Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl is one of those women.

She’s beautiful. See?

She’s young. She was 29 when her debut novel was published.

And, worst of all, she seems to have that kind of talent that is both sickening and inspiring. There is no way anyone could have taught her how to write Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Frankly, reading this book made me jealous. It’s extremely well written and the story itself is captivating.

The most fascinating thing? While each sentence was carefully constructed to put together an extremely gripping plot, I still found it a bit of a slog. Originally, this novel was on the syllabus for my Postmodern American literature course in my last year. I didn’t read it then and, honestly, I don’t know how my prof would have expected anyone to read it in the time alloted for it. (He didn’t, really. He was very postmodern himself.) This book took me 3 weeks of 2 40 minute bus rides a day, 5 days a week to read, with a few hours before bed every so often on top of that. I don’t think it took so long because of its 500+ page count. Rather, every 2 paragraphs or so, Pessl would send her character on intertextuality-filled tangents that, every so often, just started to feel like a demonstration of how smart Pessl is.  My mind would wander and I would start people-watching instead of reading about every fascinating detail of Blue Van Meer’s transformation.

The thing is though, I would still highly recommend it. Just when I would feel like throwing the book out the bus window so I could say I legitimately lost it and therefore not have to finish it, some fascinating detail would come out slowly, layers peeling back until Blue and the reader fully understood the impact of the revelation. Once again, I would be drawn in, for about 50 pages or so.

Did I mention it’s a mystery? You might not think it is for the first, oh, 250 pages. And then, suddenly it is. And an awesome one at that, with lots of twists and turns and unexpected realizations. The best kind.

I kind of wonder if this is the kind of book that would be best studied. Some books can be ruined by too much examining, too much staring. For example, no one should ever try to peel back too many layers of John Irving — just enjoy the story, already. But this one? There’s enough in it that I feel like each layer would provide a new fascinating understanding of what Pessl was doing. Each word will prove necessary, each tangent will lend itself to a new thought, each intertext will throw a new meaning at the meaning already in place.

And that’s why a novel published 4 years ago by a 29 year old is on an English literature syllabus. And that, in turn, is why I’m jealous of Marisha Pessl.

(I also feel really bad that her cats were poisoned. I would cry for days if Pekoe died.)


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