A debut novel worthy of the hype, and your time
Rarely does a debut novel land on The New York Times top-10 books of the year. Even more rarely does the author of a first novel get compared to Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith and Vladimir Nabokov in the same breath. Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” skyrocketed the 27-year-old into exactly that stratosphere when it was published in September 2006.
First, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. The novel has more in common with one of Nabokov’s novels than with a science course. Pessl even reinterprets, mocks and, at times, follows some of Nabokov’s stylistic conventions.The voice of the novel is Blue Van Meer, a young girl who starts her narrative while on a cross-country traipse not unlike Humbert Humbert’s in “Lolita.” At the beginning, Blue’s mother has died a somewhat mysterious death, at least one with unanswered questions – and it leaves her and her father traveling the country. The father is a looker with a golden tongue. He is a professor consumed with his ideas as they travel from one visiting professorship to the next before settling in for a full year in one place.
There for her senior year, Blue unleashes both a classic high school experience and a nail-biting thriller. The story runs at a blinding pace, but there is no question of skipping paragraphs because Pessl’s wordplay, packed with metaphors, is funny and smart without being pretentious.Blue is beyond clever, constantly quoting from giant tomes and masterpieces of literature, some of which Pessl has completely made up. Somehow, though, Blue remains a believable teenager, though her father would often prefer that she stay in the heady realm of academia.Though the writing makes fun of academia, it is within the Great Books that Pessl’s novel finds a great deal of strength. “Calamity Physics” is organized as a course syllabus, with each chapter named after a masterwork in literature – “Paradise Lost,” “The Trial” – and loosely based on corresponding themes. It’s not a book that needs a deep understanding of the classics to be enjoyed, however. It’s just a book that begs to be read.
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