Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

The novel as exam - not quite an alpha?
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The Independent Culture

Blue Van Meer's coming of age is no ordinary tale of teenage angst and bad parenting. She shapes the tragic comedy of her young life into a course syllabus, a form loved by her academic father: "the scaffolding to which we may cling". But no syllabus has ever wandered so far from its pedagogic intentions.

After her butterfly-collector mother dies in a car accident, she begins a peripatetic life with her handsome, mercurial father. Though a distinguished scholar in political science, he never stays long enough to secure a permanent academic job. His affairs with the many women drawn to him are also transitory. Yet if he is not ambitious for himself beyond impressing his audience with his original mind, he is determined that his precocious 16-year-old daughter will become the valedictorian of her graduating class and go on to Harvard.

In that last year of high school, the longest period Blue has ever lived in one place since her mother's death, she attends an arty progressive school that boasts about the number of students who have become revolutionary performance artists. There she becomes part of a coterie of students who worship the charismatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider.

The "Bluebloods", a group of fey men and skinny women given to drugs, drink and one-night stands in seedy café toilets, are feared for their cruel brilliance. Though Blue remains outside the madness of the group, she becomes almost infatuated with the mysterious Hannah, whose violent death begins the unravelling of her life.

It is difficult to sum up this almost encyclopaedic novel, with chapters named for great works - Pygmalion, Wuthering Heights, Things Fall Apart - and a "final exam" on characters and themes that no reader will pass. Marisha Pessl's first fiction begins as a comic road story, quickly becomes a Bildungsroman and ends as a mystery. Blue's sincere persona holds it together. She is the only one we can trust, the only rounded character with the intelligence and sanity to make sense of these fantastic events: the murders and suicide, the left-wing radicals and the disappeared women.

The other characters embody parts of Blue's personality. In her father we see her intellectual adventurousness and idealism, in Hannah her romanticism, and her goodness in Zach, the wonderfully dense boy who becomes infatuated with her. In Jade, the wiry, nihilistic Blueblood and the most entertaining secondary character, Blue sees the darker side of her own rebellion.

Blue's father is a less interesting creation. Despite his hidden life he seems one-dimensional, which may explain why we care little about his disappearance. But Hannah, whose fate becomes the centre of Blue's stormy last year of childhood, remains fascinating. Like Blue's mother, Hannah is a collector. Instead of butterflies she gathers identities: gypsy, orphan, feminist, flower child. As Blue searches for the truth about Hannah and her parents , she realises that she can be sure of nothing, not even memories.

There's much to admire: the energy and wit of the writing, Pessl's willingness to take risks, to stretch a simile and load the narrative with comparisons as improbable and deft as metaphysical conceits. The prose can be funny and sharp, but there are too many references; almost every turn of the novel is likened to a character, book, film or essay. She doesn't need to keep pointing out connections.

In an audacious, questing novel about duality of personality and the tricky nature of truth, Pessl should allow her readers to draw their own conclusions.

Wendy Brandmark's novel 'The Angry Gods' is published by Dewi Lewis