The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.
The post-modern novel is a slippery thing. It easily collapses into self-parody or even an attack on its own sustaining principles. After all, when everything is deconstructed, why should the deconstructor be exempted? When the pundit insists that “no standpoint is privileged and no discourse is objectively true,” the most appropriate response is: “Same to you, buddy.”
As a result, the most ardently deconstructive novels of recent memory — such as House of Leaves or Infinite Jest or Special Topics in Calamity Physics — are perhaps best read as savage attacks on post-modernism, even while they imbibe it as their mother’s milk. These books are multilayered, but not in the conventional way of inviting interpretation of their symbolic meanings, rather in their complex attitude toward meaning in general. They are the literary equivalents of the snake swallowing its own tail.
Marisha Pessl’s brilliant debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, does just this, but with such panache and plotting and pacing—the three P’s, despised by academics but beloved by readers - that it would be shame to dwell too much on the abstract and pedantic aspects of this novel. Fat chance... Pessl herself won't let you miss them. She hits you over the head with the professorial trappings of her book on every page.
The individual chapters are labeled as though they were required texts on a syllabus. Chapter one, for example, is called “OTHELLO, William Shakespeare.” Chapter two is named “THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS YOUNG MAN, James Joyce,” etc. etc. The concluding section of the novel is in the form of final exam for a college class in three sections: true or false questions, multiple choice and an essay. Along the way, Pessl packs her novel full of citations of other books — ranging from the plausible to the frivolous (but don’t waste your time trying to track down the apocryphal sources) — as well as provides visual aids, and various highbrow and lowbrow cultural references. The gamesmanship starts with the very title of Pessl’s book, with its overtones of a Festschrift and plot-predicting hints of Academics Gone Wild (which might have been an even more suitable name for this novel).