Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

June 12th, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I really wanted to like this book.

But it’s a train wreck. The literary carnage is so grotesque and horrifying, you can’t help but look, read. (And I promise you, just take my word for it, that metaphor is better than most that Pessl uses in this debut novel of hers.)

Despite what Bayard says, it’s amazing what happens when you stop talking about a text and actually interact with it. I’ll tell you what happens: disappointment. Utter, utter disappointment.

For all intents and purposes, the book doesn’t even start until the second half when a certain major character is found dead by the narrator/protagonist. As readers, we learn about the death with the first line of Chapter #1: “Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider’s death, I’ll tell you about my mother’s.” So essentially, the first half of the book amounts to literary blue balls in which Pessl torments us with bad writing and we writhe in agony praying for release.

It is a common formula to take the wit and wisdom of an adult and transplant it into an adolescent (from Catcher in the Rye to Juno). Pessl brings this trite technique to a new low. Unlike the social relevance and humor of Diablo Cody or the sparse, unfathomable brilliance of Salinger, Pessl just writes with broad strokes and clunky rhetorical devices. Her writing is hyperbolic and extreme. She seems to pride herself on regurgitating endless references and allusions, but I would prefer that instead of describing someone as having “the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her,” she just describe the damn person. Do some real work, Marisha.

And oh how Marisha Pessl loves similes and metaphors. She and Augusten Burroughs should get together and have some kind of simiphor-off. Sample Pessl snippet:

“Charles and his friends looked forward to the hours at her house much in the way New York City’s celery-thin heiresses and beetroot B-picture lotharios looked forward to noserubbing at the Stork Club certain sweaty Saturday nights in 1943 (see Forget About El Morocco: The Xanadu of the New York Elite, the Stork Club, 1929-1965, Riser, 1981).

I have two problems with this kind of writing.
1) I don’t know the way New York City’s celery-thin heiresses and beetroot B-picture lotharios looked forward to noserubbing at the Stork Club certain sweaty Saturday nights in 1943. So this metaphor is completely useless to me. Why can’t Charles and his friends just look forward to the hours at her house?
2) The damn parenthetical references. They’re throughout the entire book. It’s probably supposed to help clear up my first problem with this passage, but it only serves to remove me from the story in two really stupid ways: 1) I stop reading and go look it up, or 2) Since I’m reading a book about a high school senior who can’t possibly know all of the books and references in parentheses, I can only assume this is Marisha Pessl being an annoying smartass with this kind of crappy Authorial Intrusion.

(There’s also “Visual Aids” throughout the book. Drawings by the author. Really annoying. Really stupid. Absolutely unnecessary.)

At one point there is a blubbery Mercedes. If anyone can send me a picture of a “blubbery” Mercedes, Authwhore will award you with a free book that is better than Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

At one point, people say their names “with paint-by-numbers politeness.” This is a problem because paint-by-numbers are not polite. They can be tacky, painstaking, time consuming, fun, childish, whimsical, or any number of other things, but I don’t think that there is anything polite about paint-by-numbers and certainly nothing polite about a writer using such poorly chosen imagery with reckless abandon and intending people read 514 pages of it.

At one point, “he either stared at the kid as if he were a Price is Right rerun, barely blinking, or replied in his molasses accent: ‘Nunna ya goddamn business.’” How do you stare at a Price is Right rerun? Well, Pessl knows that no one knows, so she tells us. You barely blink. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh………shouldn’t she then just have wrote that “he stared barely blinking” instead of “staring as if he were a Price is Right rerun, barely blinking?” Yes. Yes she should have. And that is why this book is categorically, officially, absolutely bad. (If you’re still wondering how exactly you stare at a Price is Right rerun, this book will also leave you wondering how you look at a snag in tights. Riveting stuff, really.)

At one point, “Officer Donnie Lee happened to have saturated himself in Paul Revere-like cologne (it rode far ahead of him, alerting all of his impending arrival).” Which doesn’t even work! Paul Revere rode to warn people not of his own arrival but of the British’s. So I guess that’s why it’s Paul-Revere-like? But isn’t there a better image for something that travels ahead to warn of itself? A fog horn, perhaps? A screeching buzzer on a truck?

At one point, “Hannah was wearing a housedress the color of sandpaper…”
The color of sandpaper??? Pessl, how imprecise can you be!!! Is there a worse writer? What type? What grit? What brand? I’ve seen gray sandpaper, black sandpaper, brown sandpaper, rust sandpaper, beige sandpaper……..

At one point, the narrator/protagonist has a fight with her father and proceeds to throw books at him. I was really hoping to learn that Marisha Pessl had some true postmodern class and sense of humor by having her throw this book at him.

It didn’t happen.

I threw my own copy instead.

For the record, Marisha Pessl is still hot.

Not Sophie Dahl hot. But still hot.

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3 Responses to “Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl”

  1. I like it best when you don’t like books because the posts are awesomely funny. Please read more bad books.

  2. wow a lot of of the opinions people distribute are a bit spacey, normally i wonder whether they actually read the subject material and items before leaving your 2 cents or whether or not they simply just read over the titles and write the very first idea that drifts into their heads. nonetheless, it’s pleasurable to read through smart commentary now and then compared to the exact same, traditional post vomit that i almost always notice on the net

  3. I like it. I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts. Bookmarked.

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