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Monday, March 24, 2008

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Simply put, I did not enjoy this book – not at all. It is pretentious, wordy and boring and is filled with enough cardboard characters to fill a book of paper dolls. But, I am certainly grateful to its author, Marisha Pessl, for reminding me that I will not live forever and that I should never again waste my time on a 514 page novel as irritating and boring as this one, two emotions that I’ve seldom experienced at the same time.

Some of you will remember that Special Topics in Calamity Physics turned into a bit of an experiment for me because I listened to the first half of the book in its audio version but read the text of the book’s second half for myself. I didn’t plan to do it that way but when I was forced to return the book CDs earlier than expected it seemed like a great opportunity to compare the two versions of the book and my reaction to each of them. Let’s just say that if Emily Janice Card, an actor and singer from North Carolina, had not done such an excellent job with the audio book, I would not have suffered through the second half of the book on my own because I would never have finished the first half.

The book’s plot is straightforward. A sixteen-year old girl and her father, a college professor who changes jobs at least once a year, have reached an agreement that he will stay put for her entire senior year of high school. Completing an entire school year without having to change schools is such a rare thing for Blue van Meer that she feels as if her father has given her an early graduation gift by agreeing to plant roots for the next nine months in Stockton, North Carolina.

Much to her surprise, Blue is almost immediately taken in by a group of students known to everyone else, including teachers, as “the Bluebloods,” a small cluster of the most popular students at St. Gallway led by the school’s film teacher, Hannah Schneider. But this is a coming-of-age novel cloaked in a murder mystery, so Blue quickly learns that she is resented by everyone in the group and is there only at the insistence of Hannah Schneider who has taken a strangely intense interest in Blue. More than half the book concerns Blue’s efforts to fit into the group, something she is at first not really sure she cares to do, and the fascination that the group has with the mysterious Hannah Schneider.

Things finally get interesting when the students take a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains that Ms. Schneider has insisted upon. As revealed in the book’s opening pages, Ms. Schneider does not return from that trip and Blue spends the rest of the book searching through clues that will explain what happened to her and exactly who Hannah Schneider was and what relationship she may have had with Blue’s father. And there you have it: 350 pages used to set-up the real heart of the book, its last 150 pages.

But that’s not the real problem with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. What makes this one so difficult to read is Pessl’s use of what could have been a clever gimmick if it were not so overused and abused for 514 pages. Pessl is apparently a well read individual, and in this, her debut novel, she decided to display her knowledge of world literature by citing book references, both real and made-up ones, as qualifiers for practically every point or description she makes in telling her story, something that was clever, even charming, the first two dozen or so times she did it but which became a terrible bore by the time she had done it a few hundred times, much less what must be well over a thousand times. Such an overabundance of references, be they real or fictional ones, made Blue’s first person narrative difficult to follow and distracted from what should have been the story’s sense of urgency. Pessl’s use of the countless references, and long, drawn-out parenthetical comments, may have been more than self-exhibitionism, however, since the tendency to constantly cite references was part of Blue’s character as well as that of her father. But Pessl, as author, relied so much on this technique that she failed to fully develop the other characters in her book, asking instead that her readers fill in the blanks for themselves based on the often obscure references Blue linked to those characters.

All of these frustrations would perhaps have been worth the time and effort required to get through them were it not for the fact that the “murder mystery” ends in such an open-ended way. There is no clear-cut resolution explaining Hannah Schneider’s death and any link it may have had to Blue’s father. Blue does manage to conjure up an explanation that makes sense to her, based on the limited “inside” information that she has, but it is only one possible answer. Readers expecting the mystery to be solved will have to do more pondering on their own and will wonder if the 514-page effort has really been worth it.

For me, it was not.

Rated at: 2.0

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