24 November 2008

Special topic in experimental reading

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
-(often attributed to) Albert Einstein

Once in awhile I read a modern novel that seems to have pretensions of being literature as a test of how ancient and out of it I am. I really begin those efforts expecting to find that I'm not a narrow-minded geezer, when it comes to innovations.

I've picked up books by Simon Winchester, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen, for instance. I've not been excited. I haven't even finished all the books.

So, I found Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics on the remainder cart outside of the Carleton College bookstore.

Isn't the "remainder cart" a hint?

It was dirt cheap, and I remembered hearing an endorsement of the book on NPR. And the title was clearly creative enough to interest me. So I bought it.

A reviewer at The Great Books Guide wrote this about Special Topics in Calamity Physics:

This stylish debut novel from Marisha Pessl might scare you away at first glance. The table of contents of the 500 page tome looks like the college syllabus from hell.

Almost every page is strewn with references to real and imaginary books. The novel even comes with a final exam in three sections at the end. The very title aims to intimidate. But don't be fooled. Pessl's novel is -- in the words of my British friends -- bloody good fun. The prose is clever, the characters fascinating and the plot artfully constructed, with more than a few surprises along the way. Pessl has hit a home run in her first appearance at the plate.

I was going along with that description until I got to the "bloody good fun" part. I didn't think it was fun. I was bored. I didn't think the characters were "fascinating." I thought they were thinly described and pretentious, like some other bright, privileged prep schoolers I've met. I didn't think the plot was "artfully constructed." I thought it was slow-moving.

Of course I only read the first half of the book. By then I needed a break.

When I looked up Pessl on The Literature Map, her name was surrounded by interesting authors I've enjoyed reading: Joseph Heller, Nathaniel West, Tom Robbins, JK Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison. (Those are authors that Pessl's readers have also read.) So maybe it was just my mood. There have been times when the Marx Brothers have made me laugh and giggle. There have been times when I yawned at their antics.

In any case, I put the book aside (and I'll send it to anyone who asks for it), went to the library and checked out another book by Ivan Doig (see the next entry, above).

Curtis Sittenfeld and Elliot Perlman, featured below, are the authors most read by Pessl's readers.

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