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Much Ado about Calamity Physics June 19, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Marisha Pessl struck gold with her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Critics generally went ga-ga over the book, owing to the sheer ingenuity and skill involved in the storytelling, the scope of the erudition that finds its way into the narrative, and most of all the compelling heroine through which Ms. Pessl’s voice rings fresh and true.

Such is the strength of Calamity Physics: Pessl is able to convince us readers that precocious sixteen year-old Blue van Meer is writing both to us and for us. We are drawn into Blue’s tale as witnesses to the angst, pressures and missteps occasioned by her senior year in high school, precisely because the events recounted in the book — from the secret history of the June Bugs to the unsettling turn of events in Blue’s life that mark the story’s conclusion — feel at once charmingly and painfully real. Nevermind that the novel progresses as a coming-of-age tale for half the book before turning into something that is not entirely a murder mystery, as if Pessl suddenly decided to shift gears at some point in the manuscript’s development. Nevermind that the book is peppered with pretentious pop-culture references that may not be accessible to non-American readers. Nevermind, further, that Pessl takes the “course outline” idea a little too far with the “final exam” at the end of the book (although in fairness this does manage to shed light on why the novel was written as it was). No: Special Topics in Calamity Physics is first and last all about Blue van Meer, one of the best fictional characters to have been written in a long time.

From a purely technical standpoint, the writing put into the novel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Marisha Pessl’s prose is unrelenting, and she pulls off turns of phrases as very few others can. The least of her skill can be seen in the surprising ways she weaves idioms/metaphors together to make otherwise dry portions of the narrative brim with energy. The best of her talents are made manifest in her ability to inject scenes with a torrent of emotion. Naysayers need only peruse the poignant speech at the novel’s conclusion — who else could make such a succinct point by referring to goldfish? — to concede that this is true.

Much like the titles constituting the “course outline” that make up its chapters, Special Topics in Calamity Physics should be required reading for both the casual reader and aspiring writer alike. As novels go, it is very intelligent entertainment that will likely resonate with audiences in generations to come.

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