I picked up Marisha Pessl’s debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, because it was on the New York Times’ influential “10 Best Books of the Year” in 2006. On three occasions I tried reading it but could never get into the book. I read the book over spring break in Palm Springs and admired its vigorous prose, yet finally was exhausted by it—before I reached the halfway point. In the nutshell it’s a murder mystery, divided into chapters named after selections from Western Canon. It tells the story of Blue, the hipster-geek daughter of Gareth, a professor who hauls her along with him on long road trips from one third-rate college to another. During her senior year at a North Carolina private school, Blue falls in with a coterie that is in thrall to their charismatic film teacher, Hannah, at whose house they spend much of their time. The gist of the story is the foreshadowing of a narrative, in which Blue, now in college, reminisces on this interlude in her young life, and reveals that she is still haunted by the memory of discovering, on a hiking trip, Hannah’s body hanging from a tree.
Pessl is obviously in thrall to stylistic showmanship. She has a gift for inventive lines and I was charmed, at first, by Blue’s habit of attaching bibliographic parentheses with observations. But the asides quickly become a literary tic—intrusive, and, more often than not, redundant. As the book plows forward, Pessl keeps just throwing images out there. Metaphors stretch out and redouble on themselves. These irritatingly perky metaphors inundate the pages and just become so intrusive to the actual story. The annotations in parentheses are probably supposed to help clear up my first problem with a passage, but they only serve to remove me from the story. For all its verve, the novel gets tripped up by lack of control, coy posturing, and preciousness. As a debut it does make the noises because it makes people wonder about Marisha Pessl. But on the account of the book, it’s pure fluff, a ghastly spasm of false erudition and pretension to knowledge.
This is not a review of the book because I cannot review a book that I haven’t finished. It’s a compilation of my thoughts after three attempts at the novel.