special topics in calamity physicsThere’s a special cold black place in my heart for writers under thirty who come out of nowhere with a best-selling much-praised first novel for which they receive huge advances and instant fame. The feeling is called jealousy – deep, shoulda-been-me jealousy that clouds my ability to judge the book itself.

But because I’m all too aware of my jealousy bias, I think I read these books by brilliant emerging artists that aren’t me with an open mind and an open, albeit black, heart. For example I can say, jealousy aside, that Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing is the worst thing to every happen to my eyes and that Dave Eggers has done some wonderful stuff, both on and off the page.

Which brings us to Marisha Pessl and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Every big review I read of it was glowing and every writer under thirty I talked to said it was a piece of steaming shit (but that I should totally read the novel they’re working on). Turns out that my opinion falls somewhere squarely in the middle.

The book centers on the relationship between a 16-year-old girl and her charismatic and erudite father. The pair settle in a tiny mountain town, where the daughter becomes entangled in a mysterious circle of friends and the strange murder of their teacher and mentor. Simple enough, right?

The parts of the book that failed were the overly-quirky bits and the gimmicky bits. Although the narrator is characterized as smart and scholarly, much of the book is over-written, especially during slow periods. What do I mean by over-written? Describing a pair of boots as being “the shape of Italy” or someone’s face being shaped like “a box of Valentines Day candy.” Say the boots were shaped like boots! Say the woman had a heart-shaped face!

Pessl leans hard on the simile and the metaphor in this book, many times at the expense of simple, straightforward description. By having a complex, intelligent narrator, she’s trying to say, “I’m doing it on purpose!” but it still seems indulgent and silly and, ultimately, keeps us holding her world at arm’s length.

Pessl also struggles with dialogue and realistic characters – often I found myself thinking, that high school student would never say that or that gas station attendant would never say  that. All of the characters tended to sound the same and think the same. Sure, if it was a high school student, Pessl would add some “likes” and a reference to J-Lo, but mostly, the person would sound like the voice of the narrator, a voice which I am guessing is the voice of Pessl herself.

But there is some beautiful writing in the book. Entire chapters were – I’ll say it – riveting. Without exception, the riveting chapters were the chapters with a lot of action in them – chapters where it felt like Pessl forgot that she was a writer trying to impress people with her first novel. In these chapters boots were boot-shaped, the language was natural, and the characters got to act like themselves.

These good chapters led me to the conclusion that Pessl’s problem might be discipline. She doesn’t know when to cut out the cute or overly-wrought stuff yet. The Writing Buddha says, kill your children and Pessl, time and again, couldn’t manage to do that. The result is a book filled with things that made the author smile, dalliances, and clever asides that don’t do much except make the book longer. I suspect she also lacked an editor who could kill those children for her.

The plot was ‘aight. It was a pretty basic murder mystery formula and I guessed the end 150 pages before the end happened even though I’m not good at guessing endings. It would have been much better and much more fast-moving if, again, someone – author or editor – had cut it down to a more manageable length.

Where does that leave us? I think Pessl’s got some talent. I think that, for a first novel, this was an achievement. On the other hand, she’s got a ways to go and I hope all of the praise does not set her more firmly in some of her ways. Talent is something you’re born with and being born with talent is easy. Now she’s got some hard work ahead of her – about learning when to hold back and about learning about the human condition outside of her own privileged experiences.

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