Eric Recommends: ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’

“Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” by Marisha Pessl. Don’t be alarmed by the title, or think (as the man next to me on the train thought when he saw it and remarked, “That’s some heavy reading”) that this is a book about physics. No, it’s a novel, and one of the sassiest, smartest, most thoroughly engaging novels I’ve read all year.

It’s told from the point of view of a super-smart 16-year-old girl named Blue Van Meer who lives with her political-science professor dad. They generally bounce from one small-college town to the next every semester, but the book is set during Blue’s senior year of high school, when they’ve settled in one North Carolina town, allowing Blue to make some friends. Among them is one of her teachers, a beautiful, enigmatic woman named Hannah Schneider. Blue is telling us the story from Harvard a year later, and she informs us up front that Hannah dies during the course of it. How, why, and by whose hand are all mysteries to be explored later.

For the first couple hundred pages, I’d be hard-pressed to say what the book is “about,” as there is no distinct plot line. Things are occurring; it’s just not clear where they’re going. And then the last hundred pages are jam-packed with revelations, surprises, reversals, and a major falling-into-place of pieces.

Yet even before a distinct storyline had emerged, I was still delighted by every page. Pessl (as Blue) writes vividly, with a barrage of pop-cultural, literary and cinematic allusions. She is fond of descriptive metaphors and similes, as when she says a woman’s perfume “hung in the air like a battered piñata.” The writing is marvelously nuanced and careful, always perfectly phrased. People who love words will adore the way Pessl manipulates them.

It’s Pessl’s debut novel, which makes it all the more impressive, and, published in 2006, it is distinctly a product of its day. I don’t just mean because it refers to “The View” and the Internet and Jay Leno. I mean the way Pessl writes is the way young people — smart young people, I mean — actually write and talk in 2006. Just as you can look at “The Great Gatsby” and know by Fitzgerald’s syntax that he was writing in the 1920s, or read “Little Women” and recognize it as being typical of the mid-1800s, people will be able to know by reading “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” 100 years from now that it’s from circa 2000.

Pessl cheerfully turns nouns into verbs (the light “jack-o-lanterned their faces”) and refers casually to films and books that the reader may or may not be familiar with. She is also fond of likening characters to historical and fictional figures, then referring to them thereafter as if they ARE those people. An administrator at Blue’s school, Eva Brewster, is compared to Evita Peron early on; later, Blue figures the reason Ms. Brewster is so stoic is because of “her bastardized birth and impoverished Los Toldos upbringing, the trauma of seeing Augustin Magaldi naked at fifteen, shoving to great political heights the wide load of Colonel Juan, the twenty-four-hour workdays at the Secretaria de Trabajo and the Partido Peronista Feminino, looting the National Treasury, [and] stockpiling her closet with Dior.” A fellow student looks like 1950s actor Sal Mineo; he is forever referred to thus, his real name never mentioned.

If you associate with young people, you will notice that these are all typical of modern speech. Pessl writes in that Buffy/Veronica Mars/Gilmore Girls kind of patter — exaggerated, perhaps, from real life but nonetheless rooted in true speech patterns. It’s a genuine pleasure to read such sparkling, nifty writing.