At the outset of Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 16-year-old narrator Blue van Meer promises to tell us “about Hannah Schneider’s death.” But we have to wait some 300 pages for Physics to become a surprisingly seductive thriller. Until then, it’s pretty standard coming-of-age stuff of the John Hughes variety, with a crucial difference: Blue has read a lot of serious books, all of which have gone to her head. Her métier is claptrap, and there’s no shortage here: titles of classic literary works as chapter heads, telegraphing plot turns; citation of sources both real and invented; footnotes; narrative-stopping “visual aids,” drawn by the author. The prose itself is a perpetual calisthenics. Pessl’s well-toned sentences burst with awkward energy, and tend toward anthropomorphism and second-guess metaphors. Is she being careless, or are these examples of Blue’s unchecked precocity? The question dogs Physics throughout. The answer is, probably some of both.
Blue’s father may be partly responsible for her overloaded writing style. Gareth is a widowed political-science professor, a heartbreaker, and an incorrigible pedant, who views all minds besides his own as indigent or pliable. Since Mom died in an accident, he’s dragged Blue around the country, “bringing his erudition” to the “unassuming and ordinary” kids at the “bottom tiers . . . the schools no one had ever heard of.” An inordinate number of sentences include phrases like “as Dad says” or “as Dad noted.” He is a “brilliant man,” “one of the preeminent commentators on American culture” and most everything else, according to Blue. His new appointment takes them to Stockton, North Carolina, where Blue will be a senior at the Gallway School. Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher, initiates Blue’s social life by inviting her to one of the dinner parties she hosts for her student “friends”—an A-list clique known as the Bluebloods. At Hannah’s urging, they include Blue in their activities. She will get drunk for the first time. She will begin to worry over her hair and clothes and, ultimately, gain acceptance.
As in a Wes Anderson movie, Pessl’s characters are aggregated quirks that go down as easy as multivitamins. They are also more than a little horrible. Blue frequently offers scabrous asides about classmates’ intellectual capabilities, e.g., her lab partner’s “restricted vocabulary, illogical mind-set, and blubbery calligraphy.” These may be forgivable cruelties, but her vulgar classism is harder to stomach, even allowing the dictates of teen genre formula: It was preceded rise in social status with the Bluebloods.
One night the group secretly follows Hannah on what they believe is a date to, as Blue puts it, an “awful roadie watering hole” that “one didn’t have to go inside to know the menus were sticky, the tables seasoned with pie crumb, the waitresses crabby, the clientele beefy.” A few sentences later, she describes how she and her dad would “take a twenty-mile detour simply to avoid breaking bread with ‘men and women who, if one squinted, resembled piles of tires.’ ” It’s hard to want her to triumph—which is a problem when the setup virtually demands we sympathize with her. The lapse is Pessl’s. She validates, unnecessarily, the general disjunction of adolescence; but Blue remains monophonic: If you don’t like the melody that’s all there is.
Still, from amid the bells and whistles, weedy addenda, and quaint verb-craft (“rubber banded,” “boa-constricting”), fresh language breaks through: a woman who “had wandered deep into her forties and, to her evident panic, had been unable to find her way back”; the Bluebloods’ beauty, as “stunning and sad as racehorses.” Physics improves proportionally with its intrigue level (on Hannah’s “harsh and choppy” new haircut: “I suddenly had the nerve-wracking feeling I’d seen her somewhere before”). At its best, the book convincingly shows how paranoia can slowly overtake an unsuspecting person—the reader, ear to the ground, included.
Hannah’s bizarre death while on a Bluebloods camping trip is the dangling thread. The police rule it a suicide, but Blue doesn’t believe them. Her subsequent investigation suggests the involvement of the Nightwatchmen, a Weather Underground–type group, which Dad calls “a fairy tale.” Even in a fictional world the mechanism of a good conspiracy theory requires some tether to reality. In these later pages, Pessl spins a convincing web from real-world allusion and sticky fictions packed with necessary detail. Notably, there are just two illustrations in the last 200 pages; the citations are even relevant. The writing is organic and the slow resolve exhilarating. Clearly a build-up (perhaps not so long) was necessary; only an established state-of-things could disintegrate in such disarming fashion. But the preceding affectations only look more invidious in contrast to this newfound urgency, and their enervating influence persists like a bad hangover. By now, Blue’s abject tendencies will have immunized most readers to her emotional plight. This reader’s best consolation was the fervent hope that, having closed the book, he wouldn’t encounter her again.