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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl

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To purchase Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Author: Marisha Pessl
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 514 pages
Availability: Special Topics in Calamity Physics - US
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - UK
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Canada
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - India
La physique des catastrophes - France
Die alltägliche Physik des Unglücks - Deutschland
Teoria e pratica di ogni cosa - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B- : wordy, and too much of it juvenile

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A- 8/8/2006 Yvonne Zipp
The Economist . 17/8/2006 .
Entertainment Weekly A- 11/8/2006 Jennifer Reese
Financial Times A 1/9/2006 Melissa McClements
The Guardian B 16/9/2006 Peter Dempsey
The Independent . 15/9/2006 Wendy Brandmark
Independent on Sunday A+ 3/9/2006 Scarlett Thomas
London Rev. of Books . 21/9/2006 Joanna Biggs
The NY Observer . 7/8/2006 Regina Marler
The NY Times A 27/7/2006 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 13/8/2006 Liesl Schillinger
The New Yorker . 28/8/2006 .
The Observer . 10/9/2006 Hephzibah Anderson
People . 7/8/2006 Liza Nelson
Salon . 4/8/2006 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle I 9/8/2006 Ann Cummins
Sunday Telegraph A+ 10/9/2006 Matt Thorne
Sunday Times . 24/9/2006 Joan Smith
The Telegraph . 1/10/2006 Daniel Swift
The Times . 28/6/2006 Tom Cox
USA Today . 23/8/2006 Olivia Barker
The Village Voice . 18/8/2006 Darren Reidy
The Washington Post . 8/10/2006 Donna Rifkind

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most quite impressed and some think it's fantastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Whatever you do, don't skip the final, which synthesizes questions raised throughout the novel. On a second read-through, the first chapter proves that, beneath the verbal flamboyance, Pessl's plotting was meticulous from the start. The fact that Hannah isn't nearly as enthralling for a reader as she is for her besotted teens is a problem. But aside from that and some overly elaborate similes (...) the most unfortunate thing about this book was the publisher's decision to invite comparison with The Secret History by Donna Tartt." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Clever, erudite and hugely amusing, it certainly is. Ultimately, though, the book feels as if it were written more with the head than the heart. (...) A book to chuckle over and chuck away." - The Economist

  • "(A) 514-page escapist extravaganza packed with literary and pop culture allusions, mischievous characterizations, erotic intrigue, murders, and unstoppable (occasionally unruly) narrative energy." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(A)n electrifying first novel. (...) But it is the narrator herself who is Pessl’s most fascinating creation. As a deeply intelligent yet quietly passionate wallflower, she is like a modern Jane Eyre, but with the cynical wit of Lisa Simpson. She is also the bespectacled nerd of a million high-school dramas, but one who manages to quote Nietzsche and Nabokov while befriending the jocks and cheerleaders. (...) It takes a while to get going, and Blue’s incessant annotation is at times overwrought, but the gripping conclusion is well worth pressing on for." - Melissa McClements, Financial Times

  • "The initially droll bibliographical referencing, there to show Blue's pedantic nature and her father's influence, quickly becomes wearisome, but it is the style that is the novel's biggest failing. Baldly put, Pessl has a tin ear for prose. There is a page-by-page cascade of dreadful extended metaphors and distractingly inappropriate similes (.....) All is not lost, however. Three-quarters of the way in, the novel suddenly becomes a page-turning murder mystery with a gratifyingly complex plot (.....) And despite its crimes against literary style, after page 311 it is unputdownable." - Peter Dempsey, The Guardian

  • "Marisha Pessl's first fiction begins as a comic road story, quickly becomes a Bildungsroman and ends as a mystery. Blue's sincere persona holds it together. (...) There's much to admire: the energy and wit of the writing, Pessl's willingness to take risks, to stretch a simile and load the narrative with comparisons as improbable and deft as metaphysical conceits. The prose can be funny and sharp, but there are too many references; almost every turn of the novel is likened to a character, book, film or essay. She doesn't need to keep pointing out connections." - Wendy Brandmark, The Independent

  • "This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive debut novels I've ever read. The stand-out piece of characterisation -- although all the characterisation is excellent -- has to be Gareth van Meer (.....) One of the most astonishing things about this novel is the prose itself, and it is almost alarming that Marisha Pessl is able to sustain the intensity of Blue's narration for over 500 pages. (...) It consistently crackles with wit and intelligence." - Scarlett Thomas, Independent on Sunday

  • "American critics have been thrown by Pessl's novel. The huge advance, the pretty author, a quirky child narrator: surely the book must be silly and shallow. In fact, it's fun, and funny. And it's difficult not to like a main character endowed with one-line-aheadness, who can still ruin a moment so entirely and regularly. What the book does is show itself, and others like it, for what it really is: geek lit." - Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books

  • "Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a wordy, funny book, crowded with closely observed details and jokey literary references that veer into the kind of brainy silliness you could imagine from postgraduates huffing helium. (...) Ms. Pessl, too, seems eager to assure us that she knows there’s nothing new about private-school thrillers or romans à clef featuring motherless girls watchful of their fathers’ love life. The difficulty with this kind of self-conscious satire is that the reader is held at a remove, enjoying the author’s performance but not risking belief." - Regina Marler, The New York Observer

  • "(T)he most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. With its pirouettes and cartwheels, its tireless annotations and digressions, it has a similar whiz-kid eagerness to wow the reader. (...) This book’s gradual upward trajectory leads it toward mounting suspense, a hall-of-mirrors finale and a coda that is supremely inspired." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate -- Pnin meets The O.C. -- is a poetic act of will. Never mind jealous detractors: virtuosity is its own reward. And this skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more. (...) The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low darts and dives of Pessl’s tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(H)er mesmeric tale, even at its most over-the-top, feels true to the operatic agonies of adolescence." - The New Yorker

  • "A fizzy fusion of prep-school escapade, Gothic murder mystery and revolutionary intrigue (...) Initially entertaining, such gimmickry swiftly becomes tiresome and, rather than adding depth, detracts from a plot that does pick up in the novel's final third, culminating in a canny, multiple-choice Q&A." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Pessl's literary pyrotechnics are just a sideshow; it's her irresistible heroine Blue who makes the novel's heart beat." - Liza Nelson, People

  • "Special Topics, for all its overeager freshman infelicities, is a real novel, one of substance and breadth, with an arresting story and that rarest of delights, a great ending. (...) Special Topics adds value by casting a cool eye on darling Salingerian precocity, and, while Pessl doesn't quite have Tartt's storytelling witchery, underneath this book's pomo extravagances thrums a little narrative engine that could. If only Pessl wouldn't try so hard to convince us that she is a novelist of grand, American-style ambition; she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers' heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "This reader gives Special Topics that lamest of grades, an "I" for Incomplete. (...) I am willing to read a 300-hundred page novel where the driving force is an original voice with a fresh perspective, and Blue Van Meer's is such a voice. But for a murder mystery of this length, I want a little more thrill in the story. Special Topics in Calamity Physics could have used some judicious editing, some attention to scene choreography, and a little more glue to hold the plot together." - San Francisco Chronicle, Ann Cummins

  • "It covers so dizzyingly broad an intellectual canvas that one of the few other novels it can be compared to is Vladimir Nabokov's Ada. (...) The true brilliance of Pessl's début is the way she manages to sneak so many clues right in front of the reader while appearing to be writing a fairly scattershot comedy. (...) This is a novel that definitely demands an immediate second reading. (...) The novel's only flaw is that Blue's occasional use of British phrases seems awkward or wrong." - Matt Thorne, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Blue’s voice is convincing in its self-obsession and irrepressible erudition, but it is also evidence that you can have far too much of a good thing. (...) Pessl can write, but she lacks both judgment and a decent editor, who would have slashed this windy novel to half or two-thirds of its inflated length. As it stands, it is an exhausting read, arch, whimsical and too pleased with its own effects" - Joan Smith, Sunday Times

  • "Special Topics in Calamity Physics may at times read as too assured, too poised: the cleverest student in the class of a permissive teacher. But it shows, again and again, that one can believe in fiction and yet also remain truthful." - Daniel Swift, The Telegraph

  • "If it boasted any more culture, it would be dripping through the binding. Culture is present in the overeducated, desensitised voice of its teenage narrator, Blue Van Meer. It is also present in the text itself, where there is barely a page without some reference to a film, song or classic novel -- usually of the doomed, romantic variety. (...) There is a precociously good writer in here somewhere -- but if we are being honest, Special Topics reads more like the work of a highly precocious 21-year-old than a slightly precocious 28-year-old -- and it is hard to see her through the self-conscious fog of advanced taste." - Tom Cox, The Times

  • "But the real star of the doorstop-weighty tome is the nimble prose. Pessl's talent for verbal acrobatics keeps the pages flipping with minimal effort. Nouns smoothly become verbs" - Olivia Barker, USA Today

  • "The prose itself is a perpetual calisthenics. Pessl's well-toned sentences burst with awkward energy, and tend toward anthropomorphism and second-guess metaphors. Is she being careless, or are these examples of Blue's unchecked precocity ? The question dogs Physics throughout. The answer is, probably some of both. (...) At its best, the book convincingly shows how paranoia can slowly overtake an unsuspecting person -- the reader, ear to the ground, included." - Darren Reidy, The Village Voice

  • "Blue's cross-referencing mania can be surprisingly enjoyable, because Pessl is a vivacious writer who's figured out how to be brainy without being pedantic. (...) But hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader, who after much patient effort deserves to feel something stronger than appreciation for a lot of clever name-dropping and a rush of metaphors." - Donna Rifkind, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Special Topics in Calamity Physics is narrated by Blue van Meer, the story, focussed on her senior year of high school, penned by her when she's a freshman at Harvard. She's supposed to be brilliant and ridiculously well-read -- and therein already lies one of the first and biggest problems of the novel, because she's not convicing as either.
       Blue's mother died when she was in kindergarten, and ever since she's been on the road with her itinerant professor-dad, Gareth van Meer, who has no interest in staying at any academic institution for too long. But, though she's gone through some "twenty-four elementary, middle and high schools" between ages six and sixteen, she's always top of her class; so also at the St.Gallway School in Stockton, where she spends her entire senior year. Her rise to the top is effortless: she rarely seems to spend much time studying, but still makes valedictorian -- unlikely (pure genius generally isn't what makes American high school valedictorians) but (just) excusable. But far less convincing -- and far more significant -- is her alleged bookishness.
       Special Topics in Calamity Physics is presented as a very 'literary' fiction. Its table of contents is a 'Core Curriculum (Required Reading)', each chapter the title of a book (with, incidentally, only four out of the thirty-six authored by a woman -- something a male author likely wouldn't have gotten away with as easily). The connexion of chapter-book and chapter-content is often tenuous, at best, but even that could pass. But Pessl doesn't stop there; in fact, she's only getting started: she tries to make the book literary to its very core and essence: Blue is constantly quoting from books (many of them non-fiction) and referring to texts.
       This approach has some potential, but it doesn't pan out. Pessl -- perhaps because she's a young author, perhaps because she's a lazy author, perhaps because she just hasn't read very much -- relies on invention rather than actual texts. Most of the books and authors she refers to don't exist -- though quite a few (the ones everyone can recognise) do. This too is an approach that can be used very effectively -- but Pessl isn't daring enough in relying completely on invention, or doing as much with it as she could. Occasionally she plays the game well enough:

Noah Fishpost, MD, in his captivating book on the adventures of modern psychiatry, Meditations on Andromeda (2001), mentioned that one had to proceed as unobtrusively as possible when questioning a patient, because truth and secrets were cranes, dazzling in size yet notoriously shy and wary; if one made too much noise, they'd disappear into the sky, never to be seen again.
       Yet her use of 'literary' references (which litter almost every page) is wildly inconsistent. More often than not they are inventions (and one wonders why Pessl didn't seek out real ones, as in only a select few instances is invention necessary for her fiction), and often as not they are not particularly clever inventions. Nabokovian -- a word some reviewers have bandied about -- this most definitely is not.
       Indeed, Blue is also unconvincing as a bookish character, beyond these pseudo-references. For someone supposedly so well-read, Blue rarely seems to read much; it's very late in the novel that there's a scene where, for example, she admits to finding the time where:
I could read, read, read until my eyes burned and the words floated like noodles in soup.
       But for the most part she sounds like a little child parroting scholar-dad's quoting style, but having to rely on the generic or invention because she actually hasn't been exposed to much literature or (m)any serious books (at least not in any meaningful way, i.e. in a way that she actually gets something out of them, rather than just hears or learns the words). So Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a faux literary book, a shelf with fake book-spines adorned with fancy names and titles, all of them hollow except for a few to fool the gullible. And yet Pessl keeps the focus on that shelf for a good deal of the time.
       Very late in the novel Dad sighs as he considers what they've gone through:
It's one for the books, is it not ? I think Stockton is certainly the most theatrical town in which we've lived. It has all the elements of a good piece of fiction. More passion than Peyton Place, more frustration than Yoknapatawpha County. And it's certainly up there with Macondo in terms of sheer elements of the bizarre. It has sex, sin and that most painful quality of all, youthful disillusionment.
       And the reader sighs, too, understanding here why Pessl has for the most part avoided authentic literary references: because this is the best she can do with them. After 464 pages (that's where the passage is found) it can only be considered ludicrous, on the basis of what has been recounted (and how it has been presented), to compare Stockton with any of these literary locales.
       So Pessl's pseudo-literary approach fails -- but what about the story ? On the second page, already, in the introduction, Blue mentions the something dramatic that happened the past year: she found the hanged body of Hannah Schneider. A dead body ! That's promising, right ? Or at least a hook to get the reader to the point in the book describing the death of Ms. Schneider. But it's a long way coming .....
       Years earlier, watching a school production of Our Town, Gareth van Meer turned to his daughter:
"Wake me up if someone gets shot," he said as he nodded off
       Readers may well wish for the same help as they make their way through the book, eyes glazing over. There are no fatal shootings in the book, and it takes until page 170 until someone can finally say: "Someone's dead". Alas, even that doesn't get things going.
       Blue treads water for an awfully long time. She describes her life in yet another new town and school, her father's odd ways (he's clever, he has little patience with anyone (and any place), he goes through a lot of women), a bit about her background. She describes trying to fit in, sort of, at St.Gallway. A few students there are at the top of the pecking order; they're known as the Bluebloods. Blue is pulled into their odd circle -- but not really. The clique is invited to Hannah Schneider's every Sunday, and Hannah insists on including Blue; that doesn't make them all chummy, but it does tie them together in some small way. But everyone remains mysterious -- not least Hannah (who teaches film at the school).
       One of Blue's biggest problems is that she is terribly gullible. She'll swallow any story any authority figure feeds her (and there are some doozies), and she'll fly off the handle on the basis of these, too. Her critical faculties are woefully underdeveloped (again making her supposed literary bent seem laughable), and it takes a lot for her to realise there are even any dots to connect (and boy are there a lot of dots ...). She's a young high school senior (only sixteen) but her actions and reactions are those of a much younger child; her verbal dexterity isn't entirely at odds with that -- one can create a plausible naïve figure that sounds (or writes) this expressively -- but the knowledge she supposedly has (even if it is all book-knowledge) make her actions often entirely unconvincing (and when she begins tossing books -- completely out of character, hard to believe for anyone who values books in the least, and annoying because of the ridiculously convenient titles at hand -- the reader is likely to want to follow suit (and doesn't merely because the end is so near)).
       Blue does have a distinctive (writing) style: the references, the descriptions, the word-play suggest a creative mind bubbling over (and grounded in all that information she's amassed). But there's only so far this can take the book (and reader): Pessl is good, but she's not that good, and it can be very wearing over the more than 500 pages of the novel. Far too much of the book is soaked in minutiae -- convincing as a girl's account, but about as appealing as any other teenage diary.
       Blue's account would have a bit more going for it if the drama to it were more dramatic, but this is a book that so dulls the reader's senses with its relentless sameness that even the deaths barely jolt one back into caring. Once Hannah is found hanged there's a bit of rousing activity, but even that doesn't last long. No, the book only really gets going with its one good plot twist, a surprise that comes in the 34th chapter (of 36 !). It's far from enough to redeem the book, but it's a clever and surprising turn of events, and finally ties things together. It ties a lot together, in fact, and explains much of the detail that Blue has stuffed in the narrative in getting to this point.
       It all (or a lot of it, anyway) begins to make sense, as Blue puts the pieces together: like a re-arranged jigsaw puzzle, one picture is suddenly replaced by a completely different one. And that is a decent twist -- though it's only effective because of the truly shocking betrayal that allows her to shift perspective; the pictures themselves, either way, both feel far too much like fictional worlds, not real ones, Pessl pleased with her inventions but unable to fully convince that either could be real: they still sound like stories fashioned by a (mediocre) novelist -- in fact, very much like those fake books Blue is constantly referring to.
       One thing that Pessl conveys is how unknowable everyone around us always is. Blue does not know any of the people in her life. She thinks she does, and describes at great (great, great) length the smallest details -- clothes, habits, words -- about all and sundry, and yet she remains always completely off the mark. This is an interesting character trait, and in a way Pessl presents it very effectively, but it's also a burden for the book. For one thing, it's annoying: almost all the characters, despite being over-described, remain very flat on the page. Blue spends considerable time with the Bluebloods, for example, and yet they all remain undistinguished ciphers. For another, it's frustrating that Blue doesn't see the obvious. When Hannah tells her about the Bluebloods' backgrounds, for example, Blue doesn't even think to question her (or them), despite how unlikely much of what Hannah says is.
       Occasionally Pessl handles Blue's obliviousness well, as when one of her father's ditched lovers complains:
All the secrets and lies. Remove one from the ceiling and the whole thing collapses on top of you. Nearly kills you. He lies about everything -- even 'Nice to see you,' and 'Take care.'
       This works so well because it's part of a bigger scene, of that former lover making a scene which quickly overshadows these remarks: Blue has no reason to pay close heed to the exact words, or think about what this particular woman has to say.
       Blue admits that most of the characters remain mysteries to her: she is constantly reassessing Hannah, for example, each new bit of information completely changing her impression of her. This works well enough in the case of Hannah, but one such vague character is enough for a novel. Unfortunately, Blue can't get a fix on almost any of the others either; a few securer holds, even if just in secondary characters, would likely have helped stabilize this wobbly heap.
       Blue's (i.e. Pessl's) writing style will likely also not be everyone's cup of tea. She tries damn hard and has a decent ear, but a lot of strange stuff comes out. If you can stand descriptions of someone speaking: "in a Southern accent so gooey and thick you could probably cut into it and spread it on dinner rolls" then you can probably make it through the book .....
       The book closes with a 'Final Exam', with true-or-false, multiple-choice, and an essay question. It's a decent touch, but doesn't work as well as it should because of the book's accumulated weaknesses. The first question alone spoils it:
1. Blue van Meer has read too many books. T/F ?
       Pessl meant, of course, to have offered a narrator who has almost drowned in the words of too many others (while failing completely to come to grips with reality because she has so little real-world experience), but the idea that she has read at all widely is laughable. Even accepting her references and quotes for fact and not invention (though the latter is an equally plausible and more appealing reading) they suggest little more than word- and quote-collecting, not actual reading or even the slightest engagement with texts.
       (Aside: perhaps this book marks the death-knell of the super-literate character; perhaps in this day and age it is no longer possible to write convincingly about anyone who truly reads widely and in a meaningful way.)
       There's fun to be had along the way in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in some of the occurrences and even some of the details -- of school, of Gareth's odd approach to life. And the story, in summary, is even a very good and clever one -- but Pessl takes a far too circuitous road in getting the reader to the payoff. Too much filler detracts from the crackling potential; the story is resolved very nicely, but Pessl puts the reader through far too much in getting there. And while Blue has some appeal, she's far from convincing as the character she's meant to be.
       Quite disappointing, overall.

       Petty observation: A book that is supposed to be so ultra-literate can't afford mistakes such as (emphasis added):
Every now and then, to illicit even more extreme cries of amazement from his audience, Dad reduced the tragedy to a neat span of twenty-four hours. (p.231)
       It's not the kind of mistake Blue would make !

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Reviews: Marisha Pessl: Other books by Marisha Pessl under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Marisha Pessl was born in 1977.

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© 2006-2013 the complete review

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