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The New Canon: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

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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).

Yet these trappings are misleading in the highest degree. They convey an image of jaunty playfulness and Nabokovian-Joycean experimentation. Yet Special Topics in Calamity Physic is one of the most tightly plotted, carefully constructed narratives that I have read in recent years. The chapter headings and references may suggest a book that goes off in various directions, plays with a range of discourses, and breaks all the rules; but Pessl has actually constructed an elaborate whodunit, full of hidden clues, red herrings, misdirection, mistaken motives and various other old-fashioned tricks of the storyteller’s trade. For every ounce of Pynchon, there is a pound of Agatha Christie—but with a self-conscious mastery of current trends in (no, not calamity physics) narrative structure far beyond anything the grand dame of mysteries would have ever have broached.

The end result is a book that is flashy and fun, but also as well thought out as an elaborate game of chess. The opening gambit seems straightforward enough. Blue van Meer is a precocious teenage girl, trying to adapt to cliques and cattiness in a new school. Her mother was killed in a car accident when Blue was five, and her father, Gareth van Meer, is an academic frequently on the move, leading to an unstable if stimulating life for his daughter. The set-up is familiar, but where Pessl takes this story will defy any predictions you make 50 or 100 pages into the book.

For her senior year in high school, Gareth decides that he will stay in the same town for a whole year — an unprecedented move for this peripatetic scholar — so Blue can have a placid interval before heading off to the Ivy League. Alas, placidity will be the last thing she will find in her new setting. Here the brainy teen is enlisted into the most elitist, and most peculiar, clique in the whole school: the so-called "blue bloods," a cabal of eccentric students who hang out with their charming and mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider.

But if you think this is The Breakfast Club or even The Dead Poet’s Society, think again. What seems to be a standard coming-of-age tale morphs into a murder mystery… then into a book of political intrigue, among other things. Nothing is what is seems in Pessl’s story, and almost every character — and the characters here sparkle and intrigue by turns — presents a puzzle, both to Blue and to the reader.

Everything does fit together in the end, and this is one of those rare novels that really delivers a knock-out punch at its conclusion. But you would probably need to read the novel two or three times to comprehend all the moving parts in Pessl’s construction. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course, by Pessl’s elaborate Chinese puzzle box of a narrative, and certainly there are those who will be hesitant to canonize any first novel so soon after publication. Above all, a work this flashy inevitably elicits snide remarks from critics who prefer the small, intimate narratives that are the stock-in-trade of the publishing industry (and writing schools) these days.

I can understand all of these reservations. You shouldn’t try to dazzle, unless you are ready to deliver the goods. But by my measure, the goods have been delivered and came in wrapping paper with ribbon and bow. The bottom line: this is more than just dazzle, and gets into the realm of razzle-dazzle. (No, Northrop Frye never authorized those evaluative terms; but I find it so cathartic to toss them out.) Even so, I’m not sure I would advise other writers to imitate Special Topics in Calamity Physics – perhaps we need one of those “don’t’ try this at home” disclaimers on the cover.

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  • Hmmm… I wanted to like this book, because it got such great literary reviews. I just couldn’t do it. Maybe I didn’t read it with enough of a critical eye, but it just felt like Pessl was trying too hard to please everyone. And it seemed overly long for what it was. I love the idea of this feature though.