Whenever I write about a book I’m reading, I always feel a few steps behind the rest of the game. I’m always writing about books that were published and had their heyday long before I got to them. But, I suppose, a truly good book never becomes irrelevant and therefore can be read and praised at anytime. I think Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, fits into this category. Published in 2006, Pessl got an insane—I mean INSANE—advance for her first novel, to the tune of $615,000 according to the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago. I do not know how that happens! How can someone get such a big advance on their first book? I know Donna Tartt did it too, as did Chad Harbach and Karen Thompson Walker but still! How does a publisher get that invested in someone with no sales data? And how do you get an agent good enough to negotiate such a high price? Seriously, if you know, tell me! These questions are not rhetorical.
Anyway, Pessl had a good agent who had 20/20 vision into the future sales of this book. It was a bestseller and paved the way for Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film, which came out at the end of last year—it’s not surprise I haven’t made my way to that one yet but it’s on my list!
I picked up Calamity Physics at the bookstore the day after Christmas. I was eager to read a novel by a writer who has a career that I aspire to achieve. Pessl published her first book young, was very successful with its publication, and then got started on her second novel with an inspiring amount of creativity. Her career thus far seems to be ideal and I feel that reading books by writers who you hope to one day be like is a great way to start towards that achievement and a great way to improve your own writing.
The front and back cover of this novel will entice any bookworm or lit nerd. A book that promises “A sudden drowning, a series of inexplicable events,” and a narrator as witty and unassumingly brilliant as they come sells itself, as far as I’m concerned. Open to the table of contents, and you’ll be pulled in even more. This book is structured around “Required Readings.” Each chapter is titled after a great literary work. The abundance of references to literature and academia will have you wishing you were as smart as Blue van Meer, our narrator.
I’m almost halfway through this novel and I am definitely reading at a slower pace than usual in order to preserve these brilliant words for as long as possible (and my To Read list is getting longer each day!) because it is that good. Pessl is a skilled wordsmith. She writes in a style, filled with information, that many readers could get bogged down under, but her diction is so light that you can imagine her writing this with a pencil hovering gently over clean paper, rather than with her hands typing quickly across a keyboard.
Pessl easily builds the drama and mystery behind each character, all of them having distinct personalities that round out this eccentric group of students and their scandalous teacher. This book pulls you in so quickly that you don’t notice you’ve read over 100 pages in a single sitting. That being said, there are long stretches in which little of significance seems to happen. We are let in on the fact that Hannah, a significant character, dies at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the novel will seemingly explain the events surrounding her death (and this isn’t the only similarity between Calamity Physics and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History). At the halfway point, I’m ansy to know about her death—it’s taking too long to get there! But that’s not necessarily a criticism, any writer would want to build enough interest and investment that makes a reader scramble for more information.
When you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, you will undoubtedly feel as if you are in the presence of true brilliance, not only that of Blue but also that of Marisha Pessl. She writes as a writer should. It is effortless for her and therefore makes the task of reading effortless and pleasurable. She is the definition of a writer and should be considered one of the best of our times. She stands out and has carved her place next to the likes of the writers of classics.
I'll write another post about this once I finish the book in its entirety! Have you read either of Pessl's novel? What do you think about her writing style?