Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics and the Chick Lit debate continues

The hottest new novel to hit the bookshelves right now is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and I was unable to resist it's siren call. Sure,you hang around the book review sections long enough and you can start to recognize the usual signs of a critics' darling by their "innovative" style,plus other terms of endearment that create a need for a thesaurus,stat! However, I was intrigued,not only by the positive reviews but some of the negative vibes as well(I'll get to that later)so I went out on the internet and ordered a copy.

I haven't finished STICP yet but can say that it's a damn good read so far. The plot focues on Blue Van Meer,a quiet,brainy girl who has been traveling from one college town to another with her widower father,Gareth(a man who seems to love the sound of his own voice more than anything else in life),a love'em and leave'em type of professor. Blue's last year of high school is spent at St. Galway's School,where she is reluctantly initiated into the Bluebloods,the top of the clique food chain.

The Bluebloods are united by Hannah Schneider,an Intro to Film teacher at St. Galway's who seems to cultivate an air of mystery about her. At one point in the story,Hannah is found dead,hanging from a tree limb and how that happened causes quite abit of chaos.

Much has been made of how the novel's been written;it's told from Blue's p.o.v. and she formats it like a Required Reading syllabus,with chapter titles taken from classic books and use of references and "visual aids". There's even a Final Exam at the end,sort of an open book test on the whole story.

That may scream "pretenious" to some but it does play well and fits the characters like a well made glove. Reading this book is like watching a season of Gilmore Girls that was written and directed by Wes Anderson. It's that smart,quirky and quite willing to entertain a dark side of the moon. I do intend to finish STICP,it really seems to be that rare gem that few truly find in the arts;something that actually lives up to the hype. The biggest complaints about Pessl's debut is that it's very similar to Donna Tartt's The Secret History(which I never read)and that Marissa is getting alot of attention due to her good looks. That is so Heathers-I don't deny that attractive features can give some folks advantages but I honestly don't think that Pessl sent out headshots with her manuscript when submitting for publication.

Speaking of Heathers,there's a new collection of short stories out called This is not Chick Lit,edited by Elizabeth Merrick who regards"literary" women writers as under siege from "piles of pink books" that keep readers from discovering them.It's even inspired another anthology entitled This is Chick Lit(that I will be reviewing for the blog very soon)put together by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. This made Merrick quite cranky and she shot back at it online(please click the title link to read her
written wrath and see the response from one of the TICL contributors,Rachel Pine).

I've been on the side of the Chicks in this ongoing feud and am sad to see all this infighting on both sides. What makes me favor the Chicks? Well,for one thing,if the Lit Girl theory is correct,a book like Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen shouldn't be climbing bestseller lists across the country(including the NYT and PW) and titles like Night Watch by Sarah Waters wouldn't be on the long list for the Man Booker Prize but,yet they are! How can that be,if all those icky pink covered books with their"stock protagonist with a designer handbag and three boyfriends" are storming the shelves,holding back those bold"pushing the envelope" tomes? Give me a bloody break,please!

Also,the Chicks are way more self-confident. They generally are saying"Look,some of us write for fun and some people read both our stuff and yours. Some readers just go for one or the other. Why can't we be friends?" In the index of This is Chick Lit,the contributing authors recommend titles by writers"across the aisle" such as The Outside World by Tova Mirvis,Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman and At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard,all of which I've read as well. Sounds to me as if some gals are more well rounded in their reading than others who are more interested in saying what they're not than what they are.

Gloria Steinem also added her two cents by endorsing TINCL with this amusing little blurb that appears on the back of the book:

" This Is Not Chick Lit is important not only for its content, but for its title. I’ll know we’re getting somewhere when equally talented male writers feel they have to separate themselves from the endless stream of fiction glorifying war, hunting and sports by naming an anthology This Is Not a Guy Thing."

You know,if there was a book out called This Is Not A Guy Thing,it would sell. It also would unleash a massive wave of Beavis and Butthead like snickers in bookstores and libraries everywhere. Maybe Gloria should've gone into Marketing-missed your calling there,Ms. Steinem!


PJS said...




Please do.

lady t said...

Well,If I read The Secret History,you have to see Ed Wood-fair's fair:)

Bohemian Belle said...

