Joy Luck Book Club: <i>Special Topics in Calamity Physics</i>
Written by Bwog Staff
For most, summer is a season for skimpy bikinis and cold Coronas, or whatever those zany teenagers do these days. Along with such activities, Bwog staffers Lucy Tang and Daniel D’Addario will while away these months of freedom in (partial) devotion to literary pursuits, and then discussing these books in a nifty little feature called “Joy Luck Book Club.”
Now what makes these two qualified for literary criticism? Absolutely nothing. How regular will these discussions be? The frequency will be inversely proportional to the number of open bars we find each week.
First victim: Barnard alumna Marisha Pessl’s much-lauded Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
Lucy: It’s impossible to have a discussion about Special Topics in Calamity Physics without mentioning all its hype.
1. Marisha Pessl’s huge (and undisclosed) advance. (Great for her!)
2. Marisha Pessl is hot! (She’s no Zadie Smith)
3. The New York Times’s “The 10 Best Books of 2006”
Needless to say, I am one of those mindless drones who take the Times’s recommendation as gospel, so after seeing that prestigious title placed upon it, I was extremely eager to actually read the book, and five months later, I did. After I finished skimming the last fifty pages, I was left unsatisfied and disappointed, but on a second consideration, it was a good book.
When it comes down to it, Special Topics failed to wow me, but it is certainly a solid debut. Like the other (literary) voices of our generation, Pessl has crafted her own voice, replete with run-on sentences, parentheses, and just unnecessary verbal vomit. Sometimes it’s almost as if Pessl is screaming at you, “Look I know big words! And I’ve read books!” It’s irritating and annoying, but how many other authors can claim to reference fake books?
Dan: Maybe the question is less “how many authors can claim to reference fake books” as “how many authors feel the need to.” For example, Special Topics in Calamity Physics received similar press to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, another recent bildungsroman about an adrift girl at a private high school. Prep told its story simply and relatively briefly. Special Topics tells, at much greater length, a story glutted with the faux-erudite tricks that writers like Sittenfeld and others eschew in favor of good writing and character development.
Speaking of which, Lucy, what did you think of character development in the novel? We can agree to disagree about whether the fake citations add an erudite or pretentious tone, but do you think that Special Topics would have earned the hype it did without the “academic” structure?
Lucy: The character development was minimal, at best. All the characters, including our protagonist Blue, are rather one-faceted. I could potentially be listing the cast of a CW show: the beautiful ice queen, the handsome jock, the heartthrob from the wrong side of the tracks, the gay one, the eccentric teacher, the distinguished and caring father, and the precocious but socially stunted daughter. Unfortunately, Pessl gives readers nothing beyond these stereotypes, thus the book fails to make any emotional impact. The characters are more of a plot device than actual characters.
It’s ironic that Pessl used an academic framework for such a frivolous novel. Because of the academic structure, critics deemed the book “precocious.” It was gimmicky, but it worked. This little quirk helped Special Topics stand out, and I won’t fault her for its success.
Though the above has been mostly criticism, I actually enjoyed parts of Special Topics. I breezed through the middle 200 pages in one sitting, because the mystery was so engrossing. Pessl knows how to craft a story, the only flaw being the messy and convoluted ending. Despite the hefty 500+ pages, it’s a great beach read, especially considering the beginning and denouement can and should be skimmed.
Now you, Dan, did you enjoy Pessl’s debut, at all?
Dan: It’s funny that our analyses of the novel are so close, yet you came away admiring (or at least respecting) Pessl in a way I did not. I agree that the middle of the novel was a swift read, at times even engrossing, and that Pessl rarely rises above the level of cursory sketch in describing her characters.
Unlike you, though, I hardly found the “mystery” to be interesting. In fact, I think the plot-driven nature of the novel shows that Pessl misunderstands her own strengths as a writer. The redeeming moments of Special Topics were those in which said sketches transcend their own nature in well-drawn moments of interaction. The relationships between Blue and her father/her teacher can largely be described as such, until both are destroyed by a ludicrous and careless last-minute plot twist. At one point in the novel, Blue’s father remarks that American audiences have no appetite for a narrative left unresolved, though such narratives are often the most satisfying. I agree with the latter point, and think that Pessl should have followed her own advice.
If Pessl wanted to write an analysis of intellectual rigor and the values of “classic” texts vis-a-vis modern life, she could have done that. She could have done an equally capable job with a quiet story of human interactions; her characters may be slight, but she knows how friendships and those delicate teacher-student relationships work. But to attempt to combine both of those novels into a plotline that grows ever more ludicrous is an insult both to Pessl’s reader and to the [real] authors she so devotedly cites throughout.
–The opinions above hold no real merit. It’s probably best to disagree.–