Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Boarding School Literature

The fascination with boarding and prep schools noted in this blog not long ago continues with Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes in the Sunday Book Review, "Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated.” With its pirouettes and cartwheels, its tireless annotations and digressions, it has a similar whiz-kid eagerness to wow the reader. In Ms. Pessl’s case that means sustaining the mock-academic brio of her title throughout a long, serpentine, seemingly lightweight schoolgirl story. It also means that the narrative, described as “Core Curriculum,” is sectioned into chapters named for works by writers familiar from the classroom. "
The website for the book is very weird and I gave up on it, but here's the link if you like interactive and, to my mind, ornery, websites. Googling the title turns up many reviews which discuss the beauty of the author and the size of her advance fee, but most reviewers seem to agree that the book does have merit and isn't just a case of what Justine Ettler in the Australian called "hot young author syndrome." Ettler goes on to say,

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a clever, sweet, lovable book. I really liked it. Maybe it's a bit precious in a Legally Blonde kind of way but I can live with that. I loved the PoMo way, even though it was a novel, it used conventions usually found in a university thesis. While it's true that Pessl is young, photogenic and precocious, she's also a very talented writer who has crafted a first-class debut. "

1 comment:

Peter S. said...

In the spirit of fairness, I should probably hold off on commenting about Marisha Pessl's work until actually reading the entire book. That being said, I found her reading last night at Skylight to be somewhat disappointing.

As an aspiring twentysomething novelist, I had every reason to be excited for a glimpse at the newly crowned wunderkind. Beyond that, as an avid consumer of literary fiction, I really hoped to be awed by her talents. (What's better, after all, than adding a new author to the rolodex?) Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.

To begin with, the sections from which Pessl read were freighted with similes to the point of distraction. Some, of course, were clever and well-placed, but the majority seemed superfluous and detracted from the overall descriptive flow. Additionally, and I know this is perhaps unfair--and I really do hate to make a tired structuralist critique--the notable similarities to Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," if only from a superficial armature standpoint, were a bit off-putting for me.

Lastly--and, again, I don't mean to pick nits--during the Q&A Pessl made several borderline embarrassing grammar mistakes; e.g., failing to distinguish between subject and object ("She returned the draft to my mother and I"), mis-using the subjunctive, etc. Admittedly, anyone can get nervous during a Q&A, and I'm not trying to suggest that Marisha Pessl doesn't know basic grammar. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat inconsistent for the author of a "pitch-perfect," sprawling pomo tome to be making simple grammar errors. One questions, for instance, whether a Moody, DFW, or JCO would fall prey to said pitfalls.

Again, to be fair, one can't really blame Pessl for a case of nerves (if that is, in fact, what it was) during her first reading tour. But she didn't really help her case any when she later admitted that, as an undergrad at Barnard, she simply "made up" footnotes for academic papers b/c she was "too lazy" to actually do the required research. That is, in the wake of such recent literary hoaxes as JT Leroy, James Frey, and Kavvya Viswanathan, a rising-star young author would be well-advised to avoid elucidating instances in which (s)he cut corners.

Again, I can't stress enough that I'm not putting Pessl in the fraud category; rather, I intend only to point ways in which she might lend herself more literary credibility, which is sure to be a concern going forward, given that she's already suffering something of a minor (if ineluctable) backlash against her "glamorous young author" status. In a nutshell, I guess I'd suggest that her handlers advise her to skip a few sessions of cardio and instead cozy up with Strunk & White.

That is, the best way, perhaps, to stifle the criticism that Pessl is primarily being championed b/c she's such an obviously saleable commodity (and no, she's not as hot in person) would be to have her give truly erudite interveiews and readings. Last night, at least, she failed to deliver.