Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

“Sometimes knowledge is damaging – not enlightenment but enleadenment.”

Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsThis review contains spoilers.

A disclaimer, before I begin: I love Special Topics in Calamity Physics with a love that is as irrational as it is true.

You know sometimes when you find a book that is Your Book, that is both endlessly familiar and infinitely strange, that you want to give to everyone in your life because it just gets you?

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is My Book.

So, this probably isn’t going to be the most balanced review you’ve ever read…

* * *

First up: what is this miraculous book about?

It’s narrated (no, written – that’s important) by Blue Van Meer, a precocious and highly intelligent American teenager with a professor in political science for a father. Blue and her father lead an itinerant existence, never staying in any one town for longer than a month or two, until, one day, unexpectedly (inexplicably?), Gareth Van Meer decides to settle down in Stockton, North Carolina, for an unprecedented seven months – long enough for Blue to finish her final year at school.

So it’s partly, I suppose, a high school story. At her new school, Blue is taken under the wing of the mysterious and charismatic Film Studies teacher Hannah Schneider, and is somewhat unwillingly thrown into the midst of the Bluebloods, the obligatory high school royalty, unbelievably beautiful and ethereal people who do not deign to walk among us. Neither the Bluebloods, nor Blue herself, nor, indeed, the reader, have any idea why she has been shown such favour. And it seems to me that this, rather than any of the other gestures the book makes towards significance, is the core of the novel: Blue working out where she sits in the world, how she can call herself special, what all of her precociousness means against the chances of the world.

The novel is marketed as a thriller (at least, it was shelved under “Thriller” at my local library), but to me it is precisely not that. There is a murder, it’s true, which is mentioned in the blurb, but the murder doesn’t take place until easily halfway into the book. There is conspiracy theory, but it’s not really hinted at until, oh, the last quarter of the novel, perhaps. Thrillers are, usually, stories which reiterate their characters’ ability to reach and apprehend the truth, no matter how deadening, how awful that truth may be; whereas if Special Topics is anything it’s a narrative of disillusionment, a Bildungsroman that leads its protagonist from the comfort (and distance) of orderly apprehension into a world which is random and disorderly and immediate.

So: it’s a novel which plays with questions of formal narrative; more specifically, it’s a novel that interrogates autobiography, the narrating of a life. One of the gimmicks of the novel (I think it works, but, as with all gimmicks, your mileage may vary) is that it’s structured as a literature course, with a list of “Required Reading” standing in for its contents page, each chapter named after a work of literature (Paradise Lost, Wuthering Heights, Othello), and a “Final Exam” at the end. (I’ll get to the “Final Exam” in a minute.) Matching the chapter titles to the chapter content is a fairly interesting game, I think, but not the most interesting thing about this structure, which is Pessl’s way of registering how Blue reads the world. The novel, her autobiography, is written not like a story but like an academic essay (to an extent, anyway), littered with citations and footnotes and Visual Aids. But the citations are scattergun, ranging from the academic to the deeply suspect (Mills and Boon, anyone?); the Visual Aids are not photographs but line drawings, not the authoritative artefacts Blue wants them to be but subtle fictions, overlaid by her own unconscious biases. The point, as I read it, is to highlight the folly of imposing any kind of narrative framework on the world, which is also why neither the thriller plot nor the high school story are quite adequate to explain all of the events of Blue’s life.

And: it’s also, by extension, a novel which plays with subjectivity and objectivity. Blue’s attempt at academic objectivity, her obsessive citing and referencing and researching, collapses inevitably into the purest of subjectivity (“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” mutters Jane Austen, caustically) as she roams across an infinite variety of written sources, finding verification for her theories in unlikely places. That “Final Exam” demonstrates this once and for all: instead of a definitive conclusion, a series of multiple-choice questions ask us, the readers, to comment on and interpret the plot, subverting that most certain of exam formats (one of them has to be the right answer!) to reveal that there is no objectivity, only as many subjectivities as there are readers. Even as we attempt to frame the world, as we attempt to frame our lives as romances, melodramas, epics, the frame collapses to reveal only the unknown and the unknowable. And, paradoxically, that framework is all we have.

As I said: your mileage may vary. I suspect the novel stands or falls on whether you buy Blue’s naivete, her precociousness, her unthinking adoration of her father. I did, but I can see how she would irritate others in much the same way that John Green’s pretentious teenagers do. So I will not say: read this at all costs. I will only say: I love it. And maybe you will, too.

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