Sunday, June 24, 2012

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Penguin Group, copyright 2006
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780739477137

Marisha Pessl's mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this 'cracking good read' is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel with visual aids drawn by the author that has won over readers of all ages.
My Thoughts:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl is narrated by Blue Van Meer, daughter of  a highly intelligent but itinerant history professor Gareth. Blue's mother died in a tragic car accident when she was 5, and since then she has traveled across the country, from one university or college to another with her father. Blue is telling us her life story, but more specifically, the story of her senior year of high school when she was attending the elite St. Gallway school. There she became part of an elite group of students who were protégé's of part time film instructor Hannah Schneider. We know right at the beginning that Hannah Schneider dies but need to hear Blue's story told in her own unique way to learn what happens.
In Special Topics in Calamity Physics, each chapter is the title of a novel from a core curriculum. Novels (chapters)  included: Othello, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wuthering Heights, The House of Seven Gables, The Woman in White, Brave New World, Pygmalion, A Moveable Feast, Sweet Bird of Youth, Deliverance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Bleak House, Justine, Things Fall Apart, The Trial, Paradise Lost, and Metamorphoses, to name a few.
There is a mystery that needs to be solved but it's not until the very end that you piece all the facts together, even though you may have some questions long before then. Blue is an extremely intelligent young narrator who frequently quotes various other books or scholarly works in her narrative. Pessl also has Blue cleverly include drawings of pictures in the text as numbered visual aids. (Others can be seen on the author's website.)
While this is a very clever novel, I can see where the incessant references to other sources could become exasperating due to the sheer volume of them for some readers. Although, in the end, they perhaps help to prove that Blue's intellectual capacity surpasses that of her father' (It's not until page 468 we find out the reason for the book's title.)
I would highly recommend Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.
"Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond - James Bond - you best spend your free time finger painting of playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiful existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began - with a wheeze." opening

I took a deep breath. At the top of the page, I wrote in my neatest handwriting, "Curriculum," and then, "Required Reading."
That was always how Dad began. pg. 12

Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider's death, I'll tell you about my mother's. pg. 15

Dad's favorite photograph of Natasha is the one in black and white, taken even before she ever met him, when she was twenty-one and dressed for a Victorian costume party (Visual Aid 1.0). pg. 19

When questioned by colleagues as to why he no longer wished to educate the Ivy League, Dad adored waxing poetic on the Common Man. and yet, sometimes in private, particularly while grading a frighteningly flawed final exam or widely-off-the-mark research paper, even the illustrious unspoiled Common Man could become, in Dad's eyes, a "half-wit," a "nimrod," a "monstrous misuse of matter." pg. 23

Naturally, for me, the idea of a Permanent Home (the definition of which I took to be any shelter Dad and I inhabited in excess of ninety days - the time an American cockroach could go without food) was nothing more than a Pipe Dream, Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, the hope to purchase a brand new Cadillac Coupe DeVille with baby blue leather interior for any Soviet during the drab winter of 1985. pg. 45

It was evident, and had been for some time, that Dad was determined to make une grande affaire out of this year, my senior year (hence, the Bactrian Camel and other perplexing Auntie Mame-like lavishes I shall soon detail). Yet he was dreading it too (hence the gloomy gaze into LINENS). pg. 48

It was painfully obvious Dad was hoping his posthumous biography would be reminiscent not of Kissinger: The Man (Jones, 1982) or even Dr. Rhythm: Living with Bing (Grant, 1981) but something along the lines of the New Testament or the Qur'an. pg. 48

He certainly wasn't the first headmaster to suffer from the Ol'-Blue-Eyes-at-The-Sands Effect. Countless headmasters, particularly male, confused the slick floors of a dimly lit cafeteria or the muddled acoustics of a high school auditorium for the ruby-walled Copa Room, mistook students for a doting public who'd made their reservations months in advance and shelled out $100 a pop. pg. 66

...."And keep drawing, Blue," he added, a statement that seemed to comfort him more than me. He sighed and touched the collar of his textured magenta shirt. "And I don't say that to just anyone, you know. Many people should stay far, far away from the blank page. But you - you see, the drawing, the carefully considered sketch of a human being, animal, an inanimate object, is not simply a picture but a blueprint of a soul. Photography? A lazy man's art. Drawing? The thinker, the dreamer's medium." pg. 497

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