Special Topics in Calamity Physics

February 9, 2007 at 2:06 am (Uncategorized)

Great name for a book. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I love the way it sounds. It’s one of those titles you say in your head every time you pick up the book to keep reading. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (see, there I go again). A great name, but is it a great book? I can’t decide, although I’m delighted Brett made a gift of it (thanks, Brettle!) because otherwise it might not have crossed into my airspace. What I can say is it came to have a total hold over me, and I finished it yesterday thanks to a couple of marathon reading sessions of four hours apiece. Not everyone can read uninterrupted for that length of time, but I can go all day if I have to. And I had to. Sometimes the spell takes hold hard.

I just can’t decide if I liked it, loved it, or if it irritated the absolute living hell out of me. It’s by Marisha Pessl, previously mentioned debut novelist and New York beauty, and it has all sorts of smarty-pants, knowing conceits, some of which are more than slightly lip-curling over 514 fat pages. For a start, she uses similes like a…(kidding). I started to hate it. Even early on, I wanted to scream “NO! Not like anything! Not as if anything! It is what it is, so fucking well spit it out, for Christ’s sake!” Oh, some of them were funny and (that kind of almost an insult) “clever,” yes, yes, but so smug, so self-conscious, so grating I wanted to smack something (and yes, Marisha, that something was you). There was also the nagging feeling that the extremely ethereal, extremely thin, extremely intelligent heroine was a sketch of how Marisha sees herself. If the protagonist is even remotely the author’s self-portrait, then I’d find Marisha’s breathtaking vanity insufferable in real life. And yet…

It’s a strangely compelling read, although there are so many loose ends it’s maddening (although yes, I get it, thanks, life’s like that). And I found myself tempted to do something I never, ever, ever do: read ahead. My friend Anna reads the ending of a book before she starts reading the rest of it, a habit that absolutely slays me. I am floored, alarmed, even, by the very idea, let alone the shocking act itself. But somehow I developed, whilst reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a shamefully unhealthy urge to see what became of a minor character I was on the sidelines cheering for with all my might. I had to know how it ended for him. I did actually get as far as fanning the pages, but then I stopped myself just in time, feeling as guilty as if I’d stolen from a friend. I guess that’s unsurprising, because I think the contract I have with every author of every book I read contains some of the tenets of friendship. And there I was, about to cheat Marisha, rob her blind, after all her hard work on my behalf.

It drove me to distraction, the thought of this subsidiary character not getting his due. The rest of the book, the rest of the long and confusing and rather odd story, started to feel like nothing more than a woolly impediment to my progress, which was unexpectedly and ferociously directed toward learning the fate of the young man who nurses an all but unrequited crush on the protagonist. I bolted pages like seventeen year old boys bolt breakfast cereal (in moderation, similes are simply marvellous), assuming (correctly, I am relieved to say) that my good friend Marisha simply couldn’t be so cruel as to leave this subplot dangling, though dangling otherwise dominates her book, literally and figuratively. I finally got my reward.

And I’d love to tell you what happened, but that would be cheating.


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