On Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Too much Detail?

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

In Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the narrator, Blue van Meer, describes a locker encounter with Zach. The encounter bears some scrutiny:

He was a tall, tan, supremely American-looking kid: square chin, big straight teeth, eyes an absurd jacuzzi blue. I knew, vaguely, based on chatter during labs, he was shy, a little bit funny . . . also captain of the soccer team. His lab partner was his supposed ex-girlfriend, Lonny, cocaptain of Gallway Spirit, a girl with soggy platinum hair, a fake tan and a marked tendency to break the equipment. No cloud chamber, potentiometer, friction rod or alligator clip was safe with her. On Mondays, when the class wrote up our results on the dry-erase board, our teacher, Ms. Gershon, consistently threw out Lonny and Zach’s findings, as they always flew daringly in the face of Modern Science . . .

He was handsome, sure, but as Dad once said, there are people who’d completely missed their decade, were born at the wrong time–not in the intellectually gifted sense, but due to a certain look on their face more suitable to the Victorian Age than, say, the Me Decade . . . ” (127)

The above are cuts from two paragraphs, the second paragraph difficult to logically interpret. The sections come directly after Blue has supplied her name to Zach in the manner of a “spasm-swallow.” It might be difficult to distinguish Zach in the first paragraph, even with the amount of imagery (I can’t see “absurd jacuzzi blue”) that describes his appearance and some of his behaviors, as in the lab. All of it is a mirror back onto Blue, revealing her concerns, her presentational style, and her inability to self-edit, layering image upon image, reference upon reference, to paint a relatively banal encounter. Blue is vastly well-read, naively punctilious, and awkward in her prep-school surrounds, involved with Blueblood acquaintances and their adventures. She adds to Zach’s temporal nature with this: “And maybe he had a secret diamond earring, maybe a sequined glove, maybe he even had a good song at the end with three helpings of keyboard synthesizer, but know one would know, because if you weren’t born in your decade you never made it to the ending, you floated around in your middle . . . ” and I’m left a tad bit confused.

Sometimes Pessl is deft with an image. Other times, there are odd trips and contradictions, as in “He ran his right hand through his hair and it was absurdly knot free like a shampoo commercial” and “I could feel his minty breath on my forehead, and he was staring at me with his eyes the color of a kiddy pool (blue, green, suspicious hints of yellow). He was searching my face as if he took me to be a cruddy masterpiece in somebody’s attic and if he scrutinized my deft use of color and shading as well as the direction of my brush strokes, he’d figure out who my artist was” (128).

Blue’s youth would certainly fixate on Zach’s appearance. Her inquisitiveness might certainly call for interesting figures. Throughout the novel Pessl’s approach amounts sometimes to interesting surprises. But it also leads to blurry edges, confusion, and imprecision. What color, for example, are Zach’s eyes? And why does it matter so much?

Despite this, I’m enjoying digging out the story.

3 responses to “On Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Too much Detail?”

  1. Wifey Ersinghaus says:

    I don’t know dear. I think it works because even when it is not exactly always moving the narrative forward, both the author’s and Blue’s use of words is so much fun that most of the time you don’t mind, and it is like having coffee with someone who talks too much but has some good points: even if you don’t follow what they are saying all the time you still enjoy a good cup of coffee and come away from the table having had a great encounter. I think you secretly resent being drawn in to a piece of modern fiction! Just wait for the surprise ending, you will really have to write an essay on why it is all wrong!! But it works anyhow!

  2. Denna Hintze-Yates says:

    Steve, I see something interesting that connects to an idea I’ve been musing about. When a writer is desperate to bring along as many readers as possible, one approach (though it may be naive) is to use what I’m going to call the ‘thousand-tined leaf rake’. All those tines (adjectives, descriptors, etc.) are an effort to make sure that no leaf (reader) is not gathered in. Careful readers will object to the plethora of tines but those who skim (the little leaves) will only hit one or two and it probably WILL be sufficient to bring them along. The lines, “you never made it to the ending, you floated around in your middle” really jibe with that, I think.

    I see this kind of writing sort of like a banquet — if you try to sample everything (every word, noun, adjective, and verb) you’ll get sick because it’s too much. But if you just grab the things that look appealing, chances are you’ll come away with something good. I did, from the passages you cited and must admit that I skimmed them at first and enjoyed them more that way than in the careful re-reading I did afterward.

    I know I’ve used two very different metaphors, but I think the banquet is how I see things as a reader of such writing and the ‘thousand-tined leaf rake’ is how I seem some writers struggling to include and bring along. Which, obviously, I’ve probably done here. :)

  3. I think you’ve already answered your question: Zach’s absurd jacuzzi blue eyes aren’t about Zach. They aren’t even, properly, description. They’re about Blue.

    The strange adjectivial commentary (absurdly blue eyes, absurdly knot-free hair) is meant, I think, to emphasize the same character trait that leads Blue to begin her diary (and the novel) by carefully writing “Curriculum” and “Required Reading:.