Filed under: Debut Fiction | Tags: 1st person, debut fiction, fiction, Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, voice
Blue Van Meer, kid genius, has a brilliant political science prof for a dad and a very special relationship with him. They travel around the country, never styaing put more than a year. When they settle for her senior year, Blue meets a charismatic teacher with a ‘set,’ a la The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Things get freaky when Blue, Miss X and her set embark on a camping field trip, fulfilling bits of dark foreshadowing, and Miss X dies (suicide? murder?) causing clique-y set to turn against our heroine. Bothered by unexplained details, Blue constructs an elaborate explanation of the teacher’s death involving a semi-mythical leftist underground organization, the death of an investigative journalist, assumed identities, and a plan to disappear without a trace that backfired on Miss X, resulting in the teacher’s death. When Blue narrates said hair-brained but strangely convincing argument to dear old Dad, he disappears from her life forever, taking all of his things. Blue sucks it up, graduates valedictorian and goes on to Harvard–older tougher, tragic, but also lovable and wise.
This is easily one fo the best debut books by a young author I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps the only thing that comes close is Bee Season by Mya Goldberg, with its heartwise clarity, imagination and beautiful, even majestic, but deeply unhappy ending.
This succeeds