- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS

By Marisha Pessl

Viking, $25.95, 528 pages

REVIEWED BY JOANNE MCNEIL

People generally don’t remember their adolescence fondly. Yet the muck of hormones and bad skin can seem romantic in retrospect. In recent years, adults have enjoyed “Mean Girls,” Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep” and the off-Broadway production of “Spring’s Awakening.” Following this trend, Marisha Pessl has published her first novel about a plucky protagonist suffering the trials of high school in the midst of a Nancy Drew-style murder mystery.

She is Blue Van Meer, the first of Ms. Pessl’s many hat tips to Vladimir Nabokov, who tinged several of his characters’ names with blue (Starover Blue, John Shade, Dr. Azureus). Ms. Pessl’s Blue was named after the Cassius Blue moth — another nod to the famous lepidopterist (Nabokov was particularly obsessed with blue butterflies).

Ms. Pessl’s blustery and metaphor-laden language, however, highlights her novel’s lack of character development and introspection. At best, her prose is quirky and fun: “she coiled her thick braid around her hand and spoke in a little-girl voice so men tilted over her like big beach umbrellas trying to block the sun.”

But at worst, the descriptions are long-winded and a trifle weird: “I was aware that she, and maybe the others too, would occasionally float over to me like pollen off a withered dandelion with news of sugarplum marriages, gooey divorces, moves to Florida, a new job in real estate, but there was nothing keeping them and they’d drift away as simply and randomly as they’d come.”

The descriptive language would work fine with poetic flair, but each verbal arabesque is executed clumsily. Noticeable omissions in the “Core Curriculum” — the index is presented like a syllabus, with canonical great novels serving as chapter titles (“Moby Dick,” Heart of Darkness,” “Madame Bovary”) — are fluid writers such as Djuna Barnes, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf.

While this format is clever — books are also cited parenthetically throughout the novel — it is unconvincing because Blue isn’t a true bibliophile. There’s no whim or intellectual curiosity in her reading selections. Never would she deign to include Kurt Vonnegut or even J. D. Salinger in her library. She approaches Great Books with the same mechanical determination applied to her AP calculus homework.

In Ms. Pessl’s hands, Blue engages in namedropping rather than scholarship, so that the novel pays no more homage to Flaubert or Nabokov than a teenager who has listed books by those authors in her Myspace profile.

Of course, Blue is meant to be lugubriously precocious, but there is no sense of the puppeteer winking at us, as Nabokov with Kinbote and Humbert. So when the digressions border on the preposterous — Blue reads “Mein Kampf” in the second grade! — readers lose faith in the author.

Ms. Pessl also very often describes characters based on what film stars they resemble. For instance, Blue’s nomadic college professor father, Gareth, is likened to George Clooney. But we can’t superimpose Mr. Clooney’s characteristics into the story without established motivation and depth, which never comes.

Gareth is Swiss, but there is nothing notably Continental about his manner besides a general distaste for American popular culture. He never really flexes his world-class — at least in his daughter’s mind — intellectual muscle. His epigrammatic dialogue is vacant, rather than edifying. It typically consists of a sneering critique: “America’s greatest revelation was not the atom bomb, not Fundamentalism, not fat farms, not Elvis, not even the quite astute observation that gentleman prefer blondes, but the great heights to which she has propelled ice cream … Oh look. Makin’ Woopie Pie.”

Readers will have the most difficulty getting past the narrator’s own unrestrained elitism. Blue is a student at St. Gallway, a school with Mercedes cars in the parking lot and plenty of Ivy League-bound students that will never deal with student loans. Snobbery reeks from the lily-white landscape.

Blue describes an Asian roommate as a stereotypical workaholic with a face that “employed the same countenance for both Anger and Elation.” More horrifying, Blue gripes about an “awful roadie watering hole (a place Dad and I would go to great distances to avoid breaking bread with ‘men and women who, if one squinted, resembled piles of tires.’)”

Perhaps our grown-up fascination with adolescence is nostalgia for its frenzied life-or-death temperament; but unlike Curtis Sittenfeld’s introspective narrator, Blue exhibits no shades of melancholy or alienation. One reads the book desperate for intuitive and vivid characters, rather than stock John Hughes stereotypes.

Ironically, it is one of the adults — the mysterious film teacher and eventual murder victim — that is allowed a rare passionate outburst: “It takes years to overturn … this conditioning,” the teacher says. “I tried my whole life and I still exploit people. I am a pig. Show me what a man hates and I’ll show you who he is. Can’t remember who said that …” But then she is immediately mocked by the narrator: “I was deathly afraid she’d go on about needing to go live on a kibbutz.” It’s not cool to care at St. Gallway.

Without immediate cultural references, Blue is at a loss to explain the fire that drives the other teens. “I noticed there was something incredible about them, something brave, that no one in my immediate recollection had written about — not really.” The brazen chorus girls in Jean Rhys’ stories immediately come to mind — Rhys is another writer whose tense economical style might have influenced Ms. Pessl for the better.

Readers are soon exhausted by the distracting wordplay and sitcom hijinks; which is a shame, because the suspense in the last 100 pages of this book shows real promise. And Ms. Pessl’s illustrations are marvelously decadent Aubrey Beardsley-inspired sketches.

But a beautiful stage can’t save mediocre actors, and ultimately the problem with “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is that the reader can’t sympathize with Blue or her bloviating father. The book is an exercise in flaunting talent rather than an honest attempt to move readers or impart any wisdom. Without magic, pathos and the intensity of youth, it is instantly forgettable.

Joanne McNeil is a newspaper reporter and fiction writer.

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