Frustration and irritation are the two words that most apply to my reaction to Marisha Pessl’s debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I confess myself a sucker for a good title. That’s one of the reasons I jumped for Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River last year, and the main reason I went for this one. Neither book lives up to the quality of the title, but Irving comes a lot closer than Pessl.
Calamity opens strongly enough. The odyssey of Blue (wonderful name) Van Meer and her itinerant professor of a father takes us cross country from campus to campus, school to school, affair to affair (his), and through Blue’s childhood after her mother’s death. Father and daughter engage in witty, intellectual repartee at a very high level, and Blue’s habit of adding parenthetical references (movies, books, history) to remarks and events is amusing and sometimes instructive.
Blue is a genius, both she and daddy are erudite and funny. Pessl’s writing is crisp and insightful, and the first 50 or 100 pages flow nicely. Lots of nifty images. (“A puppyish draft played with the pages,” “I felt like a smudge. I couldn’t tell where I began or ended.”) Soon, we’re in another new town, where father plans for Blue to graduate from high school and proceed to Harvard. Puberty, a fascinating pied piper of a teacher named Hannah Schneider, and a clique of her followers nicknamed “the bluebloods” all intervene in the smooth journey toward Gareth Van Meer’s goals for his daughter. An interesting enough setup. Then things bog down. Badly.
The machinations of the adolescent rivalries and Blue’s struggles to fit in and still be her own person become trite and boring, the most mundane kind of coming of age stuff. The constant footnotes, entertaining in the beginning, become interruptive and, as I noted, irritating. This reader began skipping them entirely. Moreover, no thought or action of Blue’s first-person narrative can occur without some reference to daddy’s words or actions. Sure, it’s axiomatic that since he’s been the only constant in her peripatetic life, he would dominate her thoughts, but a comment here and there would have made the point. Instead, Pessl allows him to get in the way of the action. So much so that the truly inciting incident of the novel doesn’t take place until well after page 300. By then I was scanning or skipping huge hunks of prose and wanting to put the whole thing aside, especially since our new puppy had mangled the cover off it and ripped up the last two pages and I might not find out how the thing ended anyhow.
As it turns out, the last couple of hundred pages constitute a good read, and I’m glad I stuck around for them. There is suspense and surprises aplenty Too bad Pessl and her editors didn’t see fit to dispense with a a couple of hundred intervening leaves in this 516-page opus. And about those last two pages my puppy (also, incidentally named Blue) shredded? Completely unnecessary. The book ends with a six page “Final Exam” analogous to those “suggested topics for your book group’s discussion” that appear at the end of many popular novels. No interest for me in the questions or their answers.
Despite its occasional brilliance, despite the fact that Blue is a fascinating character and that the whole package is undoubtedly attractive to those who hold the voice- and/or character-centered novel sacrosanct, I find Calamity overdone and obese. Maybe even borderline diabetic. But it’s too late now for even Obamacare to save it.