Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

3483Blurb: Marisha Pessl?s mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this cracking good read is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds some, a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel with visual aids drawn by the author that has won over readers of all ages.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a Rubik’s Cube of a story created by Puzzlemaster Marisha Pessl. You receive all the information needed to solve the puzzle throughout your reading, but it’s not until the end, when each side of the cube is perfectly constructed, that you see the Blinding Truth. 

The sides of Pessl’s Cube aren’t basic colors. Instead of fashioning rows and columns of nine small blue squares on one side, nine yellow squares on another, nine red, nine green, nine orange, nine white, you twist and turn to find the sides of the cube are assembled of quotations from literary texts.

Side 1: The Secret History (Tartt 1992)

Side 2: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Doyle 1892)

Side 3: Metamorphoses (Ovid 8)

Side 4: Whereabouts (Swithin 1917); a travelogue by British essayist Horace Lloyd Swithin, a fictional man

Side 5: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (Bugliosi 1974)

Side 6: Das Kapital (Marx 1867)

Solving this puzzle requires immense esoteric knowledge, knowledge that the average reader will not have. Enter Blue van Meer, 16 years old and smarter than you’ll ever be. She’s a lovely protagonist because she gets to the core of what these Secret History-esque stories are all about: belonging. There’s an outsider who infiltrates an established group and finds oneself. There’s a line in Special Topics where Blue says she once felt like a smudge but after joining the Bluebloods feels like a straight black line. 

I get so happy when a character becomes a defined, concrete line. But Pessl illuminates the dark side of this belonging too. By belonging, we lose ourselves. By belonging, we open ourselves to hurt. People no longer own themselves when they place themselves subject to a group. As soon as you attach your lifestory to another’s, you lose control and suffer the consequences.

But what’s most incredible about Special Topics is its discussion of these deeper themes accompanied by a thrilling story. Nothing is what it seems. For many readers, I expect the first half might be difficult to get through. The story builds to a moment that has already been spoiled in the introduction and the narration is wacky. Blue has an extraordinary cultural lexicon to mine, so her writing is packed with fake references, real but very obscure references, multiple parenthetical asides in a single sentence, Concepts Written With Capitalized Letters To Endow Them With Greater Significance, and questionable metaphors (example A: “I was forgotten like Line 2 on a Corporate Headquarters Switchboard;” example B: “a wound that squirts blood like a grape Capri Sun”). 

The writing is frenetic and dense, but to a questionable Pesslesque metaphor of my own, I found the prose like Chipmunkified music. You know, those songs that have been upped–both pitched up and sped up–to mimic the voices of speaking tree-dwelling rodents. When I hear a normal song destroyed like that, I first think, “How awful!” But somewhere between the second chorus and the bridge, I start to think, “Maybe the song is better like this.” So it goes with the writing. It’s gimmicky and snappy and amazing and awful all at once but after a while, it sinks into your brain and it’s intoxicating, absolutely perfect for what’s being said. 

So give in to the music and start trying to solve the puzzle (you won’t). But after reading, don’t be surprised if you feel like this:

Very few people realize, there’s no point chasing after answers to life’s important questions. They all have fickle, highly whimsical minds of their own. Nevertheless. If you’re patient, if you don’t rush them, when they’re ready, they’ll smash into you. And don’t be surprised if afterwards you’re speechless and there are cartoon tweety birds chirping around your head.

5 out of 5 stars


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