Special Topics in Calamity Physics crisscrosses genres, moving from a road trip narrative to a high school exposé and finally concluding with a murder mystery. Narrated from the point of view of a brainy teenaged girl named Blue, the story concerns an elite band of students at St. Gallway High School who eventually embroil her in a couple of mysterious deaths and her father’s disappearance. Using Blue’s quirky voice, Marisha Pessl writes exuberantly, constantly alluding to the literary and cinematic arts and sometimes including her own drawings to serve as visual aids. She also likes to celebrate the academic world, with Gareth van Meer, the main professor, claiming that “there is nothing more arresting than a disciplined course of instruction.”
Instead of the usual table of contents, Pessl arranges the book into a “Core Curriculum (Required Reading)” that designates a classic work of literature for each chapter. Thus, when a mysterious woman, Hannah Schneider, introduces herself to the van Meers, she appears in a chapter titled “The Woman in White.” The chapter in which a large man drowns in a swimming pool is called “Moby Dick.” Instead of a coda, Pessl includes a “Final Exam,” which invites the reader to write out multiple choice and essay answers to major questions that the novel raises. While Special Topics in Calamity Physics sometimes betrays a tendency to lean a little heavily on its influences, notably Vladimir Nabokov and Donna Tartt, it takes a postmodern pleasure in evoking the academic culture that it borrows from. Pessl finds ways to playfully allude to the literary canon, film classics, and even the physical sciencesall under the guise of a fourteen-year-old girl’s coming-of-age mystery story.
To get a sense of how Pessl lifts from popular culture, take her use of Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), especially the way she adapts the novel’s travelogue of the United States as Humbert Humbert drives Lolita around to evade the detection of the authorities. Writing her story at Harvard as she unveils the dramatic events of her previous senior year at St. Gallway High School, Blue van Meer sometimes sounds very similar to Humbert. When she writes, “I have blue eyes, freckles and stand approximately five-foot-three in socks,” she echoes the beginning of Lolita: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.” However, while Nabokov told a story of subterfuge and molestation, Pessl cleans up the plotline by having Blue’s father Gareth van Meer drive her all over America as he works temporary jobs as a lecturer at political science departments in small universities. Working under the assumption that “there’s no education superior to travel,” Gareth often lives in three different places in the course of a single academic year, and given that Blue lost her mother at a young age to a car accident, she goes along with him. Since Gareth believes in constantly educating his daughter, they carry out “Sonnet-athons,” listen to books on tape in the car, and discuss the biographies of film stars during their travels.
In many ways Gareth van Meer holds the book together with his fierce love of knowledge, his aphorisms, and his rigorous love for his daughter. Whenever the narrative leans too close to trivializing itself with teenage romantic intrigues, Gareth makes refreshingly categorical statements about the need to face one’s death with bravery, the importance of discipline, and the primacy of intellectual labor as the best way to spend one’s time. The fact that Gareth is very handsome also serves him well. In comparison to the hapless Humbert, Gareth often has brief affairs with older women who often subsequently fall in love with him. Blue calls them “June Bugs” and sometimes takes a sporting interest in their romantic intrigues, especially since her father remains mostly devoted to her. Still, Blue eventually gets tired of endlessly traveling around the states, so Gareth agrees to live in Stockton, North Carolina, for the entirety of Blue’s senior year. Gareth...
(The entire section is 1680 words.)