Monday, August 23, 2010

Crash course.



If there were a course called Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I would most likely fail it. Ill-advisedly, I took a physics course in high school. Given my general ineptitude for anything relating to math and science (which is probably, according to Larry Summers, because my uterus makes it impossible for me to understand math*), I don't know why I took the physics course, unless it was because it was the only one that would fit into my schedule. Fortunately, the teacher was very understanding and would let you have partial credit for diagramming the problems on the test, so I drew very intricate, highly detailed diagrams of things falling off cliffs and ended up passing, although I don't remember knowing anything more about physics on the last day of class than I did on the first.

Fortunately, Special Topics in Calamity Physics isn't a course, but Marisha Pessl's audacious first novel. Like a lot of recent postmodernist fiction, Pessl's novel ignores the finer points of ficion, like plot and character development, in favor of cramming as much stylistic flourishes as possible into it's 500+ pages.

But backing up a moment, I bought Special Topics from the bargain shelf at the bookstore. Being cheap and also having way more books than I have space for, I rarely buy new books, but can't resist touring the bargain shelves, and I feel sorry for those poor books with their optimistic $25.99 hardback price stickers, so vulgarly covered up with a big $6.98!! And Special Topics looked pleasingly dense.

Special Topics follows radical-turned-professor-and-intellectual Gareth van Meer and his precocious teenage daughter, Blue, as they bounce from one small American college town to another. van Meer is a brilliant and self-absorbed author whose professorial career seems to be in decline and is irrestible to women. Blue terms his short-lived dalliances June Bugs, and like the towns she and her father pass through, they never stick. However, in Blue's senior year, they settle in a small North Carolina town, Blue enrolls in St. Gallway's, a private school, and van Meer promises they'll stay put until she graduates and gets her anticipated acceptance into Harvard.

Blue, an introverted, alarmingly smart and perceptive teenager (rather, I suppose, like many kids who never put down roots), usually doesn't bother making friends, preferring her father's company instead, but at St. Gallway's, she gets drawn into a circle of five students (nicknamed the Bluebloods) who are set apart by their devotion to each other and to Hannah Schneider, the film teacher at St. Gallway's.

Hannah's relationship to the Bluebloods is boundary-pushing for a teacher. They spend weekend nights at her house, having boozy dinners, and Hannah's beauty and wit quickly dazzles Blue, although the other students chafe at Hannah's insistence that they include Blue in their group.

The Bluebloods devote a considerable amount of time puzzling over Hannah. Strictly tight-lipped about her background, Hannah's a desultory (at best) teacher and has a habit of disappearing into seedy motels for apparent one-night stands. The Bluebloods clearly feel themselves elevated by her attention, but after an accidental drowning at one of her parties, Hannah, always tightly strung, seems to be coming unraveled.

After a fatal camping trip, Blue is left to deal with her increasingly strained relationship with her father, further damaged when she suspects that he hasn't been honest about his relationship with Hannah, her own attempts to pry open the secrets of Hannah's life, which leads her to a conspiracy larger than she could have imagined.

Special Topics is a book very much wrapped up in its own cleverness. Pessl includes visual diagrams, extensive footnotes for imaginary books (the titles of several are hilarious), and overstuffs her narrative with metaphors, similes, analogies, and endless linguistic variations. While wading through this is rather entertaining, Pessl's talent as a writer makes the reader wish for more - a tighter plot, fleshier characters, less attention to style and more attention to detail. The mystery is dealt with almost perfunctorily and takes up less than a third of the book, which is unsatisfying, and the ending feels rather pat.

I imagine Special Topics will appeal most to those who get the joke of the endless false annotations, the punny chapter titles, and the "final test" included in the end of the book. Special Topics is reminiscient of a lighter, less bleak House of Leaves, and probably has that narrow of a readership (which may explain the $6.98). Still, as a confirmed literature twerp, Special Topics threw enough stuff in the way of the narrative to make it take a while to get through, which is something I enjoy, since I have a hard time finding books I can't chew through in a few hours, while at the same time not asking much from my brain. But strip away the gymnastic writing, and Special Topics feels like the gym after prom - empty and littered with bits of streamer and a squashed corsage or two.

*Actually a uterus is not an impediment to learning about math and science, so don't be alarmed if you have one. My stunning lack of mathematical ability is probably due to 1) several years of being homeschooled, meaning left to my own devices, which, shockingly, did not include teaching myself math, hence never really grasping things like long division 2) several years of astoundingly awful math teachers who did not realize that not getting it is not the same as never having been taught it and 3) the general theory being proposed that I was perhaps just Not Good at Math, hence providing me with a handy excuse to avoid anything math-related for the rest of my life, coupled with a freezing, panicky feeling when asked anything relating to math. Also, to explain my general aptitude with sports, replace "math" in the above with "sports."

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