I’ve begun reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book that makes me look WAY smart if I’m caught reading it in public, but which in actuality is a novel. What’s the connection between this book and Oscar Wao? Both novels are their respective authors’ first novels and both main characters are kids who don’t function in society the same way everyone around them seems to. (I love finding this stuff, even if it means nothing.)
This book is kinda neat in its structure – each chapter is titled after famous novel or erudite tome of knowledge. For example, the chapter I’m on right now is called “Madame Bovary;” I was tempted to skip this chapter because I hate that book. Ever since I had to read it in high school (I never got much past the first fifty pages) I hated it. Apparently it’s an important piece of literature, and I’ll give it that, just as long as I don’t have to read it. Ok, I’m getting off on a tangent here. Anyway, the title of the chapter cleverly gives some indication as to the events that will unfold therein. I enjoy that little game Pessl provides for me. (I’d say I’ve either read or am familiar with about 80% of the book titles she names her chapters after.)
So, what’s the story about? So far it’s about a teenage girl who is the daughter of a traveling professor of some import (though you get the vague notion that he’s less important than he thinks he is). This guy is always getting the designation of “Visiting Professor of Internation Politics” or the like wherever he goes, and boy does he go. They’re at a different college every semester it seems and our poor protagonist is drug along for the ride. Blue, that’s her name, takes after her father in that she is brilliantly book-smart, but she lacks his apparent social skills as of right now. She’s awkward and she knows it. She doesn’t make friends. What’s the point right? You’ll just be moving in five months anyway. It’s all a bit sad.
She show’s off her incredible education by referencing books and characters when talking about people. For example, she might say something like: “Mr. X was tall and thin, with a pointy nose that directed the rest of his body in the way it ought to go.” This will immediately be followed up with a parenthetical reference like: (See Audabon’s Field Guide to Birds, “The Blue Heron,”, p.134, fifteenth edition, 1993.) I find that mildly amusing and somewhat annoying at the same time. I found myself thinking last night, “How much time did Pessl have to spend researching all those damn references?! I would get tired of that after about five or six of them and try and figure out some other way to show that my protagonist was well read in myriad fields.”
In the opening chapters, an apparent suicide occurs of a character we haven’t met yet, but then that is ignored as Blue goes back to tell about her life and how it got to the point where she started writing it down. The character who apparently committed suicide has just recently been introduced and so the tension mounts.
So far it’s a pretty fun read. It’s written with clever diction and syntax, and I like that. But I wonder, if like her main character, does Pesss try too hard to convince us she’s smart? We’ll see, the jury’s still out. But so far I am enjoying it.
(This is a rare string of three books in a row that I’ve really enjoyed – usually I don’t get that many in a row!)