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Special Topics In Calamity Physics

Reading Marisha Pessl's Special Topics In Calamity Physics , the story of precocious teenager Blue Van Meer and her father Gareth, a job hopping college professor,  is like spending a day with a very intellectually gifted child who has consumed lots of sugar. It is by turns exasperating, delightful, enlightening, and overwhelming. I am still trying to make up my mind whether to praise it to the heavens or make fun of it.

It is so gosh darn full of ornate prose, elaborate metaphors, and Clever Literary Devices (one of which is Promiscuous Capitalization) it makes Vladmir Nabokov's Pale Fire look like a church bulletin.

One of the Clever Literary Devices she uses is naming the chapters after famous works of literature. For instance, a chapter where one of Gareth's jilted lovers goes crazy is called The Taming Of The Shrew. Another chapter where Blue and some of her classmates go on a camping trip is called Deliverance. It reminded me a bit of the way Mark Haddon numbered the chapters of The Curious Incident Of The Dog At Night Time with consecutive prime numbers.  It's fair to say that STICP is for humanities geeks what Haddon's book is for math geeks.

And then there are the metaphors. Goodness gracious, there are metaphors. Try to imagine having front row seats at a Metaphor Death Match between Dan Rather and Raymond Chandler.Reading this book is a lot like that.  If metaphors were hamburgers, Ms. Pessl would be McDonald's. If they were novels, she would be Stephen King.

Damn, she's got me doing it.

Some of the metaphors are restrained, such as the description of a man whose eyes were "seersucker blue" or a young suitor of Blue's whose voice was "stiff as new shoes."  Most are not. More typical is her description of Ralph Ellison's  Invisible Man as  a book "which turned up on Summer Reading Lists with the regularity of corruption in Cameroon".  Or a TV newsman who, if he "had been wine, he wouldn't be robust or full bodied" but "would be fruity,acidic, with a  hint of cherry."

Some of them are really ambitious, such as "with the same innocence of the Trojans as they gathered around the strange wooden horse standing at the gate to their city in order to marvel at its craftsmanship, Hannah drove our  yellow Rent-Me Truck into the dirt lot of Sunset Views Encampment and parked in Space 52."

There's also lots of references to other books, in the style of an academic work. For instance

"She threw her head back and laughed (see "Shark Death Cry", Birds And Beasts, Barde, 1973,p.244)".

There is a story under all these literary ornaments. Halfway through the book, one of the main characters  dies under suspicious circumstances . (That's not a spoiler...the dust cover informs you of this before you read it.)  After this, Ms. Pessl trades the Nabokov mask for  the Carolyn Keene mask and her protagonist Blue goes from being a bright and sensitive young girl to a meddlesome kid.

There are lots of interesting plot twists, including some revelations about a character who introduced briefly in chapter 11 (or Moby Dick),
as well as questions raised about Hannah Schneider (the deceased) and Blue's father.

The book closes with a chapter called "Final Exam", which is in the format of a test. (The Clever Literary Devices just don't stop until the last page.)

I am going to go take a nap now. This book plum wore me out.