Smart Contemporary Novel vs. Reality Television: Round One

By Gesse Stark-Smith

As I’m sure you’re aware, winter break provides a great opportunity to do some quality reading.
Overall, this break, I did a decent job of availing myself of this opportunity, though I must admit that my efforts were somewhat thwarted by the ceaseless stream of reality television that was available to me through the wonders of parentally provided basic cable. You might say that a competition of sorts arose between the books and the TV, as in the books had to be enthralling enough to pull me away from marathons of “Beauty and the Geek.”
Marisha Pessl’s novel “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” gets the gold medal in this competition. Not only did it steal my attention from “America’s Next Top Model” it also purloined time that I had intended to spend with my friends. Wow, Ms. Pessl, way to pull me into your fictional world!
Before proceeding to list this novel’s virtues, I’d like to include a note about tone; my tone, that is. Directly before writing this review I was reading. And what was I reading? “Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt,” the newest collection of reviews by Nick Hornby originally published in “The Believer” magazine. And, well, I think I’ve adopted a bit of Hornby’s tone. So, if this seems more self-deprecating, verbose or, well, British than usual, now you know why. Just be glad you don’t have to hang out with me when I’ve just finished a Sherlock Holmes’ story. You may think that I normally talk like it’s the late 19th century but after a hardy dose of Conan Doyle my sesquipedality gets out of control!
Speaking of toneƒ?”not mineƒ?”“Special Topics” is a great example of a novel driven by tone. It is narrated by Blue Van Meer, an exceedingly intelligent seventeen-year-old who backs up all of her points with literary and historical analogies, consistently citing obscure books in a way that is (shockingly) not at all annoying. Blue is the most realized of the characters and the novel’s poignancy is a function of the empathy her narration easily elicits.
Blue has led an atypical life, constantly moving from college town to college town with her political science professor dad after her mother’s death (car accident, when Blue was five). The first part of the book explains this backstory and essentially gives us a tour of the novel’s world, introducing us to its logical structure. However, things really get rolling when Blue and her father, Gareth Van Meer, settle down in Stockton, North Carolina for her senior year. Blue attends the prestigious St. Gallaway School and proceeds to form attachments to an elite, but odd, group of students and the teacher they worship, one very mysterious Hannah Schneider. At this point the novel reveals itself to be:
a. A murder mystery/spy story/thriller.
b. In the “select group of students at a fancy school” genre (Is there a name for this genre? You know: “The Secret History” + “Dead Poet’s Society” + “A Separate Peace”).
In short, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is a page-turner and it is really well written. And that, my friends, is what it takes to get me to turn off the VH1.
Oh, also, the Nick Hornby reviews are fantastic and you should read “Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt,” or his earlier collection “The Polysyllabic Spree” because even if you haven’t read the books he refers to everything he says is true, hilarious, or both true and hilarious. Reading his reviews, you feel like you’re having a nice chat with a smart, well read but not at all pretentious friend. Believe me, this feeling is better than the stupor induced by watching four episodes in a row of “The Real World: Denver.”