The CSM reviewed a book called Special  AUG 15 2006

The CSM reviewed a book called Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl last week, saying if you like Eggers and footnotes (a la Clarke's Strange & Norrell or, presumably DFW), you might like this one. Anyone read this? Worth a shot?

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books   Dave Eggers   David Foster Wallace   jonathanstangeandmrnorrell   marishapessl

There are 16 reader comments

Ben Reder21 15 2006 9:21AM

I have to admit that I picked up Special Topics and hated it. I consider myself to be a pretty generous reader but Special Topics' style seemed to center around the really bad metaphor. If the narrative voice is intended to be sophomoric then it succeeded but it read to me as just bad writing. Certainly no DFW, perhaps Eggers, it reminded me mostly of a bad Heidi Julavits novel. Also the protagonist has a real-world myspace page, which seems to me entirely shameless. Though I couldn't say why. Too clever by half.

jsf22 15 2006 9:22AM

I'm curious too. It's hard to get past the hype and the anti-hype. The comparisons to Foer make me less hopeful this is any good. The claim being that everything is a little to 'precious' and written with the sole purpose of trying to impress.

cecily36 15 2006 9:36AM

I didn't know about the hype, just picked up the book last week because it had an interesting title. As a "great books" geek I thought it was totally fun... a literary game as well as a competent mystery. The semi-interactiveness of it reminded me not o Egger's novels but of McSweeny's. But there was more too it than just cleverness, I was left with a bit more, and I think the book will stick with me.

I only became aware of the hype over the weekend because of the Times review. The crux of the criticism seems to be that the author is pretty and has made a few dollars and that young pretty girls shouldn't be so precocious. I doubt people would be responding in the same way if the author was a poor chubby girl with bad teeth.

My advice is thi pick up the book in the store and flip through to the middle and read a few pages. If you are as delighted as I was you'll enjoy the rest.

gabby57 15 2006 9:57AM

I loved it--its closest relative, honestly, is Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The narrative voice is a bit more tongue-in-cheeck however. Delightful.

August24 15 200611:24AM

I've heard good things, but many of these "hipster" books frustrate me; they borrow centuries old gimmicks (DFW) and sell them as new because they are neglected, but rarely deliver on anything substantial to justify those gimmicks (Eggers especially). I try my best to read them only after the hype has gone down considerably and I'm out of anything genuinely meaty (or at least proven to be meaty; Faulkner, Nabokov, etc.).

I'll probably read it eventually, but it all just seems to damn *precious* to bother with right now.

emily37 15 200611:37AM

This book was reviewed on the front page of the NYT Book Review this past Sunday. I had been intrigued (merely by the title) before I read the review...now I'm not so sure. It was heavily compared to "Lolita" because it involves a father-daughter road-trip theme, plus a mysterious murder, and delightfully soaring prose and all of that. Plus the woman who wrote it is easy on the eyes (so noted the reviewer, and I can't disagree). I guess I'm glad that despite that last bit, this is being hyped as "real" fiction, not chick lit. I'll look for it at the library...but in the meantime I recommend Allegra Goodman's
"Intuition" instead.

josh44 15 200611:44AM

As much as I liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, it makes me really tired to think that "footnotes + Eggers" is now being treated as its own literary genre. Calamity Physics does look interesting (it got a favorable cover review on this week's New York Times Book Review [#]); so I'll probably put it on my list of things to read once I've finished the awfully-footnotey Icelander.

SeƱor Amor11 15 2006 1:11PM

Calamity Fiction is real fiction, not chick lit. Chick lit references Prada. not Lord Byron. I'm about halfway through the book and am enjoying it immensely. Do all the clever bits work perfectly? No. But neither did all the clever bits in Everything is Illuminated. I am finding a quality sorely lacking in "serious fiction" these days: joy in writing. I also found the book for it's title without knowing much about it, I'm glad I started before becoming aware of the hype, website, myspace account, etc. Might have detracted.

What is so threatening about a smart good looking young author (and illustrator!)?

I agree with the Secret History comparison btw. Definitely more in tune with Tart than Eggers.

Robert47 15 2006 2:47PM

She's hot, that's all that matters. Pretty people are better writers.

Leta51 15 2006 3:51PM

Sorry, but what does DFW stand for?

san59 15 2006 3:59PM

"She's hot, that's all that matters. Pretty people are better writers."

Yeah I'm thinking that's key here. Fair warning that I've only read excerpts, but what I've read, it's awful. Last year's The Historian was similarly hyped and, although very different in tone, similarly awful. Someone mentioned JSF. JSF is leagues better than this. The comparison to Nabokov would be hilarious if it weren't so sickening. You know, you can compare, say, Michael Chabon to Nabokov, but you just can't make that comparison with everyone. And the father/daughter road trip makes this novel like Lolita? Really, has the reviewer read Lolita? That's not your usual father/daughter road trip.

And, Tartt's better, too. This is sort of a general failure of style. It's like the adjective Olympics in there. By no means is Marisha Pessl (Marisha Pesci when you're drunk?) the worst writer ever, ever, but these comparisons to the thunderous giants of literature are just nuts.

And if you don't believe me, the protagonist's name is: Blue Van Meer. I do not lie.

san59 15 2006 3:59PM

DFW = David Foster Wallace

Mario G53 16 200611:53AM

I enjoyed the book.

Does Pessl = Tartt? No, but it evoked both Tartt (in theme) and Eggers (in it's rococo style) for me.

Does Pessl = Nabokov? Of course not. Who does? Certainly not Michael Chabon.

Is JSF "leagues better"? Not for me. I think JSF is talented but I had a hard time getting through his first Everything is Illuminated, and stopped about a quarter of the way through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Is Blue Van Meer a silly name? Yes. But so is Humbert Humbert.

Why is that that every first novel has to be everything or nothing? I say simply: it was a fun read full of literary gymnastics. I liked it.

san19 16 200612:19PM

Chabon at least evokes Nabokov, and I certainly do not think Pessl does. Chabon is good. As many times as I've tried to hate Chabon -- not leaving the golden age of comics behind with K&C; what I thought was a contrived Holmes novella; some fairly inadequate short fiction -- his prose is just sublime and that fact is unavoidable.

Humbert Humbert is a silly name. Blue Van Meer is a *goofy* name. There's a fundamental difference.

I certainly don't think Special Topics is nothing but when it's billed as everything even by many critical reports, well, it's not everything at all and that is evident. It's damned by its own positive reception because it's just not that good.

As is obvious, I didn't like it, not what I've read of Pessl's style. It's not great literature, far from it. But beyond that one specific distinction, of course there's nothing wrong with liking it. I still love The Lords of Discipline, although I have well-read friends who think it's schlock. And you know it probably is but I still love it.

jenn y01 20 2006 1:01AM

Bought the book yesterday and finished it about 5 minutes ago. My view is that much of the criticism (and some of the praise) is off base. It is a surprisingly good read despite it's flaws. The plotting in particular startles and delights. Much of the dust raised is about Pessl's choice of voice which can fairly be described as similar to Eggers (long self reflexive self involved information packed sentences). By about page 10 I was becoming annoyed and by about 15 I was seriously offput, but then in the next 20 or so pages something unexpected happens, the voice modulates and perhaps the character becomes more real and after that the writing style is only an occasional distraction. For me this is when the book took off and when I began to understand what all the fuss was about. Ultimately I was intrigued and moved and had a hard time putting the book down. We'll see how I feel a month from now, but I suspect the book will linger. I have no problems recommending the book to anyone.

Diane B.07 04 200611:07PM

It's a romp through some thick woods. But the book is a good read and Pessl has a gift with images - you can find quite a number of verbal delights throughout the book. She just needs a more stringent editor as sentences tend to float away with a bit too many metaphors.

Still, the "I" centered, coming-of-age journey written in the "aren't I clever" manner is getting a little tiresome as the sole functioning literary device in most of the novels by young writers. There needs to be more rigorous requirements to qualify as a staggering genius. Maybe I've just had it with the overabundance of self-congratulatory nimble phrasing, but let's face it: when all the verbal juice is taken away, all your're left with is something very simple, a bit too simple for my tastes. But this is my own personal weariness and not intended to be a specific criticism Pessl's novel.

I do look forward to her next venture when, hopefully, Pessl is able to tame her exuberent verbal gifts and create a work of more subtlety and complexity.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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