Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Perhaps I’ve found a new novel to best characterize the writers (and the readers?) of the Millennial Generation. Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is all at once consuming, engaging, annoying, boring, fun, tiresome, fresh, predictable, clever, and over-clever. In short, it is a Millennial Generation brat; it is the kid who speaks too much, who writes a blog that he thinks is super-interesting, who constantly updates his facebook status, who constantly texts and calls, who won’t shut up because he thinks that his words and ideas are pure gold and someone should just notice him and realize his genius. And maybe this kid (and this book) really is genius, but at some point you stop caring…because a true genius knows when it’s better to shut up than to keep rambling.

The first aspect of this novel that showcases that chatty Millennial attitude is the plot itself. Pessl opens the story with a gripping first sentence, telling us (in a way that mirrors Donna Tartt’s amazing “The Secret History” or even Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany”) that the narrator will be haunted by a woman named Hannah’s death. This propels us forward into the narrative, but quickly, the death seems to be abandoned by the first-person narrator (Blue), and she seems far more interested in relating a sort of coming-of-age tale about her difficulties as a motherless child coping with her father’s eccentricities. The story is far from perfect, but we eventually fall into, wondering what sort of woman Blue will become. This goes on for about 400 pages, and then the book suddenly shifts focus for the last 100 pages, plunging us into Hannah’s death and the mysterious conspiracy behind it. It almost seemed as if the author had become disinterested with the coming-of-age story, and decided that she instead wanted to write a murder mystery, so she tacked on a new opening sentence (“Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider’s death, I’ll tell you about my mother’s.”) and voila! Now the author has a reason to suddenly shift the tone, the focus, the characters, the very plot of the novel. So we’re essentially looking at two different novels (one without a natural ending, the other without a natural beginning), connected solely by the opening line. Millennials are very much an “information overload/ ADD/ hyperlinking” generation, bored quickly with one topic, then clicking a link to take them somewhere different. Pessl allows her plot to do the same, to reinvent itself entirely as soon as she–the author–gets bored.

Further complicating matters is the fact that this novel uses a first-person retrospective narrator, a girl who claims to be writing this story just weeks after the depicted death has occurred. Really? This high school girl would write 400 pages of coming-of-age autobiography before relating the gruesome details of a murder, and the bizarre details of conspiracy? A novelist might decide to do this, sure, but the book is absolutely dishonest to its narrator. Her tone is often happy, fun-loving, light-hearted…and we’re supposed to believe that this would be her attitude in the wake of a death, and in the wake of something terrible happening to her father? Yes, a novelist (writing in third-person) can choose to look at a tragedy through a comic voice, but would a 16 year-old girl look at the tragedy of her own life through a comic voice (which, of course, the character displays in her first-person exposition, but rarely in her dialogue, where she seems rather humorless).

The comic voice of the novel, of course, is used by the author to display her true talent with metaphor, similes, and other figurative language. There’s a lot of good stuff here, too, but alas, we begin to feel overwhelmed by it all, and as often as we find great similes, we read past many that seem to try way too hard to be clever. And sometimes we find a sentence or paragraph that bombards us with so many mixed metaphors (and takes so long to explain them all) that we just say, “Damn it! Get on with the story already, and stop trying to impress us with your cleverness!”. Here’s a quick example: “…her other bony arm hooked on the top of the lockers so she resembled an angular Egyptian character scrawled on papyrus. And something about the way Zach gave her his full attention (aware of no one else in the hall), the way he smiled and ran that giant hand through his hair made me realize he was in love with her, that they were doubtlessly both Kinko’s employees always shoulder-to-shoulder and engaged in tons of color-copying, and now I’d stand there trying to talk to him about Death with that Heiroglyph breathing down my neck, her eyes sticking to my face like smashed figs, bushy black hair flooding her shoulders like the River Nile–I couldn’t do it.” (366) Yes, Marisha, we know that you can make nice metaphors. Yes, Millennial brat, we know that you write funny text messages while you’re sitting on the toilet. But do I need 22 texts in a row? Just shut up for a little while and stop repeating “Family Guy” quotes for five minutes.

The final “Millennial” quality of the novel is found in those final 100 pages. Throughout the book, we are introduced to a variety of characters, some of whom are poorly defined (I could never tell any of Blue’s friends apart), some of whom are incredible (Hannah Schneider is indeed unique), and some of whom are remarkably unrealistic and as a result achingly annoying (Blue’s father, who speaks in such clever language and memorizes books’ worth of quotations, and seems to have no flaws), but Pessl uses the idea of a conspiracy to bring them all together, to tie up every single loose end, to explain every single character flaw, and every single mystery of Blue’s youth. Um. Really? If someone looked at her strange on page 135, we realize why on page 489. We now live in a world where, yes, we have answers readily available for most of our inquiries, and there’s something comforting about being able to go onto the internet at any time and find out who the doctor was in “Knocked Up,” and what other films he’s been in. But that’s not the way that human mysteries actually work, much as we’d like to wish they did. We will never be able to explain why people do the things they do; these are mysteries that are forever locked to us, as only you will ever know the secrets of your life, the reasons behind your every action. But it is a Millennial desire, when everything else is so easily explained with the click of a button, to have access to every man’s secrets. “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” explains every detail, every eccentricity, every movement, every line of suspicious dialogue, until the characters don’t even seem human anymore…they’ve lost all the mystery of true humans.

It’ll take me awhile before I forget Pessl’s debut, and there’s something to be said of such an effort. But this book represents all that might be wrong with the current generation’s thinking, and if fiction suddenly takes the “Special Topics” approach for the next 15 years, I’ll be a very depressed reader. The author’s got talent, but next time, I hope Pessl can learn to turn down the volume, cut some words, and stay focused to the true story at her novel’s core.

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