First novels are dangerous, risky creatures. They’re a gamble for the publisher and the novelist, and for everyone in between. Perhaps that’s why truly daring first novels are so few and far between, and why they garner such disproportionate attention amongst their peers.
For the almost irrelevant hullabaloo about Marisha Pessl’s literary debut, with the hefty Special Topics in Calamity Physics, it was difficult to know what the book was actually about. Bloggers from the fair to the ridiculous snarked about her good looks, her privileged upbringing, the advance and all the zeroes it entailed. All this was well before the book came out. And all of it irrelevant.
Special Topics takes a close, self-conscious look at the life of Blue Van Meer, the precocious daughter of a tangle of intellectualism and pretension masquerading as a father. Gareth Van Meer is given to declarative statements and short love affairs with women of a certain age that Blue refers to as his June Bugs. His wife, the divine and ethereal Natasha, died suddenly, leaving Gareth and Blue rudderless and drifting from university town to university town across the US, which is where Blue starts us on her strange narrative.
But not before telling us that this story is about Hannah Schneider, who died. Blue’s story really begins in Stockton, North Carolina, where she spends her senior year of high school entangled with five fellow students (Jade, Leulah, Charles, Milton, and Nigel – each with their own startlingly flashy personalities) and the attentions of the charismatic Hannah, their film teacher who draws the six of them into a teenaged attempt at the Algonquin round table, with about the same amount of booze. The climax of the novel, at Hannah’s death, sends the hitherto-normal novel into a paroxysm of thrills, detective work, and almost bizarre roller-coaster bends.
But I make the mistake of saying Hannah’s death in the novel is prefaced by any kind of normalcy. If Blue Van Meer is Pessl’s conduit, she’s been stuffed like an animal at a taxidermist with every manner of literary and cultural reference under the sun. A June Bug, as Gareth explains, “turned out to be of the Sylvia Plath variety”. Blue noticed a classmate as being “a Goodnight Moon (Brown 1947). Goodnight moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance that most people wore only during the few minutes prior to sleep…”. Blue’s descriptions are positively drenched with references, allusions, witty comparisons – proof of the insular, bookish world she’s grown up in.
Okay, so there’s an explanation for the bracketed bibliographies that nestle in otherwise ordinary sentences on every single page. It’s like reading a academic journal on something obscure, which is, of course, the idea. It doesn’t make it any easier to read. While Blue’s riotous use of literary and cultural references makes for a delightful romp through pretty much the entire 20th century, the effect of the constant parenthetical sources is jolting and distracting.
The strength of the book lies both because of and in spite of these quirks. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more singularly well-defined teenaged heroine like Blue, especially in a first novel. What suffers in the book has nothing to do with her sharp outline and ebullient opinions. And you’d be equally hard-pressed to find a book that starts out so cerebrally and takes such a sharp left turn into gripping film-noir gumshoeing.
So yes, there are certainly flaws in Pessl’s well-dressed debutante. Perhaps they’re even rookie mistakes, the result of young hands being applied to so ambitious a novel. But beyond just the gems of fresh originality in Blue, the humor is perhaps the most unexpected consequence of such a high-falutin’ story. Describing a colleague of her father’s at dinner, Blue reflects dryly, “his hands behaved like fat, startled tabby cats; without warning, they’d pounce two to three feet across the table in order to seize the saltshaker or the bottle of wine.” Looking at the portrait of Jade’s mother, Blue observes:
The woman had wandered deep into her forties and, to her evident panic, had been unable to make her way back. […] (If Dad saw her he would not hesitate to call her a “badly aged Barbarella.” Or he’d use one of his Stale Candy remarks reserved for women who spent the great portion of their week attempting to half Middle Age as if Middle Age was nothing more than a team of runaway stallions: “a melted red M&M”, a “stale strawberry Sweet Tart”.)
And beyond the unexpectedly down-to-earth humor, Pessl is good with words, something perhaps her detractors were hoping against. The novel might be dense with plot and references and almost elitist jokes, but it’s also littered with that elusive beast, the well-turned phrase. Describing Hannah: “…she reached over the arm of the couch, yanked open the end-table drawer and seized a half-empty pack of Camel cigarettes. She tapped one out, windmilled it agitatedly between her fingers and looked at me with anxious interest, like I was a dress on sale, the last one in her size.”
Amid all the external noise (bloggers bemoaning her advance and her Raphaelite good looks) and despite some of the internal noise (endless parentheses, jarring, near-unbelievable plot twists), Special Topics in Calamity Physics stands on its own for nothing else than its sheer daring. It was not a safe book to write, or publish, but like any good debutante, it has stepped forward with the merits of its good breeding and unique voice. And if I had to pick a date, I would always rather spend time with a flawed work of boldness than anything impeccably polished and bland.