Skip to content

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

April 21, 2014

The only thing that detracted in the slightest from my immense pleasure in reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, is that my paperback copy did not reprint the chapter titles at the top of each page, instead reprinting the title of the novel. I wanted the chapter titles up there so I could re-orient myself to the additional messages provided by the chapter titles on the few occasions where I had to put the novel down and do other things before I could come back to it.

The organizing principle of the novel—a syllabus—was well-nigh irresistible to me, especially because the opening chapter (first on the syllabus) is Othello. Shiveringly aware of that chapter title all the way through, I continued to read the rest of the novel with a suspicious eye on the male protagonist, the father of the narrator, Blue Van Meer. I adored the chapter in which Blue meets the mysterious older man she mentally casts as her Heathcliff, and it was in that chapter that I started to back off my suspicions about her father, who she entertainingly describes as
“a man who…never hesitated when it came to the verbs to get or to take. He was always getting something off the ground, his act together, his hands dirty, the show on the road, someone’s goat, the message, out more, on with things, lost, laid, away with murder. He was also always taking charge, the bull by the horns, back the night, something in stride, someone to the cleaners, a rain check, an ax to something, Manhattan.”

Really, it’s as if Pessl wrote this novel with one gimlet eye on the kind of dreamy and romantic reader I have always tended to be, because next she disarms more of my suspicions about the father with a comparison of him to Blanche Dubois:
“I couldn’t help but feel that to call him out on this well-intentioned extravagance, to embarrass him, was sort of unnecessary and cruel—not unlike informing Blanch Debois that her arms looked flabby, her hair dry, and that she was dancing the polka dangerously close to the lamplight.”

The descriptions of the characters all have a virtuoso quality, and none more than this one of a high school boy: “He had an Orson Wellesian quality, Gerardepardieuian too: one suspected his large, slightly overweight frame smothered some kind of dark genius and after a twenty-minute shower he’d still reek of cigarettes.”

The central mystery of the novel revolves around a character named Hannah Schneider, a high school film teacher at the school where Blue spends her senior year, and a woman of mystery. She invites Blue and several other students over to her house once a week, and utterly beguiles each one of them. And Hannah is just as fascinating to adults as she is to the group of high school students. Seeing Hannah once with a strange man, Blue thinks “the man was mesmerized. He looked as if he couldn’t wait for her to garnish him with fresh bay leaves, slice him, pour him all over with gravy.”

In addition to the mounting tension of finding out who Hannah is and what happened to her, the way the story is told was a delight I wished would keep going on. When someone dies, Blue observes that “I hated when people participated in what Dad called “Sing-along Sorrow” (Everyone’s eager to mourn so long as it’s not their child who was decapitated in the car accident, not their husband stabbed by a gutter binger desperate for crack”).

One of the chief delights of the novel are the conversations between Blue and her father. Perhaps I like these because my father, a theater professor, liked inserting a few moments of bombastic lecture into a conversation with his daughter as well as the next man, certainly as well as Blue’s father does:
“Is man’s destiny determined by the vicissitudes of environment or free will? I argue that it is free will, because what we think, what we dwell upon in our heads, whether it be fears or dreams, has a direct effect upon the physical world. The more you think about your downfall, your ruin, the greater the likelihood that it will occur. And conversely, the more one thinks of victory, the more likely one will achieve it….’Obviously,’ he continued with a slow smile, ‘it’s a concept that has been bastardized of late in Western Culture, associated with the runny-nosed Why-Nots and How-Comes of self-help and PBS marathons that drone on into the wee hours, begging you to pledge money and in return, receive forty-two hours of meditation tapes one can chant to when one is mired in traffic. Yet visualization is a concept that was once considered not so frothy, dating back to….Even America’s most dashing leading man, the circus-educated Archibald Leach, understood it. He is quoted, in that funny little book we have, what is it, the—“
Talk of the Town: Hollywood Heroes Have Their Moment,” I chirped.
“Yes. He said, ‘I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.’ In the end, a man turns into what he thinks he is, however large or small.”

Many of their exchanges have a different feel, upon re-reading, but they delighted me the first time through, without even knowing the sub-text. For instance, I love the way Blue remembers her father’s set speech about the ending of an Italian movie entitled “L’Avventura;” he says it “has the sort of ellipsis ending most American audiences would rather undergo a root canal than be left with, not only because they loathe anything left to the imagination—we’re talking about a country that invented spandex—but also because they are a confident, self-assured nation. They know Family. They know Right from Wrong. They know God—many of them attest to daily chats with the man. And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all—not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves—is a thought they’d rather be shot in the arm with their own semiautomatic rifle than face head-on.”

