The Highbrow

Precocious Realism

Is Marisha Pessl’s debut one of the best books of the year?

With a whiff of mistletoe and schadenfreude, the year’s “best books”lists have arrived. They include many of the well-deserving usual suspects: Richard Ford, Claire Messud, Lawrence Wright, Michael Pollan. But at the risk of sounding Scrooge-like, I was surprised to discover, on the New York Times’ influential “10 Best Books of the Year” (to appear in the paper’s print edition this Sunday), a book I had not imagined would make the cut: 27-year-old Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I read the book over the summer—before its publication—and admired its vigorous prose, yet finally was exhausted by it. For all its verve, the novel gets tripped up by lack of control, coy posturing, and preciousness. A promising debut? Probably. One of the five best fiction books of the year? Hmm, not so much.

But the presence of Pessl’s Special Topics on the Times list shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our publishing culture devotes a lot of energy to the phenomenon of discovery, and the writers recently anointed in the process—and by the Times, in particular—have tended to be those who work in an antic, over-the-top, lavishly ironized mode: Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Gary Shteyngart (whose Absurdistan also turns up on the Times’ “10 Best” list), and even, to a degree, Benjamin Kunkel. Whatever their various levels of talent (and some are very gifted), each is given to hyper-self-aware flourishes and curlicues, and wears his or her youthful ambition on the proverbial sleeve. Forget hysterical realism; ours, it would appear, is the age of precocious realism. “Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids,” Blue Van Meer, Pessl’s precocious 16-year-old narrator tells us, summarizing a lesson she’s learned from her snobby professorial father—and, it would seem, encapsulating the MO of her fictional peers. But the obvious question for critics is to what degree our culture confuses jaunty, performative cleverness with profound literary accomplishment. Can a writer truly be said to possess tremendous talent if she demonstrates little control over her linguistic and storytelling abilities?

Confusion about how to answer this question shaped the response to Special Topics. As many readers know by now, Special Topics is an ironic mystery, possibly a murder mystery, divided into chapters named after selections from the Western Canon (“Othello, William Shakespeare”). In highly self-conscious prose—which invokes Nabokov without ever quite managing to be Nabokovian—it tells the story of Blue, the hipster-geek daughter of Gareth, a professor who hauls her along with him on long road trips from one third-rate college to another. During her senior year at a North Carolina private school, Blue falls in with a coterie of the prep-school chosen —”the Bluebloods”—in thrall to their charismatic film teacher, Hannah, at whose house they spend much of their time. The meat of the story is framed by a heavy-handed bit of introductory foreshadowing, in which Blue, now in college, looks back on this interlude in her young life, and reveals that she is still haunted by the memory of discovering, on a hiking trip, Hannah’s body hanging from a tree. What we, the readers, do not know is whether Hannah’s death was suicide or murder, and the book sets out to string us along about this matter. The novel is part Nabokov’s Lolita (road trips, deceptions, suspense) and part Donna Tartt’s The Secret History(without the Greek)—a spry detective story tangled up in an ironic account of teenage prep-school angst.

The first problem with all this is that the gradually revealed plot of Special Topics makes little sense. But reviewers couldn’t make this point without spoiling the suspense the novel works hard to achieve. (And, in some cases, it seems to me, they never had to think very hard about how the plot interacted with the style, because they knew they couldn’t talk about the twists and turns.) Four months since the book’s appearance, the statute of limitations on revelations is up. (Spoilers follow.) What the reader ultimately discovers is that Hannah and Blue’s father are members of a radical ‘70s political group known as the Nightwatchmen that has somehow—despite all odds, and most trajectories of American history—remained quietly active through till the present day. Hannah, it transpires, is killed by the group because her membership in it was about to be uncovered by the police, and other members couldn’t risk being outed. What’s more, she and Blue’s father are lovers—which, in turn, caused Blue’s mother to kill herself when Blue was a child. Whew. Pessl, to her credit, plants subtle clues along the way that the fanciful story Blue is telling has a seedy underbelly. In the hands of the right writer, with a larger, distinct vision of what this deception adds up to, this could work.

