Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

A library read and a re-read; the first time I read it was when we were living in Norway and my dad brought a copy back from the library. "I thought you might like it," he said, one of those uncanny times when someone gets you exactly right.


Because, let's be clear, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has its flaws, but for me it feels like a deeply personal book, the book that I want to run out and give to everyone who's ever tried to understand me. It's the story of Blue Van Meer, a bookish and almost precociously intelligent teenager who, after a lifetime of wandering through small-town America with her lecturer father, ends up attending St Gallway School in her final year of high school. There, a mysterious and charismatic teacher called Hannah Schneider takes Blue under her wing for reasons nobody can quite fathom, and she falls in by association with the Bluebloods, high school royalty (think the Cullens without the vampirism).


It's marketed as a thriller, which I think probably does a disservice both to the book and to its potential readers. Though, technically, there is a murder, it doesn't happen until at least halfway through; though there is a conspiracy theory, it only surfaces towards the end of the book. So Special Topics can only really be called a thriller retrospectively, and I suspect a reader hoping for a thriller will be disappointed by its discursive ramblings on books and political theory and high school troubles.


Because what the book really is is a story of a girl defined by her years of reading and by her adulation of a father who is, let's face it, a complete douchebag. Even as Blue tries to frame the tale of her last year through books, tries to tidy up and control her narrative with citations and Visual Aids and publication dates, loose threads flap uncontrollably around her, closure is impossible, gaps and uncertainty proliferate. I am a sucker for this kind of thing, this formal undecidability, and Pessl's work is something that really resonates with me.


I wondered, as I read the early pages of this book, if I'd be ultimately disappointed: Blue's father's gender politics is frequently sickening, and because we're reading through Blue's adoring eyes Pessl seems to support those politics. But, actually, I think that initial uncertainty is a sign of Pessl's success in managing to align herself so absolutely with the subjectivity of experience, and I do think Blue's perspective is sufficiently (if subtly) ironised by the end of the novel to problematize those early pages.


I guess the takeaway is: I loved this book, and I think others will too. Just don't go in expecting a fast-paced, taut thriller: you'll be disappointed. It's a postmodern, sharp and clear-eyed look at subjectivity and uncertainty and Life.