Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Cluttered, crazy and compelling
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The Independent Culture

Blue van Meer and her father Gareth have been travelling together for 10 years. They've resided in 39 towns in 33 states, living in rented accommodation while Gareth takes visiting professor roles at provincial universities, educating "America's unassuming and ordinary". Blue's mother Natasha died when she was five, driving a car nicknamed "Certain Death". Natasha was a butterfly collector and Blue, our narrator and wonderfully compelling heroine, was so named because all her mother could catch at the time were Cassius Blues.

Blue's senior year at high school begins promisingly when her father announces that they will live for the whole year in one house in one town to give her the best chance of getting into Harvard. The town is Stockton, North Carolina; the school is the prestigious St Gallway. While Gareth attracts "June Bugs" (the women with whom he has disastrous - for them - affairs), works on lectures and articles and complains about the state of the nation, Blue becomes the unlikely new member of St Gallway's strange in-crowd after their guru-like leader, the film-studies teacher Hannah Schneider, takes a special interest in her. Jade, Leullah, Charles, Nigel and Milton, known as the "Bluebloods", are charismatic and glamorous and although Blue initially resists the inevitable makeover, it happens anyway thanks to Jade's mother's "emergency" credit card. Blue tells her father that she is in a study group reading Ulysses (although, due to the "weak constitutions" of the other members, they have not yet made it past the first chapter). He is sceptical, and unimpressed with her transformation: "Your hair appears to blaze, sweet. Hair is not supposed to blaze. Fires are supposed to blaze, illuminated clock towers, lighthouses, Hell perhaps. Not human hair."

The Bluebloods become increasingly obsessed with Hannah Schneider. Among other things, she appears to have regular one-night stands with strangers in motels, and doesn't like to talk about her past. When a man dies at her party, the speculation intensifies. Later, when Hannah herself is found dead, Blue is forced to try to piece together what happened, and work out why she appears to have been chosen as Hannah's confidante. The answer, when it comes, is incredibly satisfying, not least because it leads to more questions. It's certainly refreshing to have these rather than the flat-pack themes that can be assembled by a book group in an evening (with no tools).

This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive debut novels I've ever read. The stand-out piece of characterisation - although all the characterisation is excellent - has to be Gareth van Meer, the kind of academic who uses well-chosen words as both attack and defence in his war with contemporary America, a place full of "mizundahstood" teenagers, rolled-back prices and the "runny-nosed Why-Nots and How-Comes of self-help". Blue tells us: "One of Dad's favorite personal comments regarding the sexes was his likening assertive women to Spacecraft (fly-by probes, orbiters, satellites, landers) and men to the unwitting subjects of these missions (planets, moons, comets, asteroids). Dad, of course, saw himself as a planet so remote it had suffered only a single visit - the successful but brief Natasha mission."

One of the most astonishing things about this novel is the prose itself, and it is almost alarming that Marisha Pessl is able to sustain the intensity of Blue's narration for over 500 pages. Bleak and minimal can both be great qualities, but if many first novels are like Ikea kitchens - clean lines and surfaces and lots of functionality - this is more like your eccentric grandmother's attic: cluttered, crazy, chintzy and absolutely compelling. It consistently crackles with wit and intelligence. In the aftermath of Hannah Schneider's death, Blue's imagery becomes suitably haunting. "By now, it was after 6pm. The sun was loosening its grip on the lawn and frilly black shadows had collapsed all over my bedroom floor like skinny widows killed with arsenic." It is, perhaps, Pessl's level of precision, coupled, of course, with her ability to create a plot that stops you doing anything apart from read it, that makes her such an exciting writer.

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