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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Special Topics In Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl This book wins my prize for creative writing. I said creative, not good. The novel is bursting with the passion of brilliant young minds pursuing a liberal arts education. That part is good. However, the word play is overdone to such an extreme that it hinders communication of the story to the reader. But it is the author's word craft that makes this book unique and interesting.

Oh, and did I mention that this book has nothing to do with that branch of science called physics? This is a novel, not a physics book, that for the first 330 pages follows the mixed-up angst of a group of high school students. Then for the next 180 pages it becomes an adventure/thriller/mystery that won't let the reader's attention wander. Then in the end, depending on the reader's need for certainty, the mystery isn't exactly resolved, or depending on the reader's politics, justice isn't served.

The thirty-six chapter headings are names of literary works with established reputations (see list at end of this review). One of the 36 titles is fictitious (The Nocturnal Conspiracy, by Smoke Wyannoch Harvey), which can come as a surprise to the reader because the other titles are recognizable, and it is natural to assume that they're all real. However, Smoke Harvey is a character in the story so it's pretty obvious that's he's a fictional character. There's generally some loose correlation between the action described in the chapters and their respective chapter titles. Some examples; Man floating dead in swimming pool in "Moby-Dick"; Lost in the forest at night in "Heart of Darkness"; And questioning sanity in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

The text is liberally sprinkled with references to hyper-scholarly works, scientific evidence and literary precedents to support the narrator's observations. A person could spend a lifetime researching all the references in this book trying to determine which ones exist and which are fictitious. Other than the chapter titles I presume most are fictitious. There are probably better things to do in life than check out those references.

The book also includes pen-and-ink illustrations labeled as "Visual Aids" that are drawings of various scenes and people described in the book. The text refers to these illustrations with identifying numbers that increase at random numeric intervals, a fact I learned after trying to find the missing numbers. This together with the references and citations to phantom authorities (some of which I also tried to find) give the book the semblance of being a half-baked over-blown academic thesis written by a very clever student. I sensed that the spirit of the author was having a good laugh at me as I tried to find non-existent items referenced in the text.

Some quotations from the book that illustrate its style are included below:

How's this for a zinger?
"Sadly, American teenagers are to a weightless vacuum as seat cushions are to polyurethane foam -"

I love this description of my chosen profession:
"Always say you're seriously into engineering ... People don't know what it is and they won't ask because it sounds mind-numbing."

Here's a cute description of male conversation:
"... a masculine battle of one-upmanship widespread among such species as the Rutting Bull Elk and the Sabre-Toothed Ground Beetle."

The following are the narrator's observations and feelings after reluctantly accepting a guy's request to be a date to the Christmas Formal:
"A Cadillac-sized smile drove away with his face as if I'd just agreed to pay him "in cayash" as Dad would say, for a Sedona Beige Metallic Pontiac Grand Prix, fully loaded, two grand over sticker price, driving it off the lot right then and there. He also didn't pick up on - no one did - the fact that I was experiencing a very severe lost Our Town feeling, which only intensified when Zach left the library with his Temptations, a supremely satisfied look on his face (Dad had described a similar look on Zwambee tribesmen in Cameroon after they'd impregnated their tenth bride)."

This is the beginning text of the Chapter titled, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles." It addresses the delicate subject of sex:
"We'd been in thick with the Bluebloods three, maybe four weeks, when Jade invaded, Sherman-style, my nonexistent sex life.
Not that I took her assault too seriously. When it came down to the nitty-gritty, I knew I'd probably flee without warning, like Hannibal's elephants during the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. (I was twelve when Dad wordlessly presented me with various tomes to read and reflect upon, including C.Allen's Shame Culture and the Shadow World ], Somewhere Between Puritans and Brazil: How to Have a Healthy Sexuality [Mier, 1990:], also Paul D. Russell's terrifying What You Don't Know About White Slavery [1996:].)
" In case you're furiously trying to locate those referenced books, let me warn you that I'm pretty sure that they're all fictitious. But they sure sound interesting! (The Battle of Zama is not fictional.)

Here's a good example of bogus factoids complete with referenced sources:
"It was Nigel's cue to explain himself, to give some semblance of an apology, attempt some flea-bitten joke about this sticky fingers or refer to Cool Parenting's Chapter 21, "Teenagers and the Joy of Kleptomania," quoting one of the surprising statistics, that it was common for teenagers to go through a period of "appropriation" and "embezzlement" (Mill, 2000). Sixty percent of the time it was something "the youngster eventually grew out of, like Gothic eye makeup and skateboarding." (p. 183)."

From the numerous quotations above it is obvious that I am impressed by Pessl's wordsmithery. It appears to be the author's intention to be satirical of padding one's academic papers with bogus factoids and phony data. Dealing with facts is so much more enjoyable if one doesn't need to worry about the truth.

One of the reasons I was attracted to this book in the first place was the report that the book was structured around the syllabus for a typical Great Works of Literature class. So I've decided to include a list of the chapter titles below. And as you can see, it does have the look of a class syllabus and even includes a final exam. The "Final Exam" is a final chapter filled with true-false, multiple choice and essay questions. The "Final Exam" provides good discussion questions for a book group. However, I can't help but suspect that the author is simply pulling the reader's leg one last time by including the exam.

Chapter #1: OTHELLO, William Shakespeare
Chapter #3: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Emily Bronte
Chapter #4: THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Chapter #5: THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins
Chapter #6: BRAVE NEW WORLD, Aldous Huxley
Chapter #7: LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Chapter #8: MADAME BOVARY,Gustave Flaubert
Chapter #9: PYGMALION, George Bernard Shaw
Chapter #10: THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, Agatha Christie
Chapter #11: MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville
Chapter #12: MOVEABLE FEAST, Ernest Hemmingway
Chapter #13: WOMEN IN LOVE, D.H.Lawrence
Chapter #15: SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, Tennessee Williams
Chapter #16: LAUGHTER IN THE DARK, Vladimir Nabokov
Chapter #17: THE SLEEPING BEAUTY AND OTHER FAIRY TALES, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Chapter #18: A ROOM WITH A VIEW, E.M.Forster
Chapter #19: HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, Allen Ginsberg
Chapter #20: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, [b:William Shakespeare TALKS TO YOUNG PEOPLE, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna
Chapter #32: GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE, Flannery O'Connor
Chapter #33: THE TRIAL, Franz Kafka
Chapter #34: PARADISE LOST, John Milton
Chapter #35: THE SECRET GARDEN,Frances Hodgson Burnett
Chapter #36: METAMORPHOSES, Ovid