Saturday, April 21, 2007

NYT Notable Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

What an unusual book. This is Marisha Pessl's first book, and she sure shows off her talent for writing! I turned down so many passages I loved that I couldn't possibly highlight them here.

This is the story of Blue van Meer, a high school girl that undergoes a crisis experience in her senior year. There was a point reading the book where I said "I really don't like this book, because I hate this character." Since I believe it was the author's intent that the reader would feel that way at that point in the narrative, I guess it's an example of good writing. Many people have commented that the book really picks up the pace in the second half, and I'd have to agree. An intricate mystery, the author spends the first half of the book painstakingly putting each thread in place and then unraveling them with lightning speed in the second half.

The book is written like a research paper, so very often in the book the narrator will be talking about something and then reference a written work or fictional story in parenthesis. This is really clever, but ended up being the only thing I really didn't like about the book. By the end, I was pretty much just skipping over all the parenthesis in order to get back to the real story.

Here's an example of her writing:

As Dad said, the difference between a dynamic and a wasted uprising depends upon the point at which it occurs within a country's historic timeline (see Van Meer, "The Fantasy of Industrialization", Federal Forum, Vol. 23, Issue 9). Jade and Lu were still developing nations. And thus, while it wasn't fantastic, it also wasn't too terrible for them to have a backward infrastructure and a poor human development index. But Hannah - she was much farther along. She should have already established a robust economy, peacefulness, free trade - and as these things weren't yet assured, frankly, it wasn't looking good for her democracy. She could very well struggle forever, with "corruption and scandal perpetually undermining [her] credibility as a self-ruled state."


LK said...

I tend to abhor gimmicky types of writing (such as including things in parenthesis as a clever way to move the narrative along, but which really tends to bog a reader down) -- not sure I will pick up this one.

jacobsteel said...

yeah, I skipped a lot too... at times there were just to much erudition for the story's own good. Reminded me a bit of "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace. Having said that, "Special Topics..." did pick up the pace in the end, and I did like the idea of introducing thriller elements so late.