Friday, January 26, 2007

Special Topics In Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

Well, this is a superhuman book. The internet and airwaves and traditional media have been awash in controversy over this debut novel. Is it being primed for success because it's author is good-looking? Is it really one of the 10 best novels of 2006, as the New York Times has declared? Does it break new ground in novel-writing, altering the form of the novel as we know it?

Well, it's a very good first novel. It's somewhat different from many of the books I have ever read, but not in a genre defying way. It's vigorous and it tries for something not often attempted. It may be deeper than it first appears.

The story is narrated by Blue Van Meer, a Harvard freshman who tells the story of her senior year of high school. Blue is the only child of a political science professor, who has spent the last ten+ years taking short term appointments at thrid tier colleges across the country. Much of Blue's life has been unmoored, and she and her father are unusually close as a result.

Blue is a hyper-educated girl, who has spent the years of her life with her father on long cross-country car trips from post to post, spending the time memorizing poetry, being quizzed on vocabulary--a life-long Baby Einstein project. As a result, she has read many many books, but she is inexperienced at life, and is intellectually as sheltered as she is physically encapsulated in her father's car. So, while she can quote and expound on just about any topic, she doesn't really understand what she has read--she has not truly become a critical thinker by any stretch.

This is in large part given the oversized character of her father. He is an academic who routinely derides the work of his peers to Blue, and is cynical about much of what life shows him. He sleeps through productions of "Our Town," he picks up and drops women in each of the towns they live in, he is given to nasty characterizations of anyone who does not live up to his standards--which is just about everyone. "A stale strawberry Sweet/Tart" he calls one, or he willd rive 20 miles out of his way to avoid eating in a place where "the people look like tires."

Given this outsized ego and harsh criticism, it is inevitable that his daughter would seek his approval and would parrot his own opinions back to him rather than risk her own, original thought to be decimated by his nasty wit. So Blue arrives at her senior year of high school with few or no critical faculties, and with a seriously inflated opinion of her father.

There is something very The Secret History (Donna Tartt, 1992) about Blue's new school--it's a prep school, where she falls into a group of wealthy, beautiful and louche students who circle around a charismatic teacher; in this case, the film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. The students are reluctant to bring Blue into their clique, but Hannah insists. Eventually, Blue finds herself changing her hair and clothes based on the "Bluebloods'" advice, she starts lying to her father about her whereabouts and spends her weekends drinking and wasting hours and hours with them and with Hannah and one night crashes one of Hannah's parties where a man dies.

The story moves on to a camping trip into the Smokey Mountains, and on the first night, Blue finds Hannah Schneider dead, hanging by an electrical wire from a tree. Blue is found by some hunters: the rest of the Bluebloods are lost for five days. The police rule the death a suicide; the others blame Blue for Hannah's death. Blue has reason to believe that Hannah was murdered, and spends the last term of her senior year trying to "solve" the case.

Up to this point in the book, everyone of Blue's assertions has been annotated with the books she has read--many of them apparently invented by the author. Once she starts her "research" into Hannah's murder, she quickly veers away from even the most questionable of printed material and onto the internet--many sites from "geocities" and "angelfire." Starting from a tip from a dotty Southern woman, Blue pieces together a conspiracy in which "Hannah Schneider" was a member of "The Night Watchmen," a radical protest group who may (or may not) have murdered a number of prominentbusinessmen they blamed for destructive business practices. Blue becomes convinced Hannah was murdered by a fellow member of the Night Watchmen because she had become a liability following the death of the man at her Halloween party.

Before she can return to Hannah's house to search for proof of this theory, she tells her father, and he listens to her--skeptically, pointing o0ut the weaknesses of her case, but in the end saying he is impressed by her logic. The next morning, when she wakes up, he is gone, his closet, medicine cabinet and study are empty, but the car is still in the driveway. There are new clues Blue uncovers, which make it possible that her father had lived their entire live as a lie, and was himself a member of the Night Watchmen. She finishes her senior year without telling anyone her father has left, but makes up a story that he is dying of throat cancer. She leaves town the day of her graduation and the book ends with a "Final Exam."

Looking back on the book a day or two after finishing it, I was struck by some things I had not really thought about while under the spell of the book. Perhaps Blue's father was the genius she thought he was, but then, why did he only accept jobs from third rate colleges in obscure areas? The bits of philosophy we hear from him is suspiciously gassy--a lot of hot air and pretention. Once I thought about that, especially in the context of Blue's conspiracy research, it seems that what we have here is a book with a first person unreliable narrator. Once I viewed the story through that lens, the book came together much more satisfactorily.

Gareth Van Meer is a damaged man--perhaps due to the loss of his wife in a car accident 10 years before, maybe even before that. He loves his daughter, but his most meaningful relationship is with himself. He is an accomplished, even pathological, liar. He quickly picks up women and dumps them just as quickly. He is burned out--his CV says he is working on a book which he not working on and has no intention of working on. He has safely insulated himself from adult relationships by focussing on his daughter, by taking only short term teaching assignments (no need to interact with other academics that way), by moving around the country. His possible "relationship" with Hannah (which he attempts to explain away to Blue) may be just one of many hidden relationships he's had over the years, covering up for them with invented dinners with pretend scholars. When Blue finally rebels, when she becomes a complicated human relationship and no longer a malleable child, Gareth clears out without a word or note. He leaves behind money and a car, but nothing of himself. He treats his daughter as he treats the "June Bugs," the women he picked up in each town.

On its face, this book is oddly constructed. We are warned about Hannah's death in the prologue, but about 85% of the book passes before it happens. Then the "twist"--the entire history of the Night Watchmen--is crammed into the last few chapters, but goes nowhere. Imagine if Dan Brown had written the Da Vinci Code like this--Sauniere wouldn't die until page 400, and the breaking of the code would happen in two chapters, but then the characters wouldn't go anywhere.

It doesn't make sense. If, however, you read the book as if the narrator is entirely unreliable, then you have a book like Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent--a book that is much more narratively satisfying if you assume the narrator is the murderer. Once you make that leap, the book looks entirely different. Likewise, assuming that Blue doesn't understand what is really going on because she is too bookish, and not sufficiently socialized to read human relations--then the book turns into a completely different read.

Perhaps a more recent analogy is with The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, where the narrator is autistic, and has absolutely no ability to read human emotion or dynamics, and so he fails to understand what is going on around him until it is spelled out for him. Blue doesn't get the final explanation--that is left for us to do ourselves.

It's a well written book--a vivid and energetic book, abounding with wordplay and metaphor. the most commonly used phrase in the book is probably "as if"--signalling an always interesting metaphor. Pessl's use of creative verbs is engaging: a skirt is "jitterbugging" around someone's ankles, or something is "caterpillaring" across the ground. It reads like a precocious and academic college freshman would write, and is a good companion.

I did not read this book, but had it read to me--and in the spirit of full disclosure, I found Blue's father to be pompous and nearly unbearable, and that may have been an over-reaction based on the reader's characterization. On the other hand, maybe that's just exactly how he was.

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