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Thoughts on: Marisha Pessl – Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I don’t know, I don’t knoooow… A few days ago I finished reading Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and I still haven’t made up my mind about it. I should rather rate it in parts than overall, because let me tell ya, this book is marketed in quite a misleading way. “A page-turning murder mystery…” (according to the Guardian blurb)? Yeah, maybe the last 200 (of 660) pages.

When I started it, I was absolutely thrilled to have come across a book again that doesn’t underestimate its readers and doesn’t explain its own developing plot. You know what I mean? When authors work with hints and allusions, just to have a character vocalize them two sentences later so that every reader gets it? I loved the feeling of looming darkness behind everything that happened in the interactions of Blue, the “Bluebloods” and their teacher Hannah, as if Fortune just lingers behind bushes or walls, waiting to strike mercilessly.
Also, I loved the portrayal of a young, very well-read girl who is intelligent as well, meaning that she is able to use all of her knowledge intuitively. Not only that, Blue also has a very deliberate way of expressing her thoughts. This is thanks to her father Gareth, whose arrogant and know-it-all character I disliked in the beginning but came to appreciate later. (I have the habit of writing down parts of a text that seem important or speak to me in some way, and not without reason where most of them reflections of Gareth.)

Nonetheless, after 250 pages of not-much-happening, I grew tired of the constant literary references to mostly non-existent books and of even more of Pessl’s excessively convoluted metaphors. I understand that Blue has a unique way of thinking – you could say a literature/movie plot-reality-synesthesia – but the incessant elaborate analogies just started to get annoying and detracted from becoming engrossed in Blue’s story. Examples?
“When it came down to the nitty-gritty, I knew I’d probably flee without warning, like Hannibal’s elephants during the battle of Zama in 202 B.C.” (p. 165)
“Jade was nevertheless one of those people whose personality proved to be the bane of modern mathematicians. She was neither flat nor a solid shape. She showed no symmetry at all. Trigonometry, Calculus and Statistics all proved useless. Her Pie Chart was a muddle of arbitrary wedges, her Line Graph, the silhouette of the Alps. And just when one listed her under Chaos Theory – Butterfly Effects, Weather Predictions, Fractals, Bifurcation diagrams and whatnot – she showed up as an equilateral triangle, sometimes even a square.” (p. 279)
There’s many more, but I don’t want this to get too long. You get the impression – Blue is so smart, in extension Pessl is soooo smart. In the middle part her writing style made me think that the whole book is just a constant self-backslapping of Pessl who wants to show us how brainy she is. (But if she knows so much, why did she refer to Homer as from the Hellenistic Period twice? Is that just a glaring mistake or does this have any meaning that I didn’t catch up on?)

But oh did she win me back with the last part – now the murder mistery finally begins, and it’s so exciting, egregious, cleverly thought out and feels so real that I completely forgot how the middle part bugged me out. It wish the plot of the last 200 pages would have been spread out more – although you could argue that it is, with the focus on Hannah and her mysterious lifestyle. I don’t want to reflect much on the ending because I still want to process much of it for myself, but I’ll definitely will write about it again.

All in all, even if I have my issues with the plot and even more with Pessl’s writing style, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is an extraordinary read that I will further contemplate on and definitely won’t forget.