Thursday, May 17, 2007

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Gosh, was this book ever good. In the final chapters of the book, when things begin to come together, everything in life (work, exercise, cooking dinner, cleaning house…) became an unbearable obstacle to my reading it. According to an NYT article, when news was released of this first novel by Marisha Pessl, bloggers decried her as too beautiful and rich to have talent. How hard it is to accept that someone this gorgeous and privileged is also incredibly smart and gifted at writing!

As usual, I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot so that you can have the joy of discovering it for yourself (in fact, skip that NYT review I linked to above if you want to avoid too detailed a plot summary). The story is narrated by Blue Van Meer, who spends every few months of her life in a new town, traveling with her father, an itinerant poli sci professor. Gareth Van Meer’s tremendous personality explodes into every scene—even those in which he is merely being quoted by his adoring daughter. Blue relies on his acute observations and caustic wit, as well as the Western canon she's practically memorized, to navigate high school. The story really picks up when Blue enters her senior year and becomes involved with a intriguing film teacher/femme fatale and a group of students called the Bluebloods.

Blue packs her narrative with related asides and cross references to books of all subjects. This often slows the dialogue and passing of events, which can be maddening, but it critically conveys how much information is packed into this 16-year-old girl’s astounding brain. (As a nice touch considering the highly literate cast, the table of contents is formatted as a great books syllabus with the last chapter containing a final exam.) Blue is brilliant, but she’s also a sympathetic and struggling outsider. I can think of no other story that so poignantly revels great intellect to be both blessing and curse.

Many of the characteristics I love about the show Veronica Mars are present in this book: intellectual dialogue, biting sarcasm, classic noir, the cruelty of high school society, and an intriguing father-daughter relationship. Yet perhaps what I love best about Pessl’s writing style are The Specifics. Descriptions are detailed, amusing, tragic, and astoundingly accurate (Pessl forms metaphors with ruthless clarity just as P.G. Wodehouse masters humorous, light-hearted ones). For example:

"She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light, even at their extremes. And she was older than I’d realized, somewhere in her late thirties. Most extraordinary though was the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, a sense of RKO, which I’d never before witnessed in person, only while Dad and I watched Jezebel into the early hours of the morning. Yes, within her carriage and deliberate steps like a metronome (now retreating behind the display of potato chips) was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speech of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding), and when she considered a person, took in him/her, she would place those nearly extinct personality traits—Character, Reputation, Integrity and Class—above all others.

"Not that she wasn’t real. She was. There were hairs out of place, a quiver of white lint on her skirt. I simply felt somewhere, at some time, she’d been the toast of something. And a confident, even aggressive look in her eyes, made me certain she was planning a comeback."

Just go buy the book. It’s worth it, because as soon as you’re done, you’ll need to go back and read it again. It’s so rich that you’ll discover dozens of clever details with each reading. Also check out the website, which creeps along irresistibly like a Gorey-drawn mystery. Did I mention Pessl also includes her own haunting illustrations throughout the text as “visual aids”? Oh, dear. My blog post just can't do justice to this one.

1 comment:

Ickenham said...

I can't remember the last time I saw you get this excited about a book, and you've read some good ones lately.

You people at home should take that into consideration.