Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Part of me is tempted to give Special Topics in Calamity Physics 3 stars, but that would give the impression that I found it mediocre and passionless. On the contrary, part of me loved the book to 5 stars, but the excessive, distracting loquatiousness of narrator's expression nearly drove me to distraction. So my mathematical reducion will stay at 4 stars, with reservations explained. By Chapter 8 I was still not engaged enough to convince me that I was going to actually read the whole book. But by the end I stayed awake reading as late as I could one night, and stole away enough time the next day to finish it. Reading this story was like running a reverse marathon that started out as a meandering stroll and ended in a sprint.
And when I say marathon, I mean marathon. Most reviewers have noted the length of the book, weighing in at over 500 pages. Individual sentences stretched on and on with strange metaphors, literary allusions and references, and parenthetical comments galore. Much of it was dense academic blathering--in character, to be sure, but still very annoying to read. Oftentimes I'd find myself strugging with a long sentence, breathlessly awaiting a period like a drowing person begging for someone to throw her a life preserver. If you can get through this style of writing, there is a compelling story waiting to be decoded, but this book won't be for everyone. Though I felt like I was cheating a bit, after the first half of the story I gave myself permission to give up on close textual analysis and read like a skipping stone. The author's pacing picked up in the later stages of the book as well, but as a reader I did make a conscious choice to step in as an editor.
If you still think you'd enjoy the book, I'd say stop reading the reviews and just go read it. I'll say a few more things without being too spoiler-ish. After reading narrator Blue's interpretation of events, I am dying to talk to other people who have read the book to find out what they think really happened. Blue unleashes a torrent of thoughts on her readers, but they are the analyses of an incredibly erudite 16-year-old who lived within the heart of a very tangled web. In other words, what is left unsaid in the story is almost as compelling as the picture that Blue assembles as her own understanding. Blue is an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that she is trying to deceive the reader, but rather that there is only so much truth she can piece together and face. The true brilliance of Marisha Pessl's writing is that she provides enough information to allow the reader to come to some very different conclusions than Blue, based on Blue's first-person narrative.
Maddeningly, though, I came looking for a story, and I don't have time to immerse myself in solving a dense puzzle. Pessl ends the book with a "Final Exam" that stands in for the last chapter. It was a choice hailed by many critics, but it left me feeling hollow and put out. The "testing" of the reader occurs throughout the book, in ways amusing and annoying. Recurring words and images (variations of the word "oily" and references to coins and stillettos) felt clunky, rather than enlightening. Pessl has created a website for the book that would most likely yield additional clues if one would search diligently for the secrets. But much as I love the TV show "Lost," but have no interest in the ongoing "Lost Experience" on the web, I am resigned to accepting that I may never unravel the knot that still lies at the heart of "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." Writing a master's thesis on Nabokov and Hitchcock would be a good place to start, but I think we'd all agree that's asking a great deal of one's readers.