Passing the Test on Her Own Terms

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The New York Sun

From the way she writes, it’s clear that Marisha Pessl, author of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” (Viking, 528 pages, $25.95), thought herself the smartest girl in any class she ever attended. She’s described on the book’s back cover as no mere Ivy League alumna, but a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Columbia University.

In this, her first published work, the key-carrying novelist shows off like crazy — citing literary and cinematic references, loading up her prose with daring metaphors, and using way too much American marketing jargon to prove how hip she is. Scenes don’t take place in anonymous coffee shops or grocery stores but in locales such as Fat Kat Foods; a real estate agent doesn’t show houses for rent but Featured Sherwig Properties; movers work for Feathery Touch Moving Co.; and the shoe store is called Surely Shoos.

More annoying still is the constant over-writing: “Jade looked like a kid in a nursing home impatiently waiting for her designated fogey to be wheeled in so she could read him Watership Down (Adams, 1972) in a monotone, thereby earning her Community Outreach credit, thereby graduating on time.” Wouldn’t a few choice words of description, say,”bored and annoyed,” have sufficed to sum up Jade at that moment? The publishing annotation is a deliberate conceit — the book is presented like an academic article. No doubt much of the author’s over-the-top style is meant to be “self-parody,” as the helpful back cover opines, but the reader is the one stuck slogging through it.

Ms. Pessl gives you every reason to hate her, and abhor her you do — that is, until you realize, several hundred pages into her lengthy tome, that her book is actually funny, entertaining, and quite satisfying.She is the smart girl who wins your heart, and you eventually forgive her smug superiority and annoying selfassurance, because she delivers a good story featuring vivid, poignant characters. It probably helps to be 29 as you’re cracking the covers — the world-weariness and the postmodern posturing of narrator Blue van Meer will have generational resonance — but even readers born before the advent of the Carter administration will start to admire Ms. Pessl’s inventiveness, energy, and manic staying power.

She carries Blue through a very eventful senior year at the posh St. Gallway School in North Carolina, and keeps the plot moving forward despite scenes laden with rococo detailing and ruminative asides. But Ms. Pessl can’t claim sheer originality. “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” owes much to the plot and the tone of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” a 1992 best seller with a hermetic scholastic setting, plenty of high-flown intellectual chat, and two murders — all of which Pessl reprises here.

What’s different about this new novel is its focus on a father-daughter relationship. Blue’s dad, a political science professor who becomes a loving single parent to his only child after Blue’s mother dies in a car wreck more than a decade before the book’s opening scenes, occupies a huge space in her psyche. He has exposed her to great literature, great movies, and his own rigorous thinking about the world. He has urged her to avoid clichés and the company of banal, ordinary people. He has been the sole constant in her life as the two have traipsed around the country from one obscure college town to another. But, perhaps because his daughter is his favorite student, Dr. Gareth van Meer never finds fulfillment in any of the academic posts he takes up.

When they arrive in fictional Stockton, N.C., things begin to change. At school, Blue finds herself invited to join a select clique of students, led by a charming and mysterious film studies teacher named Hannah Schneider. And Dad, who appears a paragon of liberality, attentiveness, and concern, turns out to be less (and more) than the man his daughter always believed he was. How this happens — the precise manner in which he is brought down off his pedestal in Blue’s mind — offers much in the way of intrigue and suspense. Shady characters abound, and it takes time to see how Ms. Pessl lays out the clues to her story’s resolution.The book is structured around a syllabus of classic literary works, and comes complete with a “final exam” in which many plot points are neatly tied up via true-false and multiple choice questions. What at first strikes the reader as pretentious and annoying — including the chapter titles — becomes acceptable by the book’s end.

All competitive students want to know exactly how they measure up, and this examiner would give Ms. Pessl an a B+. She cribs too much from Ms. Tartt and strains to appear sagacious. But she accomplishes much by tapping into a universal experience: recognizing one’s parents not as lofty figures with unassailable characters but flawed human beings who have full, complicated lives of their own. Most important, Ms. Pessl constructs a credible mystery with chilling scenes.The multitudinous trappings of knowingness which she employs to tell her story don’t end up mattering much — still, in her next effort, she’d be well-advised to exercise a bit of self-restraint.

Ms. McHugh is an editor and writer in New York.

The New York Sun

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