Saturday, September 09, 2006

Ten things that will definitely be on your Calamity Physics midterm.

Last week, I read Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. With the adoring reviews this book is getting, the cynic in me would lurve to report that it is bad. But it's not. It's actually the best novel I've read this year (and this is an impressive list, see #5 below).

Here are ten things you to know about the novel (no real spoilers):

1. What is the novel like? Let's imagine the style expressed as an equation:
2. Who doesn't like to be flattered? Not me. I was pretty pleased with myself after 100 pages of the novel, as I caught allusion after allusion to canonical novels, Romantic poetry, and the 1980s. Of course, the novel is still readable if you miss the allusions, but I loved running into them.

3. I loved the invented books that the narrator regularly references, and no fake quotation more than this one:

as Yam Chestley wrote in Dixiecrats (1979), 'The South knows two things through and through: cornbread and Satan' (p. 166).
How I wish this book existed.

4. If Pessl wants to be an internet phenomenon, she's well on her way. The "Calamity Physics" website is beautifully designed and really interesting (especially the additional information about the novel, like the rejected first lines). I could have done without the snarky Cliffs Notes, though.

Even more interesting, one can add the main character of the novel (Blue van Meer) as a friend on MySpace.

And, because Pessl's allusions to literature in the novel suggest that she is a good reader, I wouldn't hesitate to take most of her advice on 10 great debut novels. Although I think her Stephen King pick looks a bit like flattering the middlebrow.

5. This book is better than all of the novels I have read in the past year, including several novels that I loved, such as

6. Is Marisha Pessl hot? The jacket photo (right) suggests that she is.

But wait, not so fast, my friend. There are other pictures, and, it turns out, other standards that may need to be applied. Is Marisha Pessl hot or just "book hot"?

[One quibble with the linked table: Sarah Silverman isn't just "comedy hot"--I think she's legitimately hot.]

7. According to a writer-type friend of mine, one of the hardest things to do in fiction is to provide the reader with information that the first-person narrator does not know him or herself. Pessl does this really well in her novel.

8. A favorite passage (and an intriguing idea for university class-schedulers):
Dad once noted (somewhat morbidly, I thought at the time) that American institutions would be infinitely more successful in facilitating the pursuit of knowledge if they held classes at night, rather than in the daytime, from 8:00 P.M. to 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. As I ran through the darkness, I understood what he meant. Frank red brick, sunny classrooms, symmetrical quads and courts--it was a setting that mislead [sic] kids to believe that Knowledge, that Life itself, was bright, clear and freshly mowed. Dad said a student would be infinitely better off going out into the world if he/she studied the periodic table of elements, Madame Bovary, the sexual reproduction of a sunflower, for example, with deformed shadows congregating on the classroom walls, silhouettes of fingers and pencils leaking onto the floor, gastric howls from unseen radiators and a teacher's face not flat and faded, not delicately pasteled by a golden late afternoon, but serpentine, gargoyled, Cyclopsed by the inky dark and feeble light from a candle. He/she would understand 'everything and nothing,' Dad said, if there was nothing discernible in the windows but a lamppost mobbed by blaze-crazy moths and darkness, reticent and unfeeling, as darkness always was.

9. The original title of the novel was "Hey Donna Tartt: Suck It!"

10. On a recent hike on a semi-deserted trail near Muir Woods, I found myself creeped out by the woods in a way that I've never been before reading this novel. For me, Pessl has managed to put a spookiness back into the forest.

It's not just Ewoks that lurk in the woods.

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