When it comes to most art, I’m an advocate of lowering the bar. Call me conservative or simply pessimistic, but I’d much rather watch someone sail gracefully over a low ribbon than witness yet another hapless high jumper smack his poor forehead on that awful obstacle, The Next Great American Novel. Marisha Pessl is the latest young writer (in the Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith vein) to enter the arena with the undue burden of great expectations: a six-figure deal, a 500-plus-page debut novel jam-packed with highfalutin literary allusions, a fancy Web site and a publicity machine touting her as a spiritual heiress to Vladimir Nabokov. To make matters worse, Pessl is, on the basis of her luminescent jacket photograph, a total knockout. This shouldn’t, of course, matter, but for some reason it does. “So she thinks she can write too, eh?” the critics think, hackles up. Everything Ms. Pessl has going for her is also going against her.
All of these considerations are utterly unfair and out of proportion because Special Topics in Calamity Physics — despite its regrettable device of naming chapters after great works of literature — never claims to be anything more than what it is: a high-school murder mystery. Nabokov it ain’t, but early Hitchcock, perhaps. Special Topics is in the same family as the film Brick — it’s edgy, earnest, smart, delicious, moody, melodramatic and, best of all, humble. Pessl isn’t a 20-something writing about the Holocaust, 9/11 or multiculturalism; she’s writing a whodunit, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll find yourself wriggling happily in her giddy mystery.
Pessl’s protagonist, Blue van Meer, bounces from one Podunk college town to the next following her itinerant and erudite dad, Gareth, a political-science professor of hypnotic charisma who picks up “women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint.” For her senior year of high school, Blue ends up at St. Gallway, a private school in North Carolina where she runs aground of an elite, beautiful and cruel clique of kids known as the Bluebloods, led by enigmatic film teacher Hannah Schneider. These characters are static and caricatured, but with an arch film-noir lustiness. The book has the same baroque allure that fueled Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and, as in The Secret History, dead bodies begin showing up at intervals to power the plot along. Pessl skillfully blends high-school hijinks (romantic antics, catty gossip, sex and booze) with tantalizing suspense, and the pages fly by. Pessl has tremendous descriptive gifts (rendering her pointillist illustrations redundant), and her incessant references to books (both real and imagined) keep the brain pleasantly off balance. The novel is strung with grim hints and murky clues, and when it all wraps together at the end, you’ll find yourself skittering back through the pages to see the glittering cobweb afresh.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics falls into that category of books and films that, in a better world, wouldn’t be hailed as potential masterpieces, but would be run-of-the-mill. We wouldn’t treat Pessl as if she were walking on water — but we also wouldn’t circle around as if her blood were in the water. We would simply toss our Dan Brown in the trash and read Pessl on the beach. Nick Cave, discussing writing The Proposition, said, “There’s no wringing of hands. It’s a f—— movie, it’s not literature.” Well, hide the pedestal, because Special Topics in Calamity Physics is just a fucking book, not Literature. Don’t sweat it, just enjoy it.
SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS | By MARISHA PESSL | Viking | 514 pages | $26 hardcover
Pessl reads from her new novel Wednesday, Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m.; Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 660-1175.