School for Scandal

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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind
Sunday, October 8, 2006

SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS

A Novel

By Marisha Pessl

Viking. 514 pp. $25.95

A self-absorbed scholar and a young girl crisscross America by car, flitting through college towns where they endure ill-advised sexual encounters, heartache and a potent dose of popular culture. Studded with ingenious wordplay and recondite allusions, their story veers between highbrow comedy and lowbrow tragedy as it careens toward a couple of ambiguous murders and some crafty detective work.

Ten points if you identified this as the plot of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita . Extra credit if you also recognize it (minus the pedophilia) as the plot of a much-ballyhooed first novel by Marisha Pessl, who tackles the art of fiction by vigorously associating everything in her book with something else. Constructing the novel as if it were the core curriculum for a literature survey course, complete with a final exam, Pessl gives each chapter the title of a classic literary work to which the episode's events have a sly connection: Chapter 6, "Brave New World," describes the first day of a new school year, while in Chapter 11, "Moby-Dick," a large man drowns in a swimming pool.

Along the way, there are thousands of references to books and movies both real and imagined, as well as an assortment of pen-and-ink drawings. The book's young narrator, Blue van Meer, has fiercely embraced her father's didactic advice: "Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids." Blue's cross-referencing mania can be surprisingly enjoyable, because Pessl is a vivacious writer who's figured out how to be brainy without being pedantic. Like her protagonist, she's eager to make good use of the many books she's read and the movies she's seen. And she loves similes like a fat kid loves cake (Blue would annotate this properly as a line borrowed from the rapper 50 Cent), never settling for one per page when three or eight will do.

But hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader, who after much patient effort deserves to feel something stronger than appreciation for a lot of clever name-dropping and a rush of metaphors.

As a Harvard freshman recounting the events of the previous year, when her childhood "unstitched like a snagged sweater," Blue remembers being thoroughly in thrall to her father, a political science professor who changes jobs at third-tier colleges so frequently that by age 16 she's attended 24 different schools. To compensate for this rootlessness (her lepidopterist mom died in a car crash when Blue was 5), Dad has promised his daughter an undisturbed senior year in the North Carolina mountain town of Stockton, where Blue will attend the ultra-preppy St. Gallway School.

It's at St. Gallway that Blue's dedication to her pompous, theory-spouting father begins to waver. Her attention is diverted by the school's most glamorous figures, a clique of five flighty kids called the Bluebloods who meet every Sunday night for dinner at the home of their mentor, Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher.

Blue is miraculously granted admission into this rarefied society, but the reader is not so lucky, having to settle for the novel's customary blizzard of comparisons instead of real characterization.

Most enigmatic of all is Hannah, who's both a concerned mother hen and a shady blur of evasions and secrets, and who may or may not be having an affair with (a) one of her students; (b) Blue's father; (c) random elderly men whom she picks up at seedy diners. Blue makes it clear in the book's first chapter that later in the school year, Hannah will be found hanging by an electrical cord from a tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the final third of the book charts Blue's efforts to prove that the teacher did not commit suicide, as the coroner concluded, but was murdered.

Like Hannah, Pessl herself is something of an expert at evasion, nimbly avoiding scenes that might require emotional delineation, hiding behind this Nabokovian sentence structure or that Hitchcockian plot twist, always equipped to defend each dodge with the tacit reproach that, hey, it's only a high-school murder mystery, lighten up. Yet here and there the author betrays glimpses of sensitivity, in Blue's genuine expressions of grief for the early loss of her mother and in this moving evocation of loneliness, framed (of course) in a simile: "To the far-off tune of the blue Volvo driving away, it slipped over me, sadness, deadness, like a sheet over summer furniture."

These briefly poignant moments are enough to make a reader wish for more, for a book that is less about other books and more about life. Having already aced the test of novel-writing as a literary trivia game, the real work for Pessl begins now, if she dares to stop making glib comparisons and starts to stare directly at things, as only she can describe them. ยท

Donna Rifkind is a regular contributor to Book World.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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