfriends, each ditched before things can get too serious), Milnean Capitals, and some gorgeous metaphors -- hair ivying across a chair, sauteed kitchen air.

All of which makes me wonder if the novel is structured around the two points when Blue is lost for words. The first time, she leaves a word-length space in the sentence, a space to stand for an indefinable personal quality: the second time, at the end, she acknowledges the lack of a word and moves on.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a novel that I suspect could be read on several levels: murder mystery, coming-of-age novel, satire on modern American life, a cult novel with clever in-jokes and pop culture references. It's reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but too much has been made of the similarities: though both novels are set at school and deal with the gradual (apparent) acceptance of an outsider into a clique, presided over by a benign academic, the outsiders are quite different, as are the cliques and the acceptance and the outcome.

I recommend it to anyone with a bit of the nerd, geek, outsider in them, anyone who appreciates writing that fizzes with invention but not just for the sake of it: certainly to anyone who was ever told, as a teenager, that they read too much. (Believe me, you never read as much as Blue.) And I am very much looking forward to Pessl's next novel.

There's a heavily interactive website to which I've just lost half an hour.

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