Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Books can develop personalities separate from the characters and author.  This is not true for every book – I’m not endorsing some new form of literary theory based on the psychoanalysis of literature.  But sometimes it does happen.

For example – Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy is definitely a sociopath.  Mundane day-to-day existence and violence are so enmeshed that they easily transition in and out of each other without missing a beat.  It has no morality.  The sentences contain no boundaries separating the characters’ speech from the action.  It begins and moves in a single, linear path to its end.  It is written in swarms of words and sentences which decimate whatever lay in their paths like locusts.  It sees and relates to the world only in terms of itself.

You see, books with personalities are so themselves that we don’t need to wait for some reviewer or critic to tell us what they are about, what we should think about them, or worst of all – what they mean.  It’s all as plain as day.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is another.  If you’ve read it, you’ve probably reread it.  And possibly re-reread it again.  It’s that girl who everyone wants to talk to at parties, or the favorite aunt we look forward to seeing at the family reunions.  The one who knows all the family gossip.  Yet, it’s so happy, so witty, and so much fun to be around.  It has the entertaining ability to tell a good story, to point out everyone’s character flaws.  And all done in such a good-natured way that no one is offended.

This leads me to the point:  Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a magician, an illusionist, a master of misdirection.  It’s the rarest of all books – with a plot that midway through changes trajectories and becomes a different book from the one you thought you were reading a few pages ago.  You zig, the story has zagged.  But Marisha Pessl does it in so clever, so subtle a way that there’s no discordant note jarring you out of the story.  You don’t sit there trying to figure out what the hell just happened or locate the jump in continuity.  Instead you thumb back through the pages wondering how you could have been so dense as to have missed the connections.  It all seems so obvious when you reach the last chapter… like the scene when the detective looks around the office at the end of “The Usual Suspects”.  You’ve been so confident in the preconceptions you established all the way back when you read the back cover in the bookshop, that you never saw the twist coming.  And THAT is brilliant storytelling.  Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

So how do I give you a plot summary, without giving away the plot?  Obviously, it is a mystery (the book, not the question).  It is also a coming of age story.  It’s a first novel, and like many first novels it’s written in the first person.  It’s a damn good read.

This is the story of Blue van Meer, told by Blue van Meer, one half of what must be the most engaging father/ daughter team since Atticus & Scout.

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

“Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond – James Bond – you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began – with a wheeze.”

Dad is an award-winning, famous in his field, poli-sci professor.  He and Blue have been traveling in a Volvo station wagon between backwater colleges for the last 10 years, since Blue’s mother died in a car accident.  The total number of schools Blue had attended in that time I think was 24 (don’t quote me).  She was the perpetual new girl, except that “that glittery title was always stolen from me within minutes of my arrival by someone fuller lipped and louder than I”.  At the beginning of this story her father surprises her with the announcement that her entire senior year of high school (prior to attending Harvard) will be spent in one place:  St. Gallway Academy.

During her first week at St. Gallway Blue is begrudgingly befriended by the Bluebloods.  The name pretty much speaks for itself:  they are rich, beautiful and privileged.  The Bluebloods – Jade, Charlie, Milton, Leulah and Nigel, – are in the thrall of Hannah Schneider.  She is their film teacher, their friend, and their muse.  It is to please her that they allow Blue into their inner circle.    In the normal course of events, if they noticed her at all, Blue would be their prey.

Early on, (i.e. – when you pick up the book, turn it over, and read the blurb) you learn that the climax of this story is the death of Hannah Schneider.  The plot hinges on questions:  Who is Hannah Schneider? Why her connection to the Bluebloods?  What is her interest in Blue?  Intertwined with these questions are the stories of the Bluebloods, Blue’s parents, the June bugs and a strangely normal boy named Zach.  But mostly this is Blue’s story.  A story she has unknowingly been at the center of her entire life.

______

Quick Note on the format of the book, which I loved.

Pessl has written the book like a curriculum – divided up into 3 parts, and then into Chapters.  Each chapter title is the title of a book which is on the Required Reading list.  Citations sprout throughout.  In one chapter we even get footnotes.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics could be Blue’s entrance application essay for Harvard.

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2007)
ISBN:  978 0 143 11212 9

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Blog Tour: The Secret ‘Inner’ Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

I showed this cover to a co-worker. Her reaction? "That's appalling! Poor Emily Dickinson!"

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel is Jerome Charyn’s love letter to the poet.  He admits as much in his author’s note.  His attachment is not unusual.  Others have attempted  first person, fictionalized accounts of Dickinson’s life.  What is astonishing is the skill with which he assumes the voice of the poet, completely capturing the ferocity of her attachments and the violence in her language. He picks out (and sometimes overuses) all the idiosyncratic phrasing and touch-words that we associate with her work.  There is no question that this is the Emily whose letters and poems have been handed down to us.  She is Austin Dickinson’s “wild sister”, who would never be confused with the meek, timid spinster of legend.  Charyn has done his research thoroughly, presenting a vibrant, red-head who burns and crackles off every page.

But having perfected the voice, Charyn seems to have trouble deciding what to do with it.  The novel has no real trajectory.  Told chronologically, it opens at Mt. Holyoke where Emily becomes infatuated with the school’s blond handyman.  It is the first of many infatuations that make up the meat of the narrative. (At one point Sister Sue accuses Emily of having “a craziness for men”). And while the book also has a string of lovely, dreamlike images – Emily becoming a pickpocket’s ‘mouse’, a pair of yellow gloves, a circus elephant in mourning and Little Sister Lavinia dancing around the room after discovering the handmade booklets of Emily’s poetry – they are poorly woven together.  Perhaps a more accurate title would have been The Secret Inner Life of Emily Dickinson… which is where the real action of the story takes place.  All indications are that Dickinson had a rich and complicated mental life.  I think it is a shame that Charyn made the choice of focusing on romantic fantasy rather than the real poetry.

Stream of conscious is tricky and can quickly get away from a writer if structure isn’t imposed.  Charyn must have realized this, because at intervals (roughly coordinating with chapter headings) he inserts third person narration to help establish what point we have reached in Emily’s life.  And the book spans her entire life from that first paragraph at Mt. Holyoke to her death.  Many of the characters are complete fabrications, which didn’t bother me at all.  But if I had a chance to question the author I would ask about where he drew his fiction/non-fiction line in the sand.  There were several places where it felt like a fictional over-arcing plot was being developed, only to be dropped as another beau exited (if only temporarily) Emily’s life.  Early chapters had all the makings of a good mystery.   Obviously, Charyn did not intend to write a mystery.  So what are we left with?

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson went on a little long for my tastes.  (No lie – Once Dickinson reached her late 40’s I refreshed each page hoping she’d be dead on the next).  I would have preferred more of a plot.  But the writing in this novel is glorious.  Charyn takes us into Emily Dickinson’s head – a woman whose poetry is still considered revolutionary and cutting-edge 125+ years after her death.  That is a tremendous accomplishment.  And for some readers it will be enough.

(And in case you disagree, you can follow the blog tour from here and read what some other bloggers think).

Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2010).
ISBN: 978 0 3933 3917 8

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