29 October 2006

Calamity Blue

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The “problem” of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is likely not the equation the author set out to solve – even if the cutesy faux-mathematical riddle on the book’s back cover does not disappoint, in as much as the book itself is as representative of the author’s Intellectual Strivery as that equation. Is strivery even a word? My spell-checker says no, but who cares. We’re striving here; who can be bothered with such details?

Pessl’s protagonist, the young (sixteen by the end of the book) Blue Van Meer, is a caricature of the valedictorian of our nightmares, earnestly well-read and scholarly while clueless about what her peers would call “life.” She barely gives in to peer pressure to drink, while somehow not quite acknowledging that eventual failed resistance or the apparent evolution towards alcohol-for-comfort. Towards the end of the book, when Blue drinks from a liquor bottle [“...I slipped downstairs to the library, uncapped Dad’s fifteen-year-old George T. Stagg bourbon, took a swig straight from the bottle (I wasn’t completely at ease with the shamus work, not yet, and what detective didn’t dip the bill?) and returned to my room, taking a few moments to collect myself.”; page 428] it came as more of a shock to me, the reader, than it seems to have to Blue’s young throat. When, exactly, did Blue learn to brace herself with bourbon? A hastily-arranged make-out scene serves a up similar lightning bolt; sure, Blue had previously admitted to a crush on Milton, her new kissing partner, but Calamity Physics is so very not a novel of teenage torpidity that the incident feels out of place. That it serves as a set-up for a later insult of the typical adolescent kind does not protect the absurdity of its insertion into the story.

Oh, right: the story. Blue and her father Gareth star as itinerant intellectuals who have, for a year, decided to settle down in a small southern town while Blue finishes high school and paves her (apparently assured) entry into Harvard. When modern-day, bourgeois hobos stake their tents, they have to adjust: their most constant companions and friends are no longer just those within the group, but must by necessity expand to include the regular folks around them, people with more rooted, theoretically normal lives. Thus Blue’s friends, a group known (for other reasons) as the Bluebloods, represent variations on the theme of typical private school spoilers, like the well-dressed, well-sexed, Mercedes-driving Jade, or the handsome, blond, Charles (who, of course, goes by Charles, un-nicknamed). A quirky teacher brings them all together, and then her death splits them apart (or at least, splits Blue from her Bluebloods), while also providing the spark that sets Blue investigating and piecing together disparate strands of what she thinks she knows of her own life, her deceased teacher, her friends, her father, and bits of pieces of other people’s lives, too. Along the way, Pessl fills Blue’s mind and mouth with lots of Capitalized Ideas, references to Big Thinkers and Major Books, drawing on references from philosophy, literature, film, and more to help Establish Blue’s Place In The World, connect her to the verbal extremes of her father, and give her an Identity. And perhaps also to try to connect Pessl to a literary world she rightly and very clearly admires?

Back in the 1990s (when Blue was just a child), there was another book filled with Capital Letters, along with lots of unheard-of and slightly absurd Proper Nouns, and characters moving through a privileged private school landscape: it was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But where Foster Wallace managed to make all his self-conscious references to fake products and the like serve as a critique on our society (and not just that of his characters) – while also supporting the absurd beauty of his story – Special Topics in Calamity Physics seems much more about the author than her story or her character(s). We are supposed to admire, humor, and detest Blue all at the same time; the same qualities that Pessl hopes will pull us in – Blue’s intellectualism, her insightfulness – are also (of course) the same ones that push us away. For example, Blue’s savant-like recitation and annotation of wide-ranging facts and figures to support her (and her father’s) conclusions about life and the world (or, Life and The World, as Pessl would probably render them) are presumably intended to evoke these kinds of reader-to-protagonist feelings. Instead, they seem more like a reflection on the author, intended to make us feel the awesome power of her Creative Prowess in re-imagining and reinventing a world where fact and fiction are mixed together in one large literary jumble.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics was fun to read, and is certainly an achievement – a long, intricately woven story that ends by poking a finger (or maybe by giving the finger) to the same standard American responses to the world of literature and thought that Blue and her father both expound against repeatedly. It’s just that Pessl’s novel may be too smart for its own good; trying a little less hard to place Gareth and Blue Van Meer in the rarefied world of the intellectually powerful might have added – certainly in Blue’s case – to the echt quality of her character and thus the emotional coming-of-age Blue does manage to achieve in the end.


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