Two More for the Road

But you already knew.

So don’t go accusing me of being a spoiler.

You knew as early as the first page of text: “It began with simple sleeplessness. It had been almost a year since I’d found Hannah dead--“

Then on the second page: Hannah Schneider “hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord.” You were also warned at the beginning of Part One. “Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider’s death,” the narrator informs us, taking firm control of our reading destiny for the next five hundred pages, “I’ll tell you about my mother’s.”

We already know the answer to one of the more trenchant questions of the past century: “Who was that masked man?” He was the Lone Ranger, of course, he of the cloud of dust and a hearty, Hi-yo, Silver!” (Jim Alexander says the durn horse wouldn’t move unless you said, “Hi-you, Silver! Away!” Other times, other mores, I guess.) We do not know the answer to the question, who is Marisha Pessl? Not until we have read “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which won’t seem like a novel until, well, until the first line of the Introduction.

As “Special Topics” progresses, you get the idea that Marisha is perhaps precocious, or maybe took off a year from school in order to write this novel. But along about the first chapter, you begin thinking she’s either not forthcoming with the truth about her age – or maybe she’s simply that accomplished a writer, and these turns of phrase and observations come as naturally to her as the painful, groutless-mosaic simplicity of style came to Raymond Carver.

Just to give you an example of a Pessl throwaway description, one of her characters, an entirely forgettable man becomes “an extra bag of salt one misses at the bottom of a bag of fast food.”

Among other things, Marisha Pessl is under thirty, a graduate of Barnard, an actress, a playwright; she has also provided the illustrations for this novel, which are in every way as satiric and pointed as the text.

It is also no spoiler to tell you that the novel ends with a final exam, some of which are essay type questions, others multiple-choice. The instructions suggest “using a No.2 pencil on the off chance that you make a mistake in your initial perceptions and, provided you have a little bit of time left, wish to change your answer.”

So then, just what is “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”? Is it, recalling Hannah Schneider, handing from that electrical extension cord, her tongue “bloated, the cherry pink of a kitchen sponge” a who- or why-dunit? Is it a coming-of-age novel? Since the sixteen-year-old protagonist and her father spend a good deal of time on the road, traveling to different small colleges where he professes political science, could this be an on-the-road novel?

What about “yes” to all the above? What about as well mixing in a large dollop of “Tristram Shandy” and any of a number of Vladimir Nabokov ventures (but not, repeat not “Lolita”)? Widowed father and young daughter cross enough state and cultural lines without crossing that line. Hannah Schneider, for instance. But we’ll come to that.

Blue – for that is her name – van Meer and her father, Gareth, have bonded tightly after the accidental death of Natasha van Meer, her mother, “who crashed through a guardrail along Mississippi State Highway 7 and hit a wall of trees.” A gaunt, good-looking man, Gareth van Meer seems to have no trouble attracting the interest of would-be professors’ wives or, for that matter, even professors’ girlfriends. This incessant interest doesn’t seem to faze Gareth, leaving us to conclude that was a considerable force in his life.

Unimpressed with the larger, more prestigious universities where his credentials could easily take him, Gareth opts for the theory of better students at smaller schools.

Gareth van Meer on childrearing. “There’s no education superior to travel. Think of ‘The Motorcycle Diaries” or what Montrose St. Millet wrote in ‘Ages of Exploration.’ ‘To be still is to be stupid. To be stupid is to die.’ And so we shall live. Every Betsy sitting next to you in a classroom will only know Maple Street on which sits her boxy white house, inside of which whimper her boxy white parents. After your travels, you’ll know Maple Street, sure, but also wilderness and ruins, carnival and the moon.”

Here’s where Hannah Schneider and a major plot point collide. At one of the many schools Blue attends between the ages of six and sixteen, the St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, is the venue of another magnetic teaching force. Blue is drawn to Hannah Schneider. Because of her father, but also because of her precocity and travels, she is attractive to Hannah and her precious few, her band of others, a gifted assortment of eccentric students she had selected from a largely uninspiring pack, in an atmosphere where “lonely days shuffled by like bland schoolgirls.”

Gareth is studiously unimpressed with Hannah. Caught between these two forces, Blue is led toward her first serious conflict of interest with her father. She begins questioning things that seemed perfectly natural and which now begin to convince her that her life has been directed and pulled by forces she neither saw nor understood.

One thing I will spoil here: Five-hundred-page novels by first novelists can be and have been borderline cute, playing on plot-driven sentimentality and either an enormous desire to please or a desire of equal intensity to be “taken seriously.” None of these elements apply.

While it is true that a twenty-first century novel of so many pages almost by definition is not overly loaded with plot, this one is loaded with amusing and memorable observations that do more than convince us Marisha Pessl is, heaven forefend, clever. “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” yanks us into the ambiguity of dramatic plausibility, causing us to turn pages in hopes of answering questions we did not realize we had consciously asked.

Did Hannah commit suicide? If you answered yes, did she have help? If you answered no, was she murdered? And what about the accidental death of Blue’s mother; was that suicide? And why did Gareth pressure Blue to set down her impressions of the events she lived through ten years after the fact?

The five hundred pages will seem scant as you follow Blue through them, growing more curious and interesting all the while and validating Gareth’s thesis that a person “must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.”

Now that you think about it, reminds you what you have to put forth after you’ve started off with “Call me Ishmael.”