Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

special topics in calamity physicsThis one took me nearly three weeks, which is almost unprecedented. It was also surprising, considering how much I loved Night Film, a book by the same author.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics has nothing to do with physics, rest assured. Rather, it follows the first person account of Blue Van Meer, a senior in high school who is burdened by 1) her profound intellect, and 2) her profound social discomfort. She has been raised by her father single-handedly (her mother died when Blue was five), and they’ve traipsed the country chasing one collegiate job after another. Gareth Van Meer is a brilliant man who his coveted by this university and that institution and Blue has been along for the ride.

For her senior year they settle in a small North Carolina town where Blue attends an elite private school. She gets collected by a charming film teacher, Hannah, who has a secret club of sorts for her favorite students. (Think Professor Slughorn.) The students in her little group are not a delight but rather they each possess qualities that puts Blue off, leaving her uncomfortable, confused as to why she’s been included (Veronica from Heathers).

Yet, she continues to meet the group at Hannah’s house. They drink, they smoke, Blue slowly meshes – but only to a point. Ever present is enthralling Hannah, the enigma, the curious creature who defies human nature. She is the magnet that keeps the students tightly entwined. (see Dead Poets Society).

Then, about 300 pages in, Blue finds Hannah dead. I’m not spoiling anything here, for this detail is mentioned on the back of the book description. I mention it now because it takes readers more than 300 pages to get to the part where things finally get interesting enough to suck you in. It was so intriguing that I finished the last 200 pages in three days. (Did you do the math there? The book is 500 pages long.)

It’s here that I argue that the book could’ve been 300 pages at the most had the fat been trimmed. What’s the fat? Tangents. Many, many tangents, or as I’ve called them, speed bumps. You’ll be trucking along in a steady narrative, at a decent speed, and then – almost abruptly – you reach a speed bump that ultimately slows you down. 

What are the speed bumps? I’ve given you the briefest glimpse of them in this post: outside references. Where I’ve only mentioned three, Pessl mentions dozens. Gosh, hundreds even. Every paragraph is riddled with references to this paper or that movie or a certain book that’s supposed to paint a clearer picture of the scene. You go into this book already knowing the murder will happen, but GOOD GRACIOUS it takes forever to get there. And while the references are clever and carefully selected, there are just too many.

It might surprised you to know that, in the end, I liked the book. The conclusion is a work of magic, the sort of magic that made me love Night Film. It almost makes me forget that it took three weeks to reach the conclusion.

I read a few reviews of this book because I wanted to know what the high brows thought of it. I couldn’t find a bad review, but I found plenty of remarks to the ambition of it, the overworked metaphors and the painfully obvious need Pessl felt to prove herself with such a debut. “If only she hadn’t tried so hard,” one critic said. I agree.

The book is good. The plot is damn good. But wow, she could’ve pulled it back a bit.

Buy Special Topics in Calamity Physics here. 

Book Review: Night Film

There are about ten pages I would cut from Night Film, but they don’t transpire until the last sliver of the book, and by then, you are sprinting so breathlessly through the narrative because you cannot turn back from the resolution that is so very close. I forgive Marisha Pessl for those ten pages because the rest of the book is really fantastic.

To say this book is a page-turner is to cheapen it with cliché, so instead I’ll say that Night Film has usurped a book in my Top Ten list. I’m not sure which one gets the ax in order to make room for Pessl, but I’ll think on it and let you know.

It’s important to note before we go any further that Night Film is a psychological thriller. It’s also bit horror and a hair supernatural, two genres I don’t usually enjoy. In fact, there was one point during the story that I sat back, stared at the wall, and considered, “Shall I go further?” and then I realized that was a silly question. There was no turning back.

Night FilmNight Film begins with an eery prologue, a technique I don’t always love. If you’re gonna start a book, then just start it. I don’t like bait. But here, it works. Scott McGrath is a journalist (and our narrator) who’s nursing some professional wounds after failing to procure a reliable story about the elusive, enigmatic cult movie maker Stanislas Cordova. He’s also nursing a broken heart after losing his wife to a more successful man. So he’s running around Central Park in the dark when a girl in a red coat emerges from nothing. Wherever he runs, there she is. She is real, but not. He can’t decide. It spooks him. He’s unnerved, and thus begins the book.

The girl, we learn, is Ashley Cordova, the movie maker’s daughter and she’s just turned up dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Apparent suicide. The Cordova family is fraught with tragedy – too many to tragedies to be normal, McGrath discerns. And so, the puzzle sucks McGrath back into the twisted world of researching Cordova’s underworld of grotesque movies, which can’t be seen just anywhere, by the way. Think Stanley Kubrick, but darker. The man stays hidden and unseen. Think J.D. Salinger, but more ghostly.

McGrath collects two sidekicks along the way – Nora and Hopper – two young people with their own sordid histories (unrelated) and strange connections to Ashley (related?). I am being careful here because there is too much room for spoilers… In this book is every mind-bending possibility of why Ashley killed herself, if Ashley killed herself, and what has gone so magically, desperately wrong in the Cordova family that has allowed the patriarch to entice people into his grip for decades willingly, eagerly, knowing they may not be able to leave. In his darkness is his power. McGrath cannot leave him alone.

I must mention the extras. Pessl went further than text on a page by creating website pages, article clippings, photographs, and other remnants from Cordova’s life, which are all available to read and absorb inside in the book. Right after the prologue you’re given some twenty pages of web content from the New York Times that map out this bizarre man for its reader, which is unique way to set up a character you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re ever going to meet. Is it a lazy way to build a character? Some might say that, but I’m curled up in my bed thinking it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s enticing.

I feel like I’m failing this review because I’m not giving you details, but I simply can’t give them to you. They must unfold for you in their natural habitat. You must read this book. You must get sucked into Cordova’s world and figure it out for yourself.

Buy Night Film here.