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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Excerpts: Special Topics in Calamity Physics


The author, Marisha Pessl
By now I'm well over 300 pages into Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and feel much better qualified than I did last time to say a bit about it. Marisha Pessl is an excellent writer. Like many contemporary novelists, she does have an unfortunate tendency to showcase how well read she is, though, given her skill, I find it more forgivable than I often do (see The Weird Sisters or Treasure Island!!!). And, after all, Dante did the same thing, right?

The story centers on Blue van Meer, the daughter of a highly intelligent, self-satisfied and sometimes scathing, but still very likable university professor whose wife died behind the wheel, tired out from butterfly collecting. After the death of his wife, Gareth van Meer moves himself and his seven year old daughter three to four times each year, teaching at small community colleges all over the country. In his words:

"Why should I waste my time teaching puffed-up teenagers whose minds are curdled by arrogance and materialism? No, I shall spend my energies enlightening America's unassuming and ordinary. 'There's majesty in no one but the Common Man.' " (When questioned by colleagues as to why he no longer wished to educate the Ivy League, Dad adored waxing poetic on the Common Man. And yet, sometimes in private, particularly while grading a frighteningly flawed final exam or widely off-the-mark research paper, even the illustrious, unspoiled Common Man could become, in Dad's eyes, a "half-wit," a "nimrod," a "monstrous misuse of matter.") (23)

Determined, however, that his daughter should attend Harvard University, as he did, he enrolls her in the elitist St. Gallway School, and settles in one town for Blue's senior year of high school. A delightful excerpt on how the school got its name:
The booklet also featured a delightfully eccentric blurb about Horatio Mills Gallway, a rags-to-riches paper industrialist who'd founded the school back in 1910, not in the name of altruistic principles like civic duty or the persistence of scholarship, but for a megalomaniacal desire to see Saint in front of his surname; establishing a private school proved to be the easiest way to achieve this. (62)
When she arrives at her new school, Blue, like any new student, is nervous, worried about making the right impression, and figures herself a cut above the company (and she's right on that last point, in many ways):
I'm obliged to reveal an old trick: implacable self-possession can be attained by all, not by pretending to look absorbed in what's clearly a blank spiral notebook; not by trying to convince yourself you're an undiscovered rock star, movie star, top model, tycoon, Bond, Bond Girl, Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Bennett, or Eliza Doolittle at the Ambassador's Ball; not by imagining you're a long-lost member of the Vanderbilt family, nor by tilting up your chin fifteen to forty-five degrees and pretending to be Grace Kelly in her prime. These methods work in theory, but in practice they slip away, so one is left hideously naked with nothing but the stained sheet of self-confidence around one's feet. Instead, stately dignity can be possessed by all, in two ways: 1. Diverting the mind with a book or play; 2. Reciting Keats. (65)
Visual Aid 2.0 -- Blue is half-hidden
Despite Blue's obvious intelligence and clarity of vision, she does fall in with the cool crowd at school, a shiny, attractive, "mature" group of five kids whom she eventually discovers to be monumentally unhappy. Charles, Jade, Nigel, Milton and Leulah become her constant companions. I have yet to discover how it will all resolve, if there can possibly be a satisfactory conclusion to what is in many ways a very dark, very sad book. It is quite a bleak, though I think accurate picture of the emptiness behind "school popularity" and the ethereal hipster indie mystique. And yet, despite this emptiness, even to us audience up on our safe and sage observing tower, there's still something fascinating and entrancing about these five young people. Though it has taken me a while to get here, sharing these descriptions of Nigel, Milton and Leulah is actually why I started this post. Perhaps I'm reading the wrong things in general, but it seems to me that it's not often in contemporary literature that characters are introduced so vividly, so imaginatively, so tangibly:
Nigel was the cipher (see "Negative Space," Art Lessons, Trey, 1973, p. 29). At first glance (even at second and third), he was ordinary. His face – rather his entire being – was a buttonhole: small, narrow, uneventful. He stood no more than five-feet-five with a round face, brown hair, features weak and baby-feet pink (neither complemented nor marred by the wire glasses he wore). At school, he sported thin, tonguelike neckties in neon orange, a fashion statement I guessed was his effort to force people to take notice of him, much like a car's hazard lights. And yet, upon closer examination, the ordinariness was extraordinary: he bit his nails into thumbtacks; spoke in hushed spurts (uncolored guppies darting through a tank); in large groups, his smile could be a dying lightbulb (shining reluctantly, flickering, disappearing); and a single strand of his hair (once found on my skirt after sitting next to him), held directly under a light, shimmered with every color in a rainbow, including purple. And then there was Milton, sturdy and grim, with a big, cushiony body like someone's favorite reading chair in need of reupholstering (see "American Black Bear," Meat-Eating Land Animals, Richards, 1982). He was eighteen, but looked thirty. His face, cluttered with brown eyes, curly black hair, a swollen mouth, had a curdled handsomeness to it, as if, incredibly, it wasn't what it'd once been. He had an Orsen Wellesian quality, Gerardepardieuian too: one suspected his large, slightly overweight frame smothered some kind of dark genius and after a twenty-minute shower he'd still reek of cigarettes. He'd lived most of his life in a town called Riot in Alabama and thus spoke in a Southern accent so gooey and thick you could probably cut into it and spread it on dinner rolls. Like all Mysteriosos, he had an Achilles' heel: a giant tattoo on his upper arm. He refused to talk about it, went to great pains to conceal it – never removing his shirt, always wearing long sleeves – and if some clown during P. E. asked him what it was, he either stared at the kid as if he were a Price Is Right rerun, barley blinking, or replied in his molasses accent: "Nunna ya goddamn business."
 And then there was the delicate creature (see Juliet, JW Waterhouse, 1898). Leulah Maloney was pearl skinned, with skinny bird arms and long brown hair always worn in a braid, like one of those cords aristocracy pulled in the nineteenth century to summon servants. Hers was an eerie, old-fashioned beauty, a face at home in amulets or carved into cameos – a romantic look I actually used to wish I had whenever Dad and I were reading about Gloriana in The Faerie Queene (Spenser, 1596) or discussing Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari. (“Know how difficult it is to find a woman that looks like Beatrice in today's world?” asked Dad. “You've a better chance running at the speed of light.”) Early in the fall, when I least expected it, I'd see Leulah in a long dress (usually white or diaphanous blue) strolling the Commons in the middle of a downpour, holding her little antique face up to the rain while everyone else streaked past her screaming, textbooks or disintegrating Gallway Gazettes held over their heads. Twice I noticed her like this – another time, crouched in Elton House shrubbery, apparently fascinated by a piece of bark or tulip bulb – and I couldn't help but think such faerielike behavior was all very calculated and irritating. Dad had carried on a tedious five-day affair with a woman named Birch Peterson in Okush, New Mexico, and Birch, having been born outside Ontario in a "terrific" free-loving commune called Verve, was always entreating Dad and me to walk untroubled in the rain, bless mosquitoes, eat tofu. When she came for dinner she said a prayer before we "consumed," a fifteen-minute plea asking "Shod" to bless every slime mold and mollusk. "The word God is inherently male," said Birch, "so I came up with she, he, and God rolled into one. Shod exemplifies the truly genderless Higher Power." I concluded Leulah – Lu, as they all called her – with her gossamer dresses, reedy hair, decisions to skip daintily along everything but sidewalks, had to have Birch's persona of bean curd, that espirit de spirulina... ("There's something sour about her. She's totally past her Eat-by date," I heard Lucille Hunter remark in AP English). (90-91)
Well, if you're not sold after all that, I don't know what would get you hooked on this book. Give yourself some time (it's over 500 pages), brace yourself against the darkness, and bear in mind that it is quite humorous as well. Buy it! Read it! Talk to me about it.

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