But Pessl isn’t that writer. Her playful sensibility never settles around a stable enough vision for us to know what, exactly, is at stake. Setting aside that her characters are cartoonish and unreal 17-year-olds who act like 25-year-olds, the painstaking trajectory of the Weather Underground substory leads us to expect that by the novel’s end Blue has come to see the world more clearly. Yet no such thing happens. To take but one example: After Hannah’s death, fearing discovery, Blue’s father abandons her. It is a bleak moment; and, from the introduction, we know that a year later Blue is still wrestling with its aftermath, having become, as she puts it, ” ‘Wooden and Warped’ (a mere rest stop on the way to ‘Hopping Mad’ “). Even here, Blue is relentlessly goofy as she recalls Hannah’s dead face: “Her tongue—bloated, the cherry pink of a kitchen sponge—slumped from her mouth. Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman.” Teenage pretension and real death are portrayed in the same Lite-Brite colors; the old Blue and the new Blue are indistinguishable.

One flaw is that Pessl is in thrall to stylistic showmanship. She has a gift for inventive lines (of a nondescript peer, she says, “His face—rather his entire being—was a buttonhole: small, narrow, uneventful”) and I was charmed, at first, by Blue’s habit of attaching bibliographic parentheticals to her observations: “Driving with Dad wasn’t cathartic, mind-freeing driving (see On the Road, Kerouac, 1957).” But the asides quickly become a literary tic—intrusive, and, more often than not, redundant. As the book plows forward, Pessl keeps just throwing images out there. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is an exercise in stunt writing in which the stunts go on and on—the novelistic version of a McG movie. Metaphors stretch out and redouble on themselves; characters take second place to atmosphere and effect, as in this description of Hannah’s house: “Every room was crammed with so much worn, mismatched furniture (stripe married to plaid, orange engaged to pink, paisley coming out of the closet), at any position in any of the rooms, you could take a haphazard Polaroid and end up with a startling resemblance to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” The allusion is typically imprecise: The house sounds like it looks nothing like Picasso’s largely muted painting. 

Pessl could easily respond that her whole point is that Blue’s vision of the world is imprecise and irritating, having been utterly distorted by her father’s snobbish parenting. In her view, Blue’s adolescent confusion is clearly the justification—the excuse—for the novel’s lack of authentic engagement with the world it invokes. Yet this is the second flaw of the book: The reader can only conclude that Pessl is having it every which way, confused about which way she wants to have it. Special Topics, after all, is not composed as a fantasia on the nature of artifice; it contains what appear to be real political critiques, and is structured, on the level of story, to invite us to believe that Blue arrives at a more complex assessment of the world. On the book’s last pages, she is kind—for the first time—to the awkward, unstylish, verbally dimwitted boy who likes her without understanding her, and yet, after gently turning down his offer for dinner, the realization she comes to is a bit … familiar: “I was remarkably fine. Well, not fine (’Fine is for dulls and slows.’) but something else—something I didn’t have a word for. I felt a shock from the blankness of the pale gray sky on which it was possible to draw anything, art or goldfish, as tiny or as huge as I wanted.” This, the reader is alarmed to recognize, is precisely where we began: with Blue’s imaginative flights of fancy leading her to view the world however she chooses, rather than as it might truly be. So what has all the clever wordplay, the laborious explication of Hannah’s murder, added up to? Nothing. As if realizing the predicament she is in, Pessl ends the book with an abrupt and ill-thought-out “Final Quiz,” that, in a series of stylishly pomo questions, self-consciously points up the book’s artifice and laughingly invites us to imagine everything we’ve read is an elaborate delusion. But, really, then, what was the point? Not to mention that the Blue who started narrating this book, in apparent distress, has disappeared entirely. No wonder that a frequently invoked adjective in the Amazon reviews was “tedious”—and that even from reviewers lauding Pessl’s obvious “talent.”

In this way, Pessl’s novel epitomizes the trouble with precocious realism: A lack of self-control is all too easily disguised as purposeful uncertainty. What distinguishes precocious realism from hysterical realism is the confusion of author and subject: In the case of Special Topics, it is hard to separate what is callow about Blue from what might be callow about Pessl herself. Aesthetically, I tend to err on the side of supporting inspired messiness over uninspired tidiness (and I admire much of Absurdistan’s satirical rambunctiousness). But when it comes to choosing the best books of the year, the dichotomy is a false one. Plenty of ambitious and well-executed debut efforts were published this year and in recent years—including Olga Grushin’s truly remarkable The Dream Life of Sukhanov, and Christopher Coake’s We’re in Trouble—that have gotten far less attention. Interestingly, though, of the five books on the Times’ fiction list, the two by younger writers—Pessl’s and Shteyngart’s Absurdistan—belong in the same camp of the messy exuberance, while the older writers—Richard Ford, Claire Messud, Amy Hempel—made their names slowly and methodically, with first books that managed, whatever their flaws, to be ambitious and magnificently controlled at the same time. A good example for precocious young writers to emulate?