Special Topics in Calamity Physics Paperback – 3 May 2007
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Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink (Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections)
"A whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice." (The New York Times)
"A brilliant debut, guaranteed to join the ranks of The Secret History and the Virgin Suicides as one of those rare books to become a cult hit and instant classic from the moment of publication." (The Sunday Telegraph)
“An escapist extravaganza packed with literary and pop culture allusions, mischievous characterisations, erotic intrigue, murders and unstoppable narrative energy.” (Entertainment Weekly)
"One of the most impressive debut novels I have ever read ... Pessl's level of precision, coupled, of course, with her ability to create a plot that stops you doing anything apart from read it, that makes her such an exciting writer." (The Independent on Sunday)
"Made me stay up all night reading. I loved this book." (Audrey Niffenegger)
"A wordy, funny book." (The New York Observer)
"Blue Van Meer writes of the year her life 'unstitched like a snagged sweater'.This first novel is a hybrid, part coming-of-age story, part murder mystery. But first and foremost, it's a dazzling prose circus, full of hilarious metaphors and studded with footnotes, some real, many invented. Emily Janice Card (daughter of novelist Orson Scott Card) gives a bravura performance. She's an innocent, even foolish teenage girl with the bookishness of an Oxford don. Card dances through this minefield of a text, never getting lost in a sentence or mispronouncing a word. The absence of the drawings present in the text is noticeable but in no way mars this spirited aural romp." (AudioFile Magazine) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I know that this book has garnered widely differing reviews, with some readers at screaming pitch, finding Pessl arrogant, pretentious and a show-off, and others (I'm one) absolutely savouring the literary illusions (each chapter has the title of a piece of literature which references in some way that chapter) She also does full referencing of texts .Blue is of course now a student within higher education and referencing is de rigueur. Some of the texts are real, some are there because Pessl is playing with us, and you sense the mischief. There are also what Blue calls `visual aids' scattered throughout the text - her drawings of photographs, or just her drawings, illustrating the people she is writing. And, yes the illustrations are from Pessl's doubly gifted pen.
I think it comes down to, do you resonate with the author's voice - do you want to listen to what she says, does she grab your attention, or do you find her like chalk on a blackboard. I found Pessl - or rather Pessl subsumed into Blue, marvellous funny, witty, her humour sharp, dry and sometimes cruelly deadly.
I guess this IS Pessl's wit, as the central character of Night Film is equally acerbic and ouchly, wickedly, funny. Where Night Film references films, Calamity Physics is literary,
For a brief flavour, Blue on her father, who unfortunately was a magnet for females, whom Blue, named the June Bugs - they had an intense life in gareth van Meer's bed, just like those brilliant short summer insects, before being suddenly abandoned for a newer bug:
"Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can't help but pick up lint.For years I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now :June Bugs(see "Figeater Beetle", Ordinary Insects, Vol.24)
There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout , "Gareth, you're a fool, " with her back to him. Dad's cue to run to her, turn her around to see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her round to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it were an abstract painting. Then he went into the kitchen for a glass of bourbon."
Blue (and the Bluebloods) are, yes, at times operatic, self-indulgent, melodramatic, cruel and without a shred of empathy. But they are very young, still, and often this age is cruelly judgmental, especially to its peers. Experience and suffering (life) develop empathy and nuance.
After having taken us through the huge events, the teenage tantrums, the cruelly funny dismissive barbs of young teens, which it is (or was) impossible for this reader to avoid laughing at, whilst wincing at the cruel put-downs, Pessl skilfully steers us to the not-so-sudden bleakness of an ending. The one we do not want, but the one which changes Blue, the one which makes her able to "feel a little guilty using it now". Blue enters bleakness, the wit and the humour suddenly ripped aside, and we suddenly are slap-bang into a depth. The ending, which I am still thinking about, still going `oh no, oh no' is perfect, and Pessl has made the reader inhabit this likeable, frightening, irritating, far too worldly, intelligent adolescent, and really engage with the journey.
When I read the book again (as I surely will) I will ensure I have also read the chapter heading literary works I DON'T know, in order to gain a bit of extra nuanced flavour from the chapter it announces. It is absolutely possible to enjoy this book hugely if you are completely unfamiliar with any of the texts, but knowing them, adds a bit of spice.
The main protagonist in the novel is Blue Van Meer, an isolated yet supremely intelligent teenager who tours America with her father, an itinerant professor of politics. In the novel she meets and mixes with a teacher and a curious band of students who associate with the teacher. For the first time in her life, Blue is almost a typical teenager complete with dysfunctional friends and her own neurotic preoccupations but the death of the teacher through suicide creates its own turmoil and makes her question her world.
If ever there was a novel that could be brought to a desert island then this is it because it will occupy your mind whilst reading it and take a long, long time to digest.
It has outstanding virtues - a compelling plot, astonishing imagery and great complexity - and balancing flaws. In particular, it seems to have bypassed any editing. Maybe publishers are cutting back on editors these days..? In any case, it seems to be far longer than necessary. The faults, though, are not great enough to mar the whole.
As has already been said, Calamity Physics resembles The Secret History only very superficially. The author herself points us at Nabokov but I was reminded also of Pynchon (Lot 49 rather than Gravity's Rainbow) and Eco. There are points which verge on magical realism, others under the spell of detective fiction. It's a consciously cinematic book, with reminders of film noir and Hitchcock as well as Antonioni. At times, we seem to be verging on the territory of David Lynch. Though it seems to have absorbed everything vaguely odd ever written or flimed, it is not strictly like anything but itself.
It seems to me that readers, including the paid critics, have nonetheless approached this book too straightforwardly. In general, they seem to take Blue's solution at face value. The Final Exam should indicate that this is not what the author wants us to do and that a more sceptical, inquisitive reading is needed. (The Exam in itself is, I suggest, more red herrings than clues.) And when one thinks about it, there is very little to suggest that Blue has reached anything like the right conclusions. How reliable is she in either her deductions or her observations?
What evidence is there that Hannah Schneider was actually murdered? Is she even dead?
Maybe the best comparison is not with the Secret History but with the Quincunx - what you seem to see may not be at all what is happening.
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On a line by line, paragraph by paragraph basis, even on a page by page, chapter by chapter basis, the book is quite brilliant.Read more
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