In the end, Blue’s course of study reveals that “Lectures and Theories, all Tomes of Nonfiction, maybe they deserved the same gentle treatment as works of art; maybe they were human creations trying to shoulder a few terrors and joys of the world, composed at a certain place, at a certain time, to be pondered, frowned at, liked, loathed, and then one went to the gift shop and bought the postcard, put it in a shoe box high on a shelf.” And the final exam, well. Reading it is a wonderful experience in trying to put a postcard into an already-full shoebox, until the box topples and there, at the bottom, is a final essay question, inviting you to sit down in the mess and “take all the time you need.”

I don’t remember the last time I loved a novel this much. Maybe it was Infinite Jest, because that’s the last one I remember starting over from the beginning when the end came much too soon, and seeing everything differently because of my first reading. How many of you start over from the beginning when you can’t stand to leave a fictional world?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2014 7:26 am

    Aw, I’m so glad you liked this! I forgot that the curriculum setup would be so charming to a teacher – I loved it, too, but feel I was not predisposed to like it, if you know what I mean. My favorite part was the re-read; I liked knowing all the secrets in the subtext. Do you remember the film The Illusionist? Same thing….I finished watching the movie and then immediately watched it again from beginning to end.

    And now I am not 100% sure you will love Night Film as much as I did. In fact, I am pretty sure you will not. It is some cracked-out crazy, but the narrator is irritating and has verbal tics. I didn’t care, but you may want to approach it with lowered expectations to achieve maximal pleasure.

    • April 24, 2014 8:45 am

      You know that I read it partly because of your stated love for this author. I had to find out what was so fascinating.
      I like that you know me well enough to know I have to try Night Film now. I will try to approach it with lowered expectations.
      Yes, I did like The Illusionist and did want to watch it again. We saw it at a movie theater, so had to wait a few days!

  2. April 21, 2014 7:52 am

    I ruined Special Topics for myself the first go-round by not reading the end. Everyone was all like “Don’t get spoiled for this book!”, and they said it so often that I didn’t, and I regretted it. I’m always a bit sad that I didn’t have a good first-time reading experience, because in the end I thought the book was great. Once you know the secrets, it’s more fun to read. (LIKE ALWAYS. Grrr, I am so mad I let myself be brainwashed.)

    • April 24, 2014 8:48 am

      Really, though, when the first chapter is titled Othello and the father is the only male character who could qualify, it should give you a mighty uneasy feeling about the guy, which will make you suspicious about anything he says. I thought he was the character who turned out to be the guy in Paris, so even though I knew something, I didn’t know all that I thought I did.
      And yes, I really kind of hate the word “spoilers.” Some of us relish knowing what the story is before we enjoy the way the story is told. Not always, but often. The two exceptions I can think of right now are The Gone-Away World and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I enjoyed reading “blind.”

  3. April 21, 2014 1:01 pm

    Having recently read Night Film, I was most curious to go back to her earlier novel, and your review makes me want to leap on it! I love the way she uses literary figures to define her own characters, and I’d be just as much of a sucker for organising a novel around a curriculum.. Lovely review, Jeanne. It was a pleasure to read.

    • April 24, 2014 8:50 am

      I think you should leap on it–I’d love to hear your reactions! It does sound like Night Film is a completely different kind of book.

  4. April 21, 2014 5:11 pm

    This sounds incredible! I will definitely look out for this book..

    • April 24, 2014 8:51 am

      It’s old enough to be in most libraries, I would think. Published in 2006.

  5. April 24, 2014 12:30 pm

    When this book first came out I thought it sounded great and immediately got myself a copy but then I started seeing reviews around on blogs and no one seemed to like it all that much so I never got around to reading the book. So thanks for your review, I am once again interested in reading the book!

    • April 24, 2014 12:39 pm

      Really? I’m trying to imagine why its immediate reception was not warmer. Didn’t it win a prize? (yes, I looked it up just now)
      I say it’s great. Try it and see if you agree.

  6. April 25, 2014 6:09 am

    I am so looking forward to reading this. I recently read Night Film and loved it (one of the few it seems!) but I’ve heard a lot of people saying that this one is even better.

    • April 25, 2014 8:00 am

      Well, that’s encouraging. I like knowing there’s still another book in the world by an author I’ve really liked.

  7. April 26, 2014 7:02 pm

    I remember loving Special Topics, but it is hopelessly mixed up in my head with The Secret History, so it’s maybe especially funny that I also read their most recent books (Pessl’s Night Film, Tartt’s The Goldfinch) back to back. They are, however, much more separate in my head. I’m thinking, though, that I should maybe go back and reread the earlier ones, in part because I’m wondering if their themes/stories are so similar or if it’s just lost in a fog of books about schools, of which I’ve read a metric ton.

    • April 28, 2014 11:17 am

      You’re not the only one to say that The Secret History gets mixed up in memory with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. That makes me want to read The Secret History a little more, although I’ve resisted this long because I do get tired of books about schools.

your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: