“Special Topics In Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

A unique, beautifully written book about that I fell in love with, got frustrated by and ended up being just good friends with.

I’ve decided that the best way to do justice to a book as long and complex as this one is to start by offering up my overall impressions and then sharing the detail of the experience of reading the book, based on the notes I made as I went along. There are no spoilers.

Overall Impression

“Special Topics In Calamity Physics” is a book with a personality all of its own. Reading it was like meeting a very charismatic person for the first time and being dazzled by their larger-than-life not-afraid-of-anything personal style, seduced by their erudition and left hungry for more of their stories and views on the world.

For the first half of this book, I was in love. But it’s a very long book, nearly twenty-two hours of audiobook, and, just as with people, long exposure meant that, by the second half, some of the glamour rubbed thin, the erudition began to seem compulsive and irritating and I became hungry for the author to GET ON WITH IT.

By the end of the book, my admiration for it was more considered. I admired the depth of characterisation, the boldness and originality of the idea, the unashamed intellectualism of the delivery and the persistent vein of humour that kept everything human. It was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.

On the other hand, I was frustrated that the book seemed to meander rather self-indulgently at times and that the impact of the bold idea was almost lost under the weight of the writing style. I was reminded of an interview with Dennis Hopper where he said that the hardest thing about making “Easy Rider” was knowing which of the perfectly shot scenes to leave out. With “Special Topics In Calamity Physics” nothing was left out.

Then there’s the last chapter, “Final Exam”. I hope that was humour but it felt more like a sneer.

This book may not be for everyone but I strongly recommend that you give it a try and see if it’s to your taste.

My experience reading “Special Topics In Calamity Physics.

4%. My second 20 for 20 challenge book is a kayak

When I started “The Nix”, my first long book in my 20 for 20 reading challenge, it rose ahead of me like the steep slope of a mountain. making wonder if I would have the endurance to climb and whether the view when I got there would be worth it. 

“Special Topics In Calamity Physics” (almost twenty-two hours long and told entirely as a monologue from the narrator), is not that kind of book. 

Starting it seems like being invited to take the second seat in a kayak piloted by a talkative and remarkably well-informed guide, who tells you fascinating things about the topography of the land you pass through and the flora and fauna that inhabit it in what, you slowly come to realise, is a love song to the river she is bound to.

6%. this is what I’m talking about

Have you ever noticed that the books that are easiest to read are the hardest to review? The author does all the hard stuff out of sight of the reader who just slides effortlessly down the breathtaking flume of the writer’s prose.

“Special Topics In Calamity Physics” is like that. It’s just a young woman telling you everything about a time when her life changed. The way she does it, the language she uses, the reference points she has, the academic discipline she brings to it, is a character sketch in their own right. She’s VERY easy to listen to. I’m so happy to find someone whose reported thoughts are as convoluted and self-referential as my own. And somehow, she manages to make all of this amusing.

Here’s what I’m talking about. In a chapter named “Wuthering Heights” (all the chapters are named after books they make you read at school) our heroine, Blue (don’t ask) is at the hospital having had the Latino gardener that she’s privately cast as Heathcliffe turn up on her doorstep covered in blood after having been shot. Blue is now waiting for the arrival of her father. This is how she describes him

“I sort of dreaded Dad’s inevitable appearance. Obviously I loved the man, but unlike some of the other fathers I observed at Pappy-Comes-to-School Day at Walhalla Elementary, dads who were shy and talked in cottony voices, my dad was a loud, uninhibited man, a man of resolute action with little patience or innate tranquility, more Papa Dop in temperament than Paddington Bear, Pavlova or Petting Zoo. Dad was a man who, due to his underprivileged background perhaps, never hesitated when it came to the verbs to get or to take. He was always getting something off the ground, his act together, his hands dirty, the show on the road, someone’s goat, the message, out more, on with things, lost, laid, away with murder. He was also always taking charge, the bull by the horns, back the night, something in stride, someone to the cleaners, a rain check, an ax to something, Manhattan. And when it came to looking at things, Dad was something of a Compound Microscope, one who viewed life through an adjustable eyepiece lens and thus expected all things to be in focus. He had no tolerance for The Murky, The Blurry, The Hazy or The Soiled.

He charged into the emergency room shouting, “What the hell is going on here? Where is my daughter?” causing Nurse Marvin to scuttle off her chair. After ensuring that I too had not suffered a gunshot wound, nor had any open cuts or scrapes through which I might have been fatally contaminated by “that Latino son-of-a-bitch,” Dad barged through the smudged, white double doors with the giant red letters screaming AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY (Dad was always electing himself an AUTHORIZED PERSON) and demanded to know what had happened.”

See what I mean. You just get swept along with barely a second to go “Wow.”

For a book this long, I like to have the kindle and the audio versions. The amazing thing is just how well the audio version works. The narrator is perfect.

So, in summary, and on mature reflection, I’m enjoying this book.

14%. Blue describes her father talking to attractive women

I love this Blue’s way of thinking – turning science into poetry or perhaps vice versa. The deadpan delivery made me smile.

“The phenomenon of Dad interacting with a beautiful woman was always an odd, sort of uninspired chemical experiment. Most of the time there was no reaction. Other times, Dad and the woman might appear to react vigorously, producing heat, light, and gas. But at the end, there was never a functional product like plastics or glassware, only a foul stench.”

26%. – a kingdom I can’t see

Blue is finally stepping out of her father’s shadow and slowly inserting herself into the elite “Bluebloods” group at the high school. Inevitably, the question of sex comes up. Blue, now nicknamed Wretch after an unfortunate and very dramatic reaction to drinking cocktails, is asked about her experience:

“You’ve never gotten laid, have you, Retch?” Jade accused one night, deliberately ashing her cigarette in the cracked blue vahze next to her like some movie psychiatrist with switchblade fingernails, her eyes narrowed, as if hoping I’d confess to violent crime.

The question hung in the air like a national flag with no wind. It was obvious the Bluebloods, including Nigel and Lu, approached sex as if it were cute little towns they had to whizz through in order to make good time on their way to Somewhere (and I wasn’t so sure they knew their final destination).”

I love the second paragraph. It’s filled with awareness, distance and intelligence but no real emotional attachment. Blue is an observer of her own life.

She’s also an observer having difficulty knowing exactly what’s she’s looking at. Two of the Bluebloods, Jade and Leulah, take Blue to a distant roadside dive where they choose middle-aged men to take into the women’s disabled toilet for sex. Then they drive home, elated.  Blue’s reaction is an unsuccessful attempt to categorise their behaviour: 

“when Jade was speeding back to her house, crisscrossing between semis and Leulah screamed for no reason, head back, hair tangling around the headrest, her arms reaching out of the sun-roof as if grabbing at the tiny stars sticking to the sky and picking them off like lint, I noticed there was something incredible about them, something brave, that no one in my immediate recollection had written about—not really.”

Then she admits defeat and decides:

“I doubted I could write about it either, being “the total flat tire in any bar or club,” except that they seemed to inhabit a completely different world than the one I did—a world that was hilarious, without repercussion or revolting neon light or stickiness or rug burn, a world in which they ruled.”

This captures perfectly the great divide I, the one who ends up at the kitchen in parties or reads bookshelves or alphabetises the vinyl albums, feel between me and those who REALLY party. They enjoy ruling a kingdom I can’t even see. 

47%. – like stepping into a fast-flowing river

Reading this book is like stepping into a fast-flowing river that comes up to just below your knees. 

Your senses are assaulted by the cold, the force of the flow, the hard but hidden objects on the river bed. You struggle for balance, for a place to stand and then, if you can open your mind to it, you start to feel the river’s pulse and be lulled by its song. 

Of course, you know your presence distorts the flow and that you can only focus on the water as it brushes past you while the totality of the river remains beyond your grasp but that seems enough.

Then, just as you think you are in tune with the river and its ways, you see the dark, hard to discern, almost as fluid as the river itself, shapes moving with purpose through the water and soon you can focus on nothing else.

Ten hours into this twenty-one-hour-long book, I’ve grown used to and fond of the tumultuous flow of Blue’s thoughts, laden as they are with well-documented reference sources and the way her memories of her nomadic life can create eddies that pull her thoughts off course for a while and then catapult her forward. I had begun to think of this experience as being what the book is about. Yet, so far, almost nothing has happened. Blue has been living her life without her energy being channelled by a plot. 

Now though, I can see small dark pieces of narrative thrusting through the water and I’m left thinking that this may not be at all the kind of book I believed it was.

Which, of course, makes me keen to read the next eleven hours of the book.

53%. I am in dense text stepped so far…

I’m a little over halfway through this book and I have no idea what it is about, except perhaps, erudition looking for a creative outlet and pushing onwards in the hope of finding one.

Part Two has just concluded. I’ve no real idea of how Part 2 was distinct from Part 1 and I don’t expect to find out in Part 3. 

There was a point, a few chapters ago, where I thought I might finally, like a man digging in what might be a shallow grave but could just be disturbed earth, have heard my shovel hit a solid piece of plot. There was a death. Secrets were shared. A main character seemed frayed. Our narrator appeared to be about to undergo a seismic shift in her perceptions. And then…

…she and her father went to Paris for the Christmas vacation and everything stopped.

The narrator’s precocious erudition continued to war with her teenage angst and her father continued to exhibit a compulsive need to tilt at intellectual windmills and wait for applause that would never come and which he would anyway find contemptible but these things have become like the noise of a plane in motion as heard by passengers, constant but only significant if it stops unexpectedly. The whole episode in Paris might as well have been replaced with a quote from Virginia Woolf: “Time passes”.

Still, to paraphrase Macbeth,

“I am in dense text
Stepped in so far that, should I read no more,
DNFng were as tedious as go o’er.”

So, onwards to Part Three, now travelling more in hope than expectation.

59%. – something finally happened, but…

So something finally happened.

Something messy, emotional, irrational, violent, cruel and irrevocable.

It happened in the presence of Blue, our main character. Not to her or by her but observed by and futilely and feebly opposed by her.

If this were John Irving, my emotions would be a mess by now. He’d have been setting me up to be ripped apart for at least a hundred pages and I would have fallen for it even as I saw it happening. But this isn’t John Irving and emotional devastation isn’t what Marisha Pessl seems to be aiming for. 

I feel the same stunned detachment Blue does. It’s a numbness I recognise and it feels more real to me than the sorrow Irving manages to drench me in at least once in every novel. Sad to say, my life is more like Blue’s than not. When bad things happen, I shut the emotions down, try to do what needs to be done and, in the back of my mind, pace the cell of my distress repeating “how did this happen?” to myself.

It may seem odd but this detached response to an eruption of violent emotion has re-engaged me with the book because it seems real and familiar and yet is seldom written about.

95%.- so I’ve had the big reveal but…

I’m almost at the end now. Over twenty-hours listened to and less than an hour to go. 

I enjoyed the drama on the mountain and the way the impact it had on Blue and Bluebloods was covered. I found all of that believable.

Now, I’ve had the big reveal, which I won’t share, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

Blue figures it all out step by step and the “it” is huge and complex and has been hidden  in plain sight all along. Now she’s put a pin through it, like a dead butterfly straight from the killing jar and is turning it around in the light so I can see it from all directions. She’s also providing me with the equivalent of a full set of footnotes and sources covering all evidence and inferences.

The idea really is huge and bold but the reveal has all the drama of being given a detailed technical briefing on the engines and weapons system of a Rebel TIE Fighter when what you really want to know is whether Luke will close his eyes and use the force before Vader blows him away.

That last chapter… I hope it was meant to be funny.

The last chapter of the book is called “Final Exam”. It starts like this:

Directions. This all-inclusive final examination will test your deepest understanding of giant concepts. It consists of three sections to be completed to the best of your ability (percentage of Final Grade specified in parentheses): 14 True or False Questions (30%), 7 Multiple Choice Questions (20%) and 1 Essay (50%).1 You may have a clipboard to write upon, but no supplemental textbooks, encyclopedias, legal pads or extraneous papers. If you are not presently sitting with one seat between you and anyone else, please arrange for this now.

Thank you and good luck.

I’d like to think that the questions that follow are meant as humorous response the author’s expectation that “Speciality Topics In Calamity Physics” will become a high school text and will largely be misunderstood.

It didn’t work for me. Instead of making me smile, it left me feeling sneered at.

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