Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge—and is quite the cineaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide—or misguide—her.
Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl's debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl's own.
The good stuff:
Here are a couple of excerpts I had to highlight.
"But most critically
,sweet ,never try to change the narrative structure of someone else's story ,though you will certainly be tempted to ,as you watch those poor souls in school ,in life ,heading unwittingly down dangerous tangents ,fatal digressions from which they will unlikely be able to emerge. Resist the temptation. Spend your energies on your story. Reworking it. Making it better. Increasing the scale ,the depth of content ,the universal themes. And I don’t care what those themes are – they’re yours to uncover and stand behind – so long as ,at the very least ,there is courage. Guts. Mut ,in German. Those around you can have their novellas ,sweet ,their short stories of cliché and coincidence ,occasionally spiced up with tricks of the quirky ,the achingly mundane ,the grotesque. A few will even cook up Greek tragedy ,those born into misery ,destined to die in misery. But you ,my bride of quietness ,you will craft nothing less than epic with your life. Out of all of them ,your story will be the one to last.” (p.72)
“It was October. Dad was dating a woman named Kitty (whom I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of swatting away form our screen” (p.106) HILARIOUS
“Layer. Shakespeare personage. Contrary to popular belief
,person needs heartbreak an’ betrayal. Else you got no stayin’ power. Can’t play a lead for five whole acts. Can’t play two performances inna day. Can’t fashion a character arch from point a ta point g. Can’t get through the denewment ,create a a convincin’ through line – all that stuff. See whut I’m sayin’? Person’s gotta get banged up. Gotta get jerked around ,lived in. So he’s got somethin’ to use ,see. Hurts like hell. Sure. Feels bad. Not sure you wanna go on. But that gives way to twhat thye commonly clall emotive re-zon-ance. An emotive resonance makes it impossible fer people to take their eyes offa you ,when yer onstage. Ever turned round in a good movie and seen the faces? Pretty intense. (p.241)