Monday, 1 September 2008

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessle

So the novel is brilliant, rubbish or what?
This famous Sufi story sums up the conflict around Marisha Pessl début novel "Special Topics in Calamity Physics":

A judge in a village court had gone on vacation. Nasrudin was asked to be temporary judge for a day. Nasrudin sat on the Judge's chair with a serious face, gazing around the public and ordered the first case be brought-up for hearing.
"You are right," said Nasrudin after hearing one side.
"You are right," he said after hearing the other side.
"But both cannot be right," said a member of public sitting in the audience.
"You are right, too" said Nasrudin.

So is it juvenile rubbish written by a writer who has… a tin ear for prose. There is a page-by-page cascade of dreadful extended metaphors and distractingly inappropriate similes. Or is it the…most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. With its pirouettes and cartwheels, its tireless annotations and digressions, it has a similar whiz-kid eagerness to wow the reader.

Plot, Genre and what the F**k is going on
To see which way I sit, let’s start with Plot. The novel is mainly about the senior year of Blue Van Meer at a yuppie private school where her Father teaches political science. She is very bright and heading for being the top of the year on her way to Harvard. Hannah a film professor who bewitches the clever/social elite of the college befriends Blue. They are bitterly opposed to Blue’s presence and this is made plain in her treatment over the year but she is attracted to one of the pack and perhaps its mutual.
And there was Milton, sturdy and grim with a big, cushiony body like someone’s favorite reading chair in need of reupholstering…He was eighteen but looked thirty. His face , cluttered with brown eyes, curly black hair, a swollen mouth, had a curdled handsomeness to it, as if, incredibly, it wasn’t what it’d once been.
But another loves her and she can’t see past him being a jock and nice guy. So here we have the elements for High School satire.

But she and her Father have been on the road, teaching at colleagues and attending schools around America since her mother died when she was five. So part of the energy of the book is the hilarious scatter-gun comedy of them both on the road and the Father’s I-am-so-right about all things views on all things
“Everyone is responsible for the page-turning tempo of his or her Life Story,” Dad said, scratching his jaw thoughtfully, arranging the limp collar of his chambray shirt. “Even if you have your Magnificent Reason, it could still be as dull as Nebraska and that’s no one’s fault but your own. Well, if you feel it’s miles of cornfields, find something to believe in other that yourself, preferably a cause without the stench of hypocrisy, and then charge in to battle…
Combine the High School satire and the need to assess her Father and we have a Coming of Age as the story is written a year after as the Narrator (Blue) reviews the events of the past year and what her future will be. Those readers not comfortable with mixed genres also have to contend with the fact that the novel is also a Mystery. Its stated in the first few pages that Hannah dies, how and under what circumstances is revealed as the story unfolds. After the death about 2/3rds into the story takes an unexpected turn as it shows that, none of the events and main character were, as they seemed.

Does the genre mix work? Yes for me, as I liked the way that each of the genres undermine and reinvigorate each other. It’s like watching a film that combines “Heathers”(High School satire) “The Crying Game” (political intrigue) and “American Graffiti” ( growing up), which would be a mess in the wrong hands. But having a single narrator with Blue’s personality keeps this from unravelling but it may not be for you. As this commenter makes clear... A fizzy fusion of prep-school escapade, Gothic murder mystery and revolutionary intrigue (...) Initially entertaining, such gimmickry swiftly becomes tiresome and, rather than adding depth, detracts from a plot

Structure and Voice reflecting story purpose and shape
The structure of the novel reflects the over earnest academic nature of the narrator and her teenage angst in that its structured around core curriculum reading which means that each chapter is linked to famous, novel, play, political essay or poem such as Moby-Dick, Laughter in the Dark, Othello. Part of the humour of the novel is see what the possible resonance of the quoted title is with the actual events in the chapter. The end chapter, Final Exam sums up the book’s themes in a series of multi-choice questions and should not be read until the end of the book! The introduction like any introduction sets out what is to be discussed and for those that read it after finishing the novel it does but you miss it the first time round!

The narrator is a hot-house intellectual cultivated by her father and never really having the opportunities to have child-child friendships. This is shown in the novel by her excessive quote of references (not real life ones-give an author a break) and of quoting her father (these have the impact of being a commentary on the characters actions and showing her naïveté).This passage describes the silence used by Hannah.
And the wasn’t premeditated, condescending, or forced (see chapter9, “ Get Your Teen to Consider You thee ‘In’ Crowd.” Befriending Your Kids, Howards, 2000)
Obviously being able to simply was a skill supremely underestimated in the Western world. As Dad was found of saying all Winners were in possession of a strident voice, which was successfully producing a country that was insanely loud, so, loud most of the time, no actual meaning could be discerned-‘only nationwide white noise.’
Writing and characterisation: Good or Bad
Well I was carried along by writing tricks of the trade such as the the rich wordplay in which the character gets complexly carried away with metaphors and similes so whole passages come alive with the joy of language.
I had not foreseen the stiff , clapboard manner with which she’d greeted me, the barebones welcome, the whisper of a frown-as if I ‘d been wired for sound all night…

On Friday, March 26th, with the same innocence of the Trojans as they gathered around the strange wooden horse standing at the gate to their city in order to marvel at its craftsmanship, Hannah drove our yellow Rent-me truck into the dirt lot of Sunset Views Encampment and parked in Space 52.
Or as one critic put it...(H)er mesmeric tale, even at its most over-the-top, feels true to the operatic agonies of adolescence.

The three main characters, Blue, her father (Her father in many ways dominates as a character and it will be wonderful to see how they play him in the film surely under discussion) and Hannah stand out and several of the minor characters as well especially the “June Bugs” Blue and her fathers description of the women who get drawn in and dumped when they stop being amusing. The possible weakness is the Bluebloods, the college elite, it is not always clear why they act the way they act. In part this is the muddled perception of Blue and the manipulations Hannah. But they do tend to be used as plot devices and foils for some of the satire rather then being independent characters in their own right. Some concern has been expressed that Blue is not convincing: an intellectual that doesn’t read, getting to the top of the class based on intellectual efforts only etc but lighten up, it’s a satire not an anthropological study.

So what’s the judgement?
So, if you read it, get driven by the energy of the writing to the end and be amazed how much you have been tricked about what was really going on. Enjoy the characters and social satire. It is an impressive debut novel that is fun and funny but it bears no relationship with "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt so ignore that red herring. And ignore comments like...Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate -- Pnin meets The O.C. -- is a poetic act of will. Its good but please it ain’t the second coming or one night alone with your secret desire- you know who I mean.

Oh and of course you too are right.

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