Monday, October 09, 2006

Special Topics

I'm about half-way through Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. It's her debut novel, and it's really amazing. Already receiving high critical praise, I'll be very surprised if it doesn't sweep the book awards in the next year.

Fabulously po-mo, with illustrations (by the author) and structured, according to the introduction, like a syllabus, with each chaptered titled after books on a must-read list (Othello, Wuthering Heights, Brave New World...), Special Topics is a book for the literary-minded. Pessl makes frequent references to both real and surely fabricated books to enrich understanding, sometimes sending me scuttling off to to check her references: that I was alone in a strange, stiff bed, a pale morning soaking through the curtains, the overhead lamp a giant eye staring down at me, The Histories of the Bluebloods began to creep out of the underbrush like exotic nocturnal animals at nightfall (see "Zorilla," "Shrew," "Jerboa," "Kinkajou" and "Small-Eared Zorro," Encyclopedia of Living Things, 4th ed.). I had very little experience dealing with Dark Pasts, apart from close readings of Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1847) and Rebecca (Du Maurier, 1938)...

She's a master of both simile and metaphor, as you can see from the passage above - but averages at least one a page. Her gift for mixing high and low culture in one blow is really extraordinary:

Dad, of course, witnessing this transformation, felt the way Van Gogh would probably feel, if, one hot afternoon, he happened to wander into a Sarasota Gift Shoppe and found next to the cardboard baseball caps and Fun-in-the-Sun seashell figurines, his beloved sunflowers printed on one side of two-hundred beach towels ON SALE for just $9.00.

Dialogue is sparse but incredibly effective - she gives even the most passing character a unique voice - such as the lead character's professor father at lecture:

You might have heard of various imbeciles who waged war on the U.S. government in the sixties and seventies. The New Communist Left. The Weather Underground. The Students for the Blah-Blah-No-One-Takes-You-Seriously. In fact, I think they were worse than Stu, because they smashed, not monogamy, but hope for productive protest and objection in this country. With their delusional self-importance, ad hoc violence, it became easy to dismiss anyone voicing dissatisfaction with the way things are are freaky flower chiles.

or even the guy that works at the gas station:

Contrary to popular belief, person needs heartbreak and betrayal. Else you got no stayin' power. Can't play a lead for five whole acts. Can't play two performances inna day. Can't fashion a character arch from Point A ta Point G. Can't get through the denewment, create a convincin' through line - all that stuff. See whut I'm sayin'? Person's gotta get banged up. Gotta get jerked around, lived in. So he's got somethin' to use, see.

And if all those qualities weren't enough, and frankly, for me plot is secondary to great writing, Special Topics comes through with a great story line, about a mother-less girl who becomes friends with a group everyone calls the "Bluebloods" at her exclusive prep school (I really did not plan to read books only about prep schools this fall!)

Special Topics reminds me of the brilliant but ultimately unreadable 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole. That was a hell of a book that I grieved not finishing (but the main character is such a raving lunatic I really couldn't take it anymore).

Oh, Jesus - I just went to the book's website which has some spoilers! So don't go there (even though I just gave you the link)! Well, I've got to get back to it! I'll write another post when I finish!

1 comment:

Indiana Fan said...

Wow, that sounds really cool. I wish I had time to read it.

I really liked C.o.Dunces, read it twice. It wasn't until the second time that I picked up on some of the more clever bits.