I had heard so much hype about sexy Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I stilletto’d right out on my lunch break to pick up my hardback copy. My hopes were high. The book had everything you wanted in a chick lit thriller: an Ivillage endorsement, a tantalizing cover, and an freaky, evocative website. I loved the creepy details the kicked things off: the butterflies, the film class secret society, the mystical mother.
Then I got to reading, and things quickly went from titillating to tedious. The set-up of the book, a mock-syllabus, is supposed to be sly, but is instead excruciatingly apt. Special Topics reads like a real syllabus, and I was the student skimming over all the boring parts to get to the juicy stuff. But beneath all the jihad and June Bugs, the juice never really came. Sure, lips locked, people perished and secrets were eventually unveiled, but still (much like an overly-ambitious syllabus) Pessl is never really able to take us beneath the surface of her story. You’re invited as a spectator to her amazingly deep thought pool, but you never really get to dive in and swim with the psychos.
A lot of this distance from the story can be attributed to a lack of character development.
Her characters are apparently cunning and complex, but they feel like overly-intellectual paper dolls, painted, smug. Mere braininess cannot replace the prototype of boisterous, flawed, eager and endearing characters that are chick lit’s bread and butter, and Pessl seems to miss this mark.
For example, one of the main flaws of the book is that we only hear things from the main character Blue’s perspective. In an attempt to make her flawed and endearing, Pessl’s depiction of Blue is so self-deprecating one really feels like the girl is a wretched specimen indeed, as worthless as the common butterfly for which she is named. I am sure Pessl is aiming for a beloved Bridget Jones’s underdog affect, but it simply doesn’t stick because it is Bridget’s bad habits and struggles that make her lovable, not her self-loathing. Blue is so holier-than-thou and flawless, one really can’t relate to her, and by the end of the book you really identify with the other character’s hatred for Blue and how annoying she is. I sense this was not the author’s intention.
On the other hand, Jade, Nigel, Charles, Milton and Leulah all have the potential to be salacious and fascinating characters. Jade especially, with her decadent life and gorgeous rags, could easily inspire the acclaim of say, the bewitching character of Caitlin in Judy Blume's Summer Sisters. But Pessl never allows them to be any more than shadowy, chattery background characters. Even when Milton and Blue make out, one doesn’t really get a sense of him. He remains an affable mollusk who eventually betrays Blue. It is obvious this betrayal is supposed to be spectacular and telling, but it feels very anti-climactic, partly because of Blue’s lack of reaction and because we don’t really know Milton too well, so nothing he does can really stun us.
A chapter told from each of their perspectives would have done wonders for the book, even if they said only what we expected them to say: that Leulah was desperately resentful of Jade, that Nigel had a huge crush on Milton, that Charles loved Hannah so much he fantasized about killing her. A flashback from the intriguing Natasha, maybe revealing that she actually hated Gareth, or a June Bug’s viewpoint of Blue’s Elektra Complex would also have felt fresh and illuminating. These little revelations could have done much to draw us deeper into the plot, but they never occur.
Nowhere is this lack of character development more potent than with Hannah Schneider, the apparent heroine of the book. Hannah is supposed to be this sexy, intriguing woman with the charisma of a cult leader, basically. But a reader never feels particularly drawn to her. She doesn’t ever say anything particularly witty or charming, and she is portrayed always as vague, manic, fluttering and frayed. I don’t know about you guys, but in my life I avoid people like this. They freak me out. All her stay cats, her movie posters, her bizarre ramblings, her terrorist involvement…none of it added up. She just felt sloppy and undone and I was glad when she was gone. Again, I suspect this was not the author’s intention.
What Pessl lacks in character development however, she compensates for in cryptic metaphors. The woman averages a metaphor per minute, per mention, per millimeter of each page. Not just any metaphors either, long, extended, mutating metaphors that felt less illuminating and more egotistical, like reading ten of Ovid’s metamorphosis in a row. Far from adding gravitas or momentum to the plot, these dizzying metaphors serve one purpose: for Pessl to say, “Look how much I know-that you don’t.”
In fact, the entire mystery just feels like an elaborate ruse for Pessl to show off her fancy Barnard College pile o’ knowledge. Nowhere is this more obvious than the end of the book. I hate mysteries that end with information that is not supplied to readers until the very last pages. The readers should have all the same information the author does and be given a fair shot at solving the mystery for themselves. The genius of a mystery is providing information that could be read a bunch of different ways. To withhold evidence the reader could never have possibly predicted is not only unfair, it is-you guessed it-egotistical. Pessl alone wanted to unravel her elaborate ending, to wow us with her research and knowledge of less-known terrorist groups and cult behavior. But you know what? I hate her ending.
