Beware of clues!

Joanna Biggs

  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
    Viking, 514 pp, £16.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 670 91607 2

I watched The Godfather for the first time with my little brother. I’d been worried he was too young for it, but that was before we got to the notorious scene in which the camera starts out hovering over Jack Woltz’s pool, climbs into his bedroom, then crawls up his sleeping body, finally pausing at a smear of blood on the top edge of his blanket. At this point, my brother announced that there would be a horse’s head under the blanket. I found it hard to believe that a ten-year-old who’d never seen the film knew what would happen next. I turned back to the screen. Woltz wakes up and, noticing the smear, starts drawing back the blanket to reveal a pool of blood. He pulls the blanket back further, and discovers a horse’s head at the foot of the bed, its glossy brown nose facing us, glassy eye to the ceiling. I turned back to my brother and asked him how he’d known. ‘The same thing happened in The Simpsons,’ he said.

It’s a strange thing to recognise something backwards. When you see that episode of The Simpsons, you’re supposed to chuckle wryly in recognition. But what if, like my brother, you’re seeing it for the first time? When you see the imitation without knowing the original, how odd it must seem. And when you finally see the original knowing the imitation, what’s supposed to be a shock is now familiar, almost expected. The advantage is that you can be one line ahead of everyone else.

This is the advantage given to Blue Van Meer, the narrator of Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Blue’s mother died in a car crash when she was five, leaving Blue with her father, Gareth. He’s a political science professor whose ‘impeccable 12-page curriculum vitae’ gains him temporary positions at a succession of universities no one has ever heard of: the Dodson-Miner College, the University of Oklahoma at Flitch. As a result, Blue spends more time in their Volvo than at school. But school isn’t where Blue gets her education in any case. This she gets in the front passenger seat of the Volvo from her father, who has devised a compelling curriculum:

Vocabulary Flash Cards (words every genius should know), Author Analogies (‘the analogy is The Citadel of thought: the toughest way to condition unruly relationships’), Essay Recitation (followed by a 20-minute question and answer period), War of the Words (Coleridge/Wordsworth face-offs), Sixty Minutes of an Impressive Novel (selections included The Great Gatsby [Fitzgerald, 1925] and The Sound and the Fury [Faulkner, 1929]), and the Van Meer Radio Theatre Hour, featuring such plays as Mrs Warren’s Profession (Shaw, 1894), The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde, 1895), and various selections from Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including the late romances.

Blue knows the theory, but gets no practice. When her father agrees to settle in Stockton, North Carolina, for her senior year, she finally gets an opportunity to use her reading. She is enrolled at the St Gallway School; the prospectus boasts of the ‘highest number of graduates in the country who go on to be revolutionary performance artists’. On her first day, while reading Cat on a Hot Tin Roof during morning announcements, she is interrupted by Charles Lohan. He knows her name and asks her to meet him and his friends for lunch. She later sees him with someone who seems to be his girlfriend – the look on his face was ‘like a kitten staring at string’ – but turns out to be a teacher, Hannah Schneider, whom Blue had come across when she was buying her school uniform with her dad. Blue was trying on platform shoes and Hannah came to her defence: ‘Humphrey Bogart wore platform shoes throughout the filming of Casablanca … Though he wasn’t Einstein or Truman, I don’t think history would be the same without him. Especially if he had to look up at Ingrid Bergman and say: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”’ Blue is tantalised, especially by the mysterious relationship between Hannah and Charles, but doesn’t go to meet the group. Several letters reiterating the invitation are slid into her locker before she relents, but when she does go to Room 208 to meet them after school, she finds the school Dungeons and Dragons Demonology Guild. Afterwards, disappointed, Blue is waiting for the Volvo when Hannah turns up out of nowhere and, on behalf of the group, invites her for dinner: ‘Every Sunday I cook for them and you’re the guest of honour from now until the end of the year.’

This gauche Blue is quite different from the one we met in the introduction. She’s a Harvard student there, a Blue who describes the year before as one in which her childhood had ‘unstitched like a snagged sweater’; a Blue who remembers Hannah Schneider hanging ‘three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord’. So she is a narrator who knows how things will come undone, but tells her story hoping that the murder mystery will turn out to be a Bildungsroman (Pygmalion, preferably), because then her experience will have come to something. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has a similar premise. Here the overwhelming feeling is of a girl trying to recover lost innocence: to reknit the unravelled jumper from kinky wool.

Blue’s acceptance into the small group curated by Hannah, known at St Gallway as the Bluebloods, takes time. The ‘barely tolerated mute’ at the gatherings, she watches Hannah Schneider: ‘Hannah swung open the front door in a wave of Nina Simone, eastern spices, perfume, eau de somethingfrench, her face warm as the living-room light.’ She takes in stray animals: several dogs, two Persian cats, a lovebird called Lennon. She cooks Turkish lamb chops, pho bo, goose. She has a secret lover, Valerio, whose name the group discovers written over and over on the telephone pad. She’s an expert mountaineer and a skilled handyman. She inspires Blue to draw and Charles to direct, and the entire group is addicted to her praise. But she’s femme-fataleishly mysterious about her life: ‘I’m not that interesting, guys.’ When asked about Valerio, ‘she turned a weird red colour. Almost purple.’ On the way back after a night out, the girls in the group see Hannah Schneider at a truck stop picking up a man in his seventies and taking him to a motel.

For all Hannah’s mysteriousness, she never preoccupies the reader – or Blue – like Gareth Van Meer. When the Bluebloods crash Hannah’s fancy-dress party, it’s somehow no surprise that Blue thinks she sees her father behind a commedia dell’arte mask. Moments later, a man is found floating, dead, in the pool. Smoke Harvey had been Hannah’s escort for the evening: Blue had seen them go into Hannah’s bedroom together, had imagined Hannah ‘wowing him with an ability to recite pi out to 65 decimal places’. The papers reported Smokey’s death as an accident: his blood-alcohol level had been 0.23, ‘nearly three times the North Carolina legal limit’. But the group don’t think it was an accident: ‘I was watching when they told her about him, remember? … Completely overdone … She went over the top, shouting like a crazy person.’

The evening of Blue’s senior prom, which she is taken to by a boy from her physics class who had a face ‘about as cruel as a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off’, Blue comes home later than promised. Her father tells her they are leaving Stockton: ‘This town seems to have affected you like television on Americans. It’s turned you into a side order of sauerkraut.’ Blue ends up on Schneider’s doorstep at 2.45 a.m., and over wine and oolong tea, Hannah unfurls the histories of the Bluebloods. One had run away from home, another with her maths teacher; one had lived on the streets; two more had parents in jail: ‘They’re missing persons … Runaways, orphans, they’re kidnapped, killed – they vanish from public record.’ By now, Blue’s reading isn’t helping anymore. Lying awake in Hannah’s spare room, she concedes that she ‘had very little experience dealing with Dark Pasts, apart from close readings of Jane Eyre (Brontë, 1847) and Rebecca (Du Maurier, 1938)’.

One of the group snoops about in Hannah’s garage and finds piles of trail maps, traced with red lines, and a wad of articles on missing persons. Hannah’s plans for a group camping trip in the Great Smokies during spring break unnerve Blue. What exactly is she taking them to the mountains for? It isn’t immediately clear. Hannah stops them at Abram’s Peak and encourages them to shout ‘something that comes from your soul’ into the wilderness. They oblige:

Get me the fuck out of here!’ screamed Jade.

Set limits and goals with equal precision!

I want to fucking go home!

Say hello to my leetle friend!’ yelled Nigel, his face red.

Sir William Shakespeare!’ shouted Milton.

‘He wasn’t a sir,’ said Charles.

‘Yes, he was.’

‘He wasn’t knighted.’

‘Let it go,’ said Hannah.

Hannah is, it seems, orchestrating an outdoorsy therapy weekend, like those ‘brat camps’ where unruly children are sent to get straightened out. Hannah takes each member of the group to one side for an intimate chat, except for Blue: ‘One tries not to pay attention to blatant favouritism (“Not everyone can be a member of the Van Meer Fan Club,” noted Dad), but when it is so unashamedly flung in one’s face, one can’t help but feel hurt.’ So when the group is assembled round the campfire and Hannah, unseen by the others, signals to Blue to meet her in the woods in five minutes, Blue is taken by surprise, fearful even. It’s only Hannah’s forthright stare that gets Blue to leave the others and wait for her among the darkened trees.

The next chapter is called ‘Heart of Darkness’. Every chapter is named for a book; the contents page looks like a reading list, or a list of clues. But they are clues that don’t stick: the relationship between the book and the chapter comes into focus for a second, then blurs; it is anyone’s guess whether it’ll come into focus again. We have been hunting for clues since Hannah Schneider stalked into the book, trying to knit together a motive; yet these clues, laid out for us so neatly, as if they were shorthand, are the least stable of all. They might tell you about the plot, or they might not; they might illuminate a character, or they might not; they stand at the heads of the chapters saying: ‘Beware of clues!’

As it turns out, there aren’t many more clues to be had. Hannah leads Blue further into the trees and away from the clearing. She stops, turns off the torch: ‘I’m going to tell you something.’ This is it, we think, our explanation. So does Blue: ‘Is this about my father?’ But Hannah’s attention is caught by a noise, two feet crashing through the forest; she leaves Blue with a map, a torch and a promise that she’ll come back. The next time Blue sees her, she’s dead: ‘unreal and monstrous, something no textbook or encyclopedia could ever prepare you for’.

What if knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t lessen the impact when the moment arrives? Come to that, how could a cartoon head in a bright-blue bed prepare you for seeing Jack Woltz wake up in a pool of blood? Blue’s education begins here, perhaps, and all that time spent in the front passenger seat of the Volvo was just as it first seemed: games, to pass the time.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is all games. The gifted teenage narrator, one of the many heirs to Holden Caulfield in contemporary American fiction, here slips in three fake book references for every real one: titles so convincing that it isn’t immediately obvious which ones are made up. The Art of Guiltless Living (Drew, 1999) is used as a coaster by one of Gareth Van Meer’s girlfriends. Blue describes the costume she wore to Hannah’s fancy-dress party: ‘I was one very unlikely Pussy Galore in shrublike red wig and baggy, teal nylon bodysuit (see ‘Martian 14’, Profiling Little Green Men: Sketches of Aliens from Eyewitness Accounts, Diller, 1989, p.115).’ Usually, the game would be to spot the literary references (extra points for obscurity), but here it’s something else. It’s not supposed to make you feel you should have read Profiling Little Green Men; it’s supposed to make you laugh.

It’s difficult to laugh, though, when you have to go it alone. With the Bluebloods convinced Blue’s to blame and the police insistent that Hannah’s death was suicide, Blue turns detective, determined to track down the truth. But this is not the novel in which to find it. Clues shift shape, myths become real, narratives come together only to come undone again. There are revelations, twists, shocks. Many things might be true, all at the same time. Luckily, Pessl provides us with a ‘final exam’, to test our ‘deepest understanding of giant concepts’: multiple choice, of course.

You read the question and instinctively know what the answer is, but as you read through the options, you become less and less sure. This little movement, from instinctively knowing to not having a clue, is essential to the way Pessl’s novel works. You gather clues, knowing they’ll come in useful; but will they? Blue gathers book-learning, convinced it will be the making of her. But is it?

Many classic films and published academic works do their best to shine tiny lights on the state of American culture, the surreptitious sorrow of all people, the struggle for selfhood, the generalised bewilderment of living … structure a sweeping argument around the premise that, while such works are enlightening, amusing, comforting too – particularly when one is in a new situation and one needs to divert the mind – they can be no substitution for experience.

Not an original premise, but a cute one: a book born of other books, which feels at times as if it’s been composed solely of book titles, in which the main character talks as though she’s permanently logged onto the British Library Integrated Catalogue, comes to the conclusion that books are rubbish.

American critics have been thrown by Pessl’s novel. The huge advance, the pretty author, a quirky child narrator: surely the book must be silly and shallow. In fact, it’s fun, and funny. And it’s difficult not to like a main character endowed with one-line-aheadness, who can still ruin a moment so entirely and regularly. What the book does is show itself, and others like it, for what it really is: geek lit. It’s only here, as in the worlds conjured by Miranda July or Benjamin Kunkel, that Gareth Van Meer would suggest that Blue write up her theory of who killed Hannah Schneider as ‘Mixed Nuts: Conspiracies and Anti-American Dissidents in Our Midst or Special Topics in Calamity Physics, something with a bit of rumba to it.’ And mean it.