The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics
by Marisha Pessl.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The post-modern novel is a slippery thing. It easily collapses into
self-parody or even an attack on its own sustaining principles. After
all, when everything is deconstructed, why should the deconstructor
be exempted? When the pundit insists that
“no standpoint is privileged and no discourse
is objectively true,” the most appropriate
response is: “Same to you, buddy.”

As a result, the most ardently deconstructive
novels of recent memory—such as
House of
Leaves or Infinite Jest or Special Topics in
Calamity Physics—are perhaps best read as
savage attacks on post-modernism, even
while they imbibe it as their mother’s milk.
These books are multilayered, but not in the
conventional way of inviting interpretation
of their
symbolic meanings, rather in their
complex attitude toward
meaning in general.
They are the literary equivalents of the snake swallowing its own tail.

Marisha Pessl’s brilliant debut novel,
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics
, does just this, but with such panache and plotting and
pacing—the three P’s, despised by academics but beloved by
readers—that it would be shame to dwell too much on the abstract
and pedantic aspects of this novel, and its parodic treatment of
postmodern excesses.  Fat chance . . . Pessl herself won't let you
miss these elements.  She hits you over the head with the
faux
professorial trappings of her book on every page.

The individual chapters are labeled as though they were required
texts on a syllabus. Chapter one, for example, is called “OTHELLO,
William Shakespeare.” Chapter two is named “THE PORTRAIT OF
THE ARTIST AS YOUNG MAN, James Joyce,” etc. etc. The
concluding section of the novel is in the form of final exam for a
college class in three sections: true or false questions, multiple
choice and an essay. Along the way, Pessl packs her novel full of
citations of other books—ranging from the plausible to the frivolous
(but don’t waste your time trying to track down the apocryphal
sources)—as well as provides visual aids, and various highbrow and
lowbrow cultural references. The gamesmanship starts with the very
title of Pessl’s book, with its overtones of a
Festschrift and plot-
predicting hints of
Academics Gone Wild (which might have been an
even more suitable name for this novel).

Yet these trappings are misleading in the highest degree. They
convey an image of jaunty playfulness and Nabokovian-Joycean
experimentation. Yet
Special Topics in Calamity Physics is one of
the most tightly plotted, carefully constructed narratives that I have
read in recent years. The chapter headings and references may
suggest a book that goes off in various directions, plays with a range
of discourses, and breaks all the rules; but Pessl has actually
constructed an elaborate whodunit, full of hidden clues, red
herrings, misdirection, mistaken motives and various other old-
fashioned tricks of the storyteller’s trade. For every ounce of
Pynchon, there is a pound of Agatha Christie—but with a self-
conscious mastery of current trends in (no,
not calamity physics)
narrative structure far beyond anything the grand dame of
mysteries would have ever have broached.

The end result is a book that is flashy and fun, but also as well
thought out as an elaborate game of chess. The opening gambit
seems straightforward enough. Blue van Meer is a precocious
teenage girl, trying to adapt to cliques and cattiness in a new school.
Her mother was killed in a car accident when Blue was five, and her
father, Gareth van Meer, is an academic frequently on the move,
leading to an unstable if stimulating life for his daughter. The set-up
is familiar, but where Pessl takes this story will defy any predictions
you make 50 or 100 pages into the book.

For her senior year in high school, Gareth decides that he will stay in
the same town for a whole year—an unprecedented move for this
peripatetic scholar—so Blue can have a placid interval before
heading off to the Ivy League. Alas, placidity will be the last thing
she will find in her new setting. Here the brainy teen is enlisted into
the most elitist, and most peculiar, clique in the whole school: the so-
called "blue bloods," a cabal of eccentric students who hang out with
their charming and mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider.
But if you think this is
The Breakfast Club or even The Dead Poet’s
Society
, think again. What seems to be a standard coming-of-age
tale morphs into a murder mystery . . . then into a book of political
intrigue, among other things. Nothing is what is seems in Pessl’s
story, and almost every character—and the characters here sparkle
and intrigue by turns—presents a puzzle, both to Blue and to the
reader.

Everything
does fit together in the end, and this is one of those rare
novels that really delivers a knock-out punch at its conclusion. But
you would probably need to read the novel two or three times to
comprehend all the moving parts in Pessl’s construction. Not
everyone will be persuaded, of course, by Pessl’s elaborate Chinese
puzzle box of a narrative, and certainly there are those who will be
hesitant to canonize any first novel so soon after publication. Above
all, a work this flashy inevitably elicits snide remarks from critics
who prefer the small, intimate narratives that are the stock-in-trade
of the publishing industry (and writing schools) these days.

I can understand all of these reservations. You shouldn’t try to
dazzle, unless you are ready to deliver the goods. But by my
measure, the goods have been delivered and came in wrapping paper
with ribbon and bow. The bottom line: this is more than just dazzle,
and gets into the realm of razzle-dazzle. (No, Northrop Frye never
authorized those evaluative terms; but I find it so cathartic to toss
them out.) Even so, I’m not sure I would advise other writers to
imitate
Special Topics in Calamity Physics—perhaps we need one of
those “don’t’ try this at home” disclaimers on the cover.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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