Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

To quote the bit that charmed me into buying it:

[D]ue to her “troubles”, she’d voluntarily admitted herself to a “Narnia kind of place” where people talked about their feelings and learned to watercolor fruit. Jade hinted excitedly that a “really huge rock star” had been in residence on her floor, the comparatively well-adjusted third floor (“not as suicidal as the fourth or as manic as the second”) and they’d become “close,” but to reveal his name would be to forsake everything she’d learned during her ten-month “growth period” at Heathridge Park. (Jade now, I realized, saw herself as some sort of herbaceous vine or creeper.) One of the parameters of her “graduation,” she explained (she used this world, probably because it was preferable to “release”) was that she tie up Loose Ends.

I was a loose End.

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I have just this minute finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I am in the process of deciding what I think. I went to some trouble to obtain it – first buying it at the bookstore and then getting it from the library in order to screen it and decide whether I want to own it – and I intended to have a definitive answer (I’ll be honest, I was expecting a definitive yes) as soon as I finished it.

Frankly, I suspect the only reason I haven’t got a definitive answer is that I gave in to the brainwashing by modern society. All through the book I was thinking, I really want to read the end of this book, and every time I thought it, I said to myself, Now Jenny, this is just irrational. You know about delayed gratification, and it’s going to be so much better if you let yourself be surprised.

This is a mindset that has arisen since the Harry Potter books, namely since the sixth one, when I just glanced at the end to check whether Ginny was going to be okay – for God’s sake, Harry deserves a little happiness! I was thinking hysterically, it being extremely late and myself being the only one awake and in a foreign country – and of course my eye fell on the sentence that said who died. Sheesh. Though in a way it was good because I didn’t have to worry about anyone else dying, but in some ways it was really unfortunate, because every time that character was around I’d be like This is it! This is the end! This is the last time I will ever see you! And I regretted it in that one instance, but the Harry Potter books are an exception to my general read-the-end-as-soon-as-you-logically-can policy, and I shouldn’t have let them throw me off to this extent.

It’s gone too far and I have to stop it. Some people don’t like reading the end; I am the kind of person who likes to read the endings. When you read the end, you enjoy the middle a lot more. Especially in mysteries of the non-Agatha Christie variety. And if I had read the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I believe quite firmly that I would presently be writing a glowing review of the book. As it is I’m not sure that it was quite fair of Ms. Pessl (I wrote “far of Ms. Pessl”, which is certainly also true) to have the tremendous long build-up in the first two-thirds of the book before beginning the dizzying descent into comprehending all of the events you more or less thought you already comprehended anyway. See, if I had read the end and I knew everything, I’d have been like, Whoa, dude, this is prettttttty craaaaazy right here and I am enjoying it A LOT.

So thanks, world, for brainwashing me into reading books your boring-ass pedestrian way of reading books. Don’t take this as criticism. I’m just saying that when you don’t know what shit means until you finish the book, then that incredibly valuable and wondrous thing, The First Time You Read It, gets completely screwed up and ruined because you’ve missed all the layers even though they were there all along. Which is too bad because I’m completely in love with the end of this book. I love insanity. The greater the scope of (book-based) insanity, the better, because I am a sucker for the grandeur of the fictional and insane. I just would have loved this book more if I’d known how completely insane it was in the first place.

I seriously can’t decide if I want to keep my purchased copy. Can’t decide, can’t decide. I love the madness of the end. I really do. I’m just not sure if it makes up for the bits in the middle where I was thinking, Oh my God, get over your frantic desire to make shiny new similes because although sometimes they are very nice and really clever, there are also times when I want to PULL OFF YOUR FACE for the assaults you are perpetrating on English prose.

That reaction was unfairly vehement – only because the stakes were high on account of my having spent some of my Christmas Bongs & Noodles credit on this book and being stressed about whether to Keep It or Return It. It is, however, true that Ms. Pessl occasionally allows herself to become enamored of her prose to the exclusion, or at least partial exclusion, of moving the plot along in an interesting manner. This is, mind you, only before – well, I’d say before the bit where Milton and Blue go over to Hannah’s house. Page 389ish.

I think what would have made this book drastically better for the first two-thirds would have been the fleshing-out of the Bluebloods. We see a lot of them, but they aren’t ultimately all that interesting. Cardboard cut-outs a bit. They’re too focused on Hannah without ever really being very much themselves, which may be because they’re not ultimately relevant, but shit, if they’re going to be in there for such a quantity of pages, at least make them fun to read about.

Nevertheless, I think I will probably read this again sometime. It’s only a question of whether I’ll be reading my own purchased-Christmas-2007 copy or a copy belonging to my local library.

Edit later to add: The more I think about Special Topics, the more I think I really like it.  (Too bad I already returned it.)  I believe that my difficulty was that I was under the impression that it was a coming-of-age novel, and if it had been primarily a coming-of-age novel, it would have had to be more tightly written, and I got frustrated when it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Actually it’s a mystery.  See, if I’d known, I don’t think I’d have bogged down in the same way.  So I am going to go with, This is a very excellent book (except the Bluebloods could still have been more interesting).