Here’s why: I hate that Blue’s Dad, the one truly charming and evocative character in the book, turns out to be a bad guy. The implication that he knew about Blue being taken out into the forest by his crazed mistress to be left for dead is just disturbing. The fact that he could just up and leave her after all that “You are the most important concept I have ever known” crap also doesn’t ring true. I also hate that the Bluebloods just drift into the background and nothing definitive ever happens with them (there’s no epilogue, no ten years later, no dazzling secret society unveiling). I hate that Servo turns out to be Gracey. Once again, a cult leader’s gotta have some charisma, the heady, irrepressible kind that bubbles out no matter how much you repress it. I get that the whole bumbling old man Falstaff thing was supposed to be a pose, but someone as perceptive as Blue should have felt something sexy brimming under his surface. Instead she declared that she hated him, a phrase she herself admitted never using. This is not the reaction one should have against someone who inspired Hannah, at a similar age, to resign herself to a life of killing and pillaging purely on this fellow’s urging. Despite the old man guise, Servo still could have been a spell-binding storyteller, had an electric sense of humor, an encyclopedia brain, strange apartheid mementoes in his house, anything that would have made him less patently dull and more darkly subversive. The whole not- taking- pictures thing does not a guru make.
Here’s my list of preferred alternate endings: A) If the Nightwatchmen thing had to go down, I would have much preferred that Andreo Verduga the gardener be Gracey. He was more sultry and brooding and obviously had the sort of appeal that made formerly sensible young girls want to fall to their knees and follow him. Meow! That’s the stuff a good chick thriller is made of.
B) Hannah takes them all out into the forest. We learn later that Charles insisted on this trip and originally wanted it to be the two of them. Hannah agrees but insists on bringing the others along. While there, Charles comes on to Hannah but she refuses. Later he finds her hooking up with Milton. This is more realistic because chicks always go for the implacable drifter over the pretty boy who tries too hard. Charles decides to kill Hannah. He makes her go into the woods with him and then hangs her. Blue finds her. Suddenly they are all lost in the woods and no one knows who the killer is. Was it Nigel, the apparent sociopath? Was it Leuluh, seemingly unassuming but desperately resentful of Hannah’s beauty and charm? Was it Jade, out of paranoid suspicion or revenge on her mother figure? Was it Milton, the man who was too emotion-less to be real? Was it Blue herself, because she found out Hannah was responsible for the death of her mother? Pessl had actually set up this story line perfectly, but decided not to use it. As a result, this book started out with potential to be a juicy thriller, but ended up like a flat lesson in irrelevant history. The most exciting part was hearing about the seven-person homicide at the costume party. That’s the kind of trivia that keeps you turning pages, not obscure wars and weird political figures.
Perhaps I am judging Pessl too harshly in light of her contemporaries, but it is impossible not to compare her to her peers. Her syllabus motif has none of the pomp and cheer of say, Becky Bloomwood’s bank statements and letters to her bank managers. Her underdog Blue has none of the lovable slob qualities of the beloved Bridget Jones. The eccentric camaraderie of the BlueBoods can’t hold a candle to the motley protagonists and plucky personal lingo of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Her mysteries don’t intersperse social satire and real women’s worries the way Jennifer Weiner’s or Susan Isaac’s do.
But I think in terms of contemporaries, my biggest disadvantage was reading this book on the heels of the astounding duo by Melissa Banks: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot. The difference between Pessl and Banks may be as simple as their first names. Marisha’s debut just feels like a dressed-up, desperate version of Melissa’s strong, sure prose. Marisha postures with cryptic references and intellectual allusions you have to wade through. You fight to stay awake and wonder what it is she’s trying so hard to prove. Melissa’s books rely not on intellect but incisiveness, guiding you definitively through the equally complicated stories that weave in and out, but you never feel lost or caught in a web, just mesmerized by the author’s honesty and beautifully spare prose. Melissa Banks’s metaphors bring you in deeper, make you feel closer to her. When she talks about feeling like a solid at a liquid party, you sigh “yes!.” When Pessl goes on about some random South American coup in 1952, you go “Huh?”.
Banks is by far the better novelist, providing empathetic material in an unsually elegant form. Pessl is clearly suited more for the type of essays, high brow lectures, and fist-pounding soliloquies expounded by her father in this disappointing debut novel.
I do think Pessl is a brilliant person. But like most super-smart people, Pessl’s intellect is so over-the-top as to be alienating. Her amazing brain packs a wallop that overwhelms her plot. Bank’s subtle genius merely winks at the reader as all the while her gentle prose slowly transforms you. So I’ll take Fishing over Phsyics any day of the week (syllabus notwithstanding.)

lady t said...

Well,I don't really STICP was meant to be a chick lit thriller(there are plenty of folk out there who do that very well like Julie Kenner,for example)and comparing this book to Bridget Jones or Becky Bloomwood is like comparing apple and oranges.

Blue is more like Rory Gilmore,a reserved too-smart-for-her-own-good type(not as sweet natured as Rory however).