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 loquatiousness of the 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 would be a good place to start, but I think we'd all agree that's asking a great deal of one's readers.
on May 29, 2008
After reading several reviews of Special Topics in Calamity physics, I was hesitant to read the book, but I am very glad that I did. Although the other reviews are correct in saying that the beginning is rather slow, the book gains speed right around page 170. However, the information provided to you in these first 170 pages ends up being rather important by the end of the story. There are a lot of little things, mostly small bits of information about Hannah, but other things as well, that end up coming into play much later in to book, somewhere around page 400. I agree that parts of the text could have been cut out, but I fail to comprehend why one would want to do so. Marisha Pessl's writing technique kept me entertained throughout the 170 pages of seemingly useless information. I found myself captivated by her use of both citations and wonderfully detailed descriptions. Also, Pessl's twists in the story are far beyond what I expected. They kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the book. I was especially interested in Nigel, although I am not sure why. I don't identify with his character per se, but I wish she had developed his, and all of the Bluebloods characters a bit more. The only thing about this book that I didn't like was the lack of an ending. I understand that that was somewhat the point, to leave it open for interpretation. It was even mentioned earlier in the book how much Gareth Van Meer hated absolute endings because it left nothing up to the imagination. So although I think that this is a fitting ending, I, being one of the "Americans" that he speaks of, wish that the ending had been at least a bit more definite. All in all, I think that Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a very well written book. It is not, however, a "quick read" (Although it may be considered one for Blue.)
on December 19, 2006
Like others reviewing this book part of what intrigued me was the title, because I also have some background with physics.
Like others, once I began it I found it to be a slow read but have stuck with it for whatever reason, be it a masochistic tendency to finish something started or a hope to see potential realized.
I won't make the mistake of attacking the author for her choices in the novel or drawing assumptions about her talent; I can hardly fault her for her colorful language when it is often my favorite type of writing.
Indeed, Pessl is at her strongest when she is comparing things to other things via her wordy similes and metaphors and this is perhaps the book's chief failing: she so often compares characters to "Snow Egrets" or a "Saguaro cactus" that it is difficult to see them as people. In fact, the book seems to revel more in words and descriptions than in people.
Garreth, the protagonist's father, disdains to teach at upper-tier schools because he feels they are not in need of enlightenment, and instead ordains himself a sort of Prometheus bringing fire to his romanticized Common Man.
This feeling of superiority on the parts of Blue and her father to every other person is what most grated me about this novel, as it seems it did other people. Garreth creates an idyllic image of the Common Man and seems to feel they are blessed to have him bring wisdom to their poor, ignorant lives and yet he is recounted as driving 20 miles out of his way to avoid eating at a roadside diner where the common kind of man eats. Garreth seems to detest every student he has, giving them derisory nicknames and ridiculing them to his daughter; one wonders why it is then that he bothers to teach?
The book irks me because by intention or not, it strips people of their humanity. Special care is taken to note the ignorant mode of speech by every person besides Blue and her father and rather than include any detail that might elaborate on why people in the novel act the way they do. The book eschews any interest in people as genuine people and reduces them to caricatures and stereotyped generalizations. Garreth and Blue both never notice a person but to condescend and that misanthropy made the novel a difficult read for me.
Another point of contention that is both a strength and weakness is the structure. The usage of course curriculum and a final exam is highly original and either receives high accolades or is dismissed as pretentious. Special Topics does not quite place style over structure but I would place here a film allusion that might itself be used by Blue. Sidney Lumet, in Making Movies (1995) says of style that the first decision is what the story is about and "[Once]...I know what it's about, how shall I tell it?"
The chapter titles, the many references, all seem to take precedence over the story to the point that it seems as though the story was created to link together a series of high-brow references. I love a good quote as much as any other guy but I tired of it after nearly every chapter and at least several times a page I was directed to another quote or allusion.
Make no mistake- Special Topics In Calamity Physics is certainly an original book but one wonders if it really needed to be. Ultimately it appears that Pessl is a very gifted writer but the over-focus on the cutesy precociousness of the author and the contrived feel of many characters destroyed the illusion that the book is penned by Blue.
Throughout the book I could not lose myself in the story as I do with some of my favorites. The aloofness of the characters distanced me from the story and I think that is what led me to rate Special Topics to an average 3 star because it denied me the opportunity to connect with the narrator Blue or any other human being. Instead I was left all too aware that the characters were creations, and not very convincing ones at that.
on December 2, 2012
I was very excited about this book going in. It'd gotten a lot of good press, and the premise seemed interesting enough. These high expectations probably increased my disappointment on actually reading the book, but it is truly an astonishingly bad piece of writing.
The characters are terrible and bland. Blue's friends are all well established high school tropes, more cartoonish caricatures than actual characters. They're barely differentiated, and even then, only in line with well established archetypes rather than as actual, unique people. Gareth is a nonstop deluge of tired cliches (If I read Bourbon Mood one more time...). As for Blue, I'm not sure if Pessl intended to make her unbearably haughty and self-important or wrote her to be a stand-in for herself, and imagines herself worldly and peerlessly clever and perceptive. After reading a couple interviews with Pessl, I'm pretty convinced it's the latter. Either way, Blue is just insufferable. She's constantly namedropping various authors/films/books on the most superficial level, clearly not understanding the works she's referencing. Throughout the book, she shows contempt for the other characters (especially non-white characters), and several scenes read like fan-fiction Pessl wrote for her own life (like the part where all her friends are in awe of her boundless knowledge when she references Citizen Kane). Also, she's supposed to have spent most of her life traveling around the country, inhabiting several small towns, and going to dozens of different schools, yet she has absolutely no insight at all into the town the book is set in (I can't even remember off the top of my head given how unmemorable it was) or the characters around her. Much like her name dropping of the books, she's constantly telling you how smart and worldly she is, but never actually shows it.
The writing is horribly amateurish--overwrought and try-hard. Rather than letting characters live and breath, and letting the readers learn about them spontaneously and naturally, Pessl introduces them with pages of info-dump, telling us tons of irrelevant character history yet paradoxically not defining the characters at all. The dialog is atrocious. None of the characters talk like real people (especially Dee and Dum). Instead it sounds like regurgitated mid-90s high school movie dialog. Perhaps the most egregious crime against literature are the overstretched and under-clever similes that Pessl can't stop using. Few of them are clever, original, or even very descriptive. Describing a boot as Italy-shaped? Come on! There are a few that are surprisingly apt and witty, but Pessl pull and prods at them until they're driven into the ground, lifeless and tacky. The book is packed full of other conceits that might be slightly quirky/charming at first but quickly become grating as you realize that they're going to last for another 500 pages. A partial list of these include: chapter titles named after canonical books (that have nothing to do with the chapter itself), fake annotations, Gareth's Bourbon Moods, comparing characters to book/movie characters then referring to them by that character. Not surprisingly, most of these quirks are just opportunities for Pessl to name-drop more books.
The editing is as bad as the writing. Pessl is obviously too in love with her writing to cut out all the unnecessary fluff. A good half of the book seems to exist solely so Pessl can go "Look at me! Look at how clever this part is!!!!!". Her editor should be ashamed of him/herself.
The plot is straightforward and unremarkable, but at least not offensively bad like the rest of the book. There are obvious allusions to Nabokov. The road trip immediately brings to mind Lolita, and by placing Gareth in the role of HH, Pessl actually brilliantly hints early on that all is not well. She also strives hard to create an intricate puzzle, as Nabokov was fond of doing, but again, is too impressed with herself to actually succeed. The final exam is particularly self-indulgent. Not to mention the fact that the meat of the "puzzle" is spat out in one giant info dump.
Pessl has obviously read a lot of really great books (as she's always eager to point out), but clearly absorbed and comprehended none of them.
I have a compulsive need to finish any book I start, so by the time I realized how bad this book was, it was already too late. However, you can still save yourself! If you value your time and sanity, don't read this book.
on August 14, 2006
It is clear that twenty-something Marisha Pessl has talent, judging from the reviews already garnered for her debut novel, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS. It is also a given that many will automatically compare SPECIAL TOPICS --- or, as I like to call it, "The Book That Is Bound To Wind Up On Many End-Of-The-Year-Bests Lists" --- to Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY. What hasn't been decided is whether or not readers will trudge through the 300 or so "set-up pages" in order to get to the truly exhilarating final 200.
From the get-go, SPECIAL TOPICS might seem a bit off-putting to some. Its plot unfolds, for the most part, on yet another wealthy high school campus, narrated by a protagonist (who some will swear bares a striking resemblance to Pessl) who is quite precocious and full of Big Ideas that are exhaustingly annotated, often with references to various books in parentheses --- a cumulative bibliography of sorts. Each chapter, although plot-driven, is tied to a certain curricular theme --- mainly, a well-known and often revered work of literary mastery (OTHELLO, HEART OF DARKNESS, THE TRIAL, PARADISE LOST, etc.). There is an Introduction, of course, as well as a cleverly designed afterword (aptly titled "Final Exam") that consists of questions readers might enjoy noodling over after finishing the actual story. All in all, it's a kitschy package for the publisher and booksellers, and a clever ploy to attract potential readers who may or may not be into the gimmick.
To give a brief synopsis of the book without giving anything away, SPECIAL TOPICS follows 16-year-old Blue van Meer and her father (a distinguished college professor) as they flit around the country, living in various college towns, mostly for one year at a time. Most of the book's meat takes place during Blue's senior year of high school at St. Gallway, a prep school in a small North Carolina mountain town called Stockton. To her surprise, Blue is soon befriended by the Bluebloods, an exclusive group of co-eds led by a film teacher (yes, a teacher), Hannah Schneider. For much of the book's beginning, the action (or lack thereof) revolves around Blue's interactions with various members of the Bluebloods, while she attempts to adjust to her new environment, maintain her valedictorian status, and continue on in her close but motherless relationship with her father. Thus far, the story is fairly status quo and reads as such.
A little more than halfway through the book, however, SPECIAL TOPICS takes a turn for the better and becomes infinitely more interesting. After a number of other minor yet noteworthy calamities, the Bluebloods go on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains and Hannah Schneider winds up dead, dangling from a tree. (Not to worry, this detail is mentioned in the Introduction.) What follows is an adrenalin-driven thrill ride that is so clever and so delightfully complicated that readers will surely be kept on the edge of their seats until the very end. And the best part is that the whodunit is never fully solved --- or is it?
The question still remains: Does the gruesome conspiracy theory mystery disguised as an erudite treatise on teenage angst and literary greatness gimmick work?
Pessl's heavily weighted academic and artistic background (she studied English and Creative Writing at Columbia, and has dabbled in acting and the fine arts) is clearly present on every page of the book. Her incessant attention to detail, thematic chapter headings, and aforementioned literary side notes are often accompanied by art class line drawings as well. The effect of this combination lands somewhere between the tantalizing and the absurd. Sure, it's helpful to have a bit of defining background, but sometimes the onslaught approach (especially when reading a juicy murder mystery) feels like overkill and a little unnecessary.
Yet, despite it all, many readers will still slog through the minutiae to find themselves fully captivated by Pessl's scintillating world of intrigue. Her pacing toward the end of the story is spot-on, and her talent for playing up the suspense without ever fully giving in to it is brilliant. She excels at writing for shock value and never underestimates the intelligence (and imagination) of her readers. After reading the "Final Exam," some more dedicated readers might even feel the impulse to read through various sections of the book again in order to fit the pieces of this fascinating puzzle together.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
on October 12, 2006
For all the positive page-play this novel has gotten in book reviews, I'm frankly embarassed for the author, who clearly has ambition but stands in the literary spotlight denuded of any real talent. Stylistically it mirrors much of its setting: after the 50th overstretched simile you feel like you're droning along through the bleak, snoozy highway stretches of middle America that serve as Dad-n-Daughter's domestic domain (Pessl, 2006, Exercises in Excessive, Extemporaneous Alliteration). The annotation concept, which could have been a brilliant tool (see Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1962), turns out to be as insipid and heavy as all the third-rate citizens of the book that Blue takes every opportunity to dismiss with endless, uninsightful criticism. After a few chapters of her tedious (and except for a few funny examples, wholly dull) asides, you start to feel like you're trapped in a corner with a storyteller who endlessly tacks on irrelevant details and tangents just to hear more of her own voice. If the book's biggest crime is that it's Boring, BORING, the great injustice to its readers is that it's utterly hollow and overblown (Eggshell Christmas Ornaments, The Kitchen Craft Guide Vol 3, Issue 1, 1999). The overall voice is gimmicky and juvenile, and I guess it should be the latter, given the age of the narrator, but Pessl failed to endow Blue with any of the epic depth and/or complex combination of youthful innocence/cunning that characterizes great, young, female protagonists (see Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Mitchell, 1936 and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee, 1962). Instead, Blue's stuck in a shallow, sticky, pimpled regime of self-righteousness of the very sort Gareth would attack in his un-funny, tries-way-too-hard-to-be-profound-and-charming way. Like wooden Gareth, pretty much every character is a hasty patchwork of physical characteristics and told-but-not-shown veneers of inner character (Fabulous Facades: Creative Window Treatments, 2001). After spending 500+ pages with Blue, there aren't any words I would use in her epitaph except for tedious & shallow. That's too bad, given the narrative territory Pessl set out to cover (The Blunders of Wunderauthors, 2006).
on September 17, 2009
Wow, what a relief! I finally decided to quit on this book, and felt much better. I'm a very tolerant and forgiving omnivore when it comes to reading, but this pretentious novel made me so tired... Pessl embellishes EVERY sentence with 'witty repartee', footnotes and random quotes, which annoyed me to no end. The characters are shallow and wooden, droning on and on. Worst of all: 'Special Topics' is elitist, snobby and pretentious. Blue and her Daddy are struggling geniuses in a world of stupidity. (Woe to him who teaches men faster than they can learn; William James "Will" Durant, The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, 1926.)
Quote from the book:
"Those around you can have their novellas, sweet, their short stories of cliché and coincidence, occasionally spiced up with tricks of the quirky, the achingly mundane, the grotesque. A few will even cook up Greek tragedy, those born into misery, destined to die in misery. But you, my bride of quietness, you will craft nothing less than epic with your life. Out of all of them, your story will be the one to last."
Can't believe the editors and critics let her get away with this! Remember the story of the Emperor's clothes? Pessl has a whole warehouse.
on September 8, 2006
I feel like such an idiot for believing that gushing New York Times review of this overhyped, overwritten, exhausting bunch of words words words, a mudflow of words without a serious point in sight. I honestly think people love this book because they've read somewhere that they're supposed to love this book, and who can disagree with Jonathan Franzen? For the record, I could care less what the author's jacket photo looks like. She pours out every single bite of knowledge she's ever known or learned into every single paragraph, alongside characters you cannot stand to be around and who never appear genuine or real in any way. The 'plot' for lack of a better word (Marisha, help me here -- I need six or seven alternatives) is laughable. The overabundant froth made me want to poke out my eyes with a stick. Verbosity does not equal virtuosity, I don't care what the Times critics say (and that goes for Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer and Susanna Clarke, among other young run-at-the mouth authors-in-the-making the Times has frothed over in the past). But it's my fault for having believed them, and for having spent my hard earned money on the hardbacks! Shame on me!
on May 26, 2008
Review of: "Special Topics in Calamity Physics"
By Marisha Pessl
This is a murder mystery. We learn of the mysterious death of one of the main characters early in the book. The death might have been a murder or might have been suicide. As the story develops, we learn that the victim is one of a cast of extraordinary characters. We know from the start of the death. When it happens, the sequence of events is still surprising.
The main character is a precocious teen girl named Blue van Meer. She has extraordinary talents, exceptional perception and is a dynamic central character. The reader quickly builds up sympathy and concern for her welfare.
The gradual introduction of revolutionary cabals, conspiracies, hidden societies and secret identities keep the readers attention up to the astonishing ending. Other reviewers noted the overuse of illusion and metaphor. I felt that the literary illusions added to the story. Both Blue van Meer and her father, Gareth van Meer, are academics in a closed circle of literati. Their frequent references to literary scenes and characters, both real and fabricated, felt very natural in this setting. Even the fabricated literary references add to the tale.
Note that there is an interesting web site for "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." The web address is:
I liked this book very much and I recommend it to others.
on June 26, 2007
This is a mystery novel and the mystery centers around why it got good reviews. A knockoff of `The Secret History' (even the weekly dinners! Couldn't you have made it breakfast, just as a gesture?) with an extra helping of that book's more obnoxious elements, this one should probably not have been so well received. Why it was written is less of a mystery, this is the book most of us consider writing or try to write during the summer after college when feeling quite sophisticated from having learned the names of twenty authors and gotten an A on a lit paper. Luckily for most of us, a cruel but true friend ridicules the draft and we start over or give up. Where Ms. Pessl's chums were on THAT important assignment only they know for sure. What they might have told her is that if you are going to drop 14 pompous allusions for every fifty words it makes you look like such a snob that you really have to be presenting a quality product to back it up. Much like working French phrases into a conversation, it can be pretty neat but it had better be done right. The writing in this book falls short.
Never mind the `modern email' editing style of allowing properly spelled but nonetheless wrong words into the final edition (there/their, vane/vein, &c) the writing itself reminds me of my daughter's first knock knock joke: Knock Knock/Who's There?/Cadillac/Cadillac Who?/Cadillac Not Your Mom!. She understood the mechanics of the device but not the meaning or art behind them. Without my daughter's (pretty solid) excuse of being three years old, Ms. Pessl looks ridiculous writing `my memory stutters and stalls like a motor which refused to turn over'. Well, pal, if something refuses to turn over it can't get going and it needs first to get going before it can stutter and stall. It's like saying `I crashed down as hard as an airplane that never took off'.
Hey, no one can really stand the scrutiny of a million pedantic jerks like me without a few weaknesses showing up, that's no crime, but whether or not you have the goods is something one really ought to consider before making a superior and self-congratulatory drama of it. Ms. Pessl may well become a good author someday but she will always have this thing lurking in her past, as will the gaggle of supposedly sophisticated reviewers who ended up looking just as amateurish falling all over it. In fairness, many have said the last 200 pages were the good stuff and I never got that far. But even assuming it's true, you show me a five hundred page book with two hundred good pages and I'll show you a poor job.