"Special Topics in Calamity Physics"

Marisha Pessl's ambitious debut is a literary mystery -- a blend of "The Secret History" and Salinger's Glass stories -- with that rarest of delights: A great ending.

Published August 4, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

The pre-publication blurb isn't one of the higher forms of literature, but Jonathan Franzen's one-sentence endorsement, printed on the back cover of Marisha Pessl's first novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," is a masterpiece of sorts. "Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut," he writes, "is a dark, strong drink." There's certainly plenty of foam covering the surface of "Special Topics" -- in the form of a strenuously antic style and the pretty thin device of titling each chapter after some famous literary work ("Othello," "Madam Bovary," etc.) and proclaiming that the whole book is a "syllabus." But get past the froth, sip a bit deeper, and he's right: The brew is surprisingly potent. "Special Topics," for all its overeager freshman infelicities, is a real novel, one of substance and breadth, with an arresting story and that rarest of delights, a great ending.

"Special Topics" is narrated by Blue van Meer, the 16-year-old daughter of Gareth, a sort of itinerant policy wonk. (Her mother died in a car crash when Blue was 5.) Dad, a perpetually visiting professor, insists on traipsing from one podunk college to another, where his hands-on specialty in civil and guerrilla wars and frequent publications in small-run journals with titles like Federal Forum and the New Seattle Journal of Foreign Policy lend him a rakish mystique. A haphazard philanderer and a thrilling lecturer who privately mocks the rubes he deigns to educate, he both awes and exasperates his daughter, who's only just beginning to extract herself from his shadow. His dirty little secret, she fears, is that he wants to be Richard Burton.

Their vagabond life, compounded by her father's rigorous intellectual drilling (she refers to their long car trips as "Sonnet-a-thons" and "One Hundred Miles of Solitude: Attempting to Memorize 'The Waste Land'"), has made Blue almost pathologically bookish. Most of the people, events and ideas she describes come trailing a bibliographic citation. Some of her references are to the classics, others to solemn geopolitical tomes written by her father and his ilk, but just as many are to the true crime and pop sociology books she reads on the sly.

For Blue's final year of high school (before her inevitable admission to Harvard), Dad announces that they'll stay in one town for an unprecedented full year. He's enrolled her in St. Gallway, an eccentric private school in North Carolina whose brochure boasts that it has "the highest number of graduates in the country who go on to be revolutionary performance artists." The school, however, turns out to be much like most high schools, even if the soccer team does tease one of its lovesick players by calling him "Aphrodite." St. Gallway has, for instance, a soigni, much-envied clique known as "the Blue-Bloods," and to Blue's astonishment, she's taken up by them, and by the charismatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider, who presides over their exclusive little group.

If you think this sounds like a hybrid of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and J.D. Salinger's Glass family stories, you'd be right, but that's not necessarily a bad thing in a novel that's so book-drunk to begin with. True, as a rule, novels that traffic in scads of literary allusions should be regarded with suspicion -- what are they, after all, but a flagrant attempt to flatter their readers' literacy, as Mary McCarthy's preening review of Nabokov's "Pale Fire" demonstrated so conclusively? (The review, "A Bolt From the Blue," is one long boast on every reference McCarthy got.) But "Special Topics" adds value by casting a cool eye on darling Salingerian precocity, and, while Pessl doesn't quite have Tartt's storytelling witchery, underneath this book's pomo extravagances thrums a little narrative engine that could.

If only Pessl wouldn't try so hard to convince us that she is a novelist of grand, American-style ambition; she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers' heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence. Granted, some of her flourishes are lovely -- a "blackened campfire where a few logs had recently burned, soft and gray around their edges like the muzzles of old dogs" -- or sharp -- a minister who delivers a eulogy while allotting "an equal amount of eye contact to every third of the congregation with the mechanized surety of a sprinkler system." But others are forced to the point of incoherence: What does it mean to say someone "bit his nails into thumbtacks" or why say loose pages "dandruffed" out of the spine of an old book? Dandruff isn't a close enough match to falling sheets of paper to merit manhandling the noun into a verb.

We live in an age when you can be considered a great novelist if all you do is spin out dazzling riffs of prose and essayistic pronouncements about the contemporary world without being much good at character and story (see: the reputation of Don DeLillo's "Underworld"). So, in a way, it's not hard to guess why Pessl feels the need to prove that she can shoot off as many fireworks as the potentates of the Fat Book Society. The trouble is, they don't really let girls in that club, and meanwhile "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" is an actual novel: Maybe Pessl hasn't perfected the finer points of characterization, but the people in her book feel real, and what happens to them is fascinating and surprising without being preposterous.

There is a mystery in this novel and one, possibly two, violent deaths. In particular, Blue's questions hover around the glamorous but unfathomable Hannah, with her "air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow, about her, a sense of RKO." The novel's final revelations are unexpected, though the trail to them is scrupulously and deftly laid. When it comes to the woefully underesteemed art of story-making, Pessl is more than just an apprentice, and this makes the novel's frippery -- like the syllabus conceit -- a bit extraneous.

Blue explains that she cribbed her "Required Reading" format from her dad, who once told her, "a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life -- not the whole thing, God no -- simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable." Of course, professors aren't the only ones who do this. Novelists do it, too, and when you've got one of those -- the genuine item -- who needs a professor?

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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