Special Topics in Calamity Physics

special topicsThe Short Version: Blue van Meer, after years of moving all around the country with her itinerant professor father, settles in Stockton, NC for her senior year at the St. Gallway School.  There, she finds herself under the attention of a magnetic young teacher, Hannah Schneider, and the students who follow her – the Bluebloods.  But what begins as a coming of age tale takes turns both sharp and unexpected – leading Blue deep into a mystery that will force her to confront the realities hidden under the otherwise shiny veneer of her life.

The Review: Well, I have to say this: this book knew how to surprise me.  It managed it several times, in fact.  And while I shouldn’t have been surprised to have been surprised – after all, Ms. Pessl is the author of the fan-frickin’-tastic Night Film – I was, a little.  Everything about this book, even well into the major turning point of the plot, screams “standard coming-of-age” novel… until it changes.  It’s still a coming of age novel, but in the last hundred or so pages, Ms. Pessl takes the rug and not only yanks it from under your feet but then flips the room upside down and turns off all the lights.  It’s so rare that we can actually say that something is a “game-changer” and actually mean it anymore – I’m as guilty, if not more so, than most with abusing that phrase – but I can’t think of another way to describe what happens after Hannah’s death.

And no, that’s not a spoiler: Pessl introduces that from the very start, before Blue has even laid out her syllabus.  (A structural note – it might’ve been cool to have the introduction before the Table of Contents, thus presenting the syllabus in-story… but that’s just me.)  And I think that’s what’s most surprising about the ending, for me.  Pessl sets up one story and does such a good job at only letting the final twist peek out through teensy cracks that when it hits, you’re almost driven to flip the book over and read it all again with the new knowledge at hand.  Funny enough, I felt the same way about Night Film.

The thing about this book, though, is that it’s just a bit too long to justify the breathless shifts of the ending.  So much of it appears to be a riff on the classic high school story – the new girl finds herself, somehow, inducted into the coolest/most elite friend group even though she doesn’t really fit in and while the group tears itself apart by the end of the school year, they’ve all “grown up” and go off to college better people.  The story is then told through the haze of memory, blah blah blah.  And this novel has aspects of Dead Poet’s Society or any Wes Anderson film – but Pessl manages to keep the twee and the earnestness relatively contained.  Oh, sure, you can roll your eyes and act too cool for the chapter-titles-as-book-titles… but couldn’t you also just find it perfectly referential in a modern way to take a classic work and use it as a hint to the reader about what’s going to happen?  Similarly, I can see how a lot of people might not be thrilled with Pessl’s overly metaphoric and sometimes rambly-dense language – but isn’t that how we all speak today anyway?

Actually, let’s talk about how the book came out at just the right moment in our zeitgeist.  2006 was the right moment: hipsterdom hadn’t yet ascended, Arrested Development was just being cancelled, Twitter had just launched and Facebook just opened to the populace.  All of that stuff feels so entrenched in our culture now, which is probably why I read Special Topics without the awe at Pessl’s language – that or, again, I’m reading her canon backwards.  I can see, I suppose, how the book’s bow in ’06 would’ve sent waves through the literary pools… but there’s something about it that doesn’t seem so extra-ordinary in today’s world.

This is, again, not to say that the book is not good.  It’s very good.  I found myself thinking, as I read, about my high school days and the drama that surrounded my then-friends and I – and even my high school’s equivalent of a Hannah Schneider, although he was significantly less impressive in every way.  I was simultaneously in awe of, intimidated by, and attracted to Blue – but equally so to Jade.  I wanted to be friends with Charles (even as I imagined myself being a Charles), wanted to impress Black.  The Bluebloods are the sort of clique that only exists, I think, in fiction – they’re popular, yes, but they’re also… there’s something more.  There’s a culture thing about them.  They might not be as smart as Blue but they bring their own interesting and dynamic things to the party.  Wes Anderson might not be such a bad choice for the eventual film version of this book – but then, Sofia Coppola might be right too.

Even as I think about the things that bothered me while reading the book – a seemingly unnecessary trip to Paris that takes up way too much time and stalls the forward progress of the story, for example – I realize that they were all done for particular reasons.  The Paris trip turns out to be far more important than I’d realized, as do all of the little moments I might’ve wanted to shrug off or brush past.  The book almost demands to be read again so that you can take in the changed landscape and find the clues that might’ve tipped you off previously.  After all, no conspiracy can stay hidden once you know about it.  That’s the whole point, really, of Blue’s fevered revelations: pull the thread and the whole thing unravels.

Also, before I wrap up: don’t ask me about believability.  There are aspects of this story that, as I’ve said, come to light in the final pages and change everything.  But are they necessarily believable, when examined under klieg lights?  Depends on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are, I suppose, but it also depends on what you think about how much an imagination can bear – what’s “true”, what’s “not”, what lies between.  It might all unravel a little messily, a little too “GOTCHA!”-gasp-y – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, if you’re inclined to such things.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  I can’t get over the fact that the tome does drag on a bit at times, especially considering how intense and paranoid the ending gets.  I found myself riveted over the course of the last hundred pages but having to take breaks now and then for the first 400 or so – because it just got to be a little bit much.  I didn’t mind the references, the fake citations, the overly precocious language (probably because I would have a mind to do all of those things / think of myself as someone who would do all of those things) but I just found myself wondering when the next thing was going to happen instead of just… letting it happen.  Still, the things that did happen?  Amazing.  Oh and I’m thinking I might write a version of that final exam essay – maybe post it on Medium?  After all, Blue told us we have all the time we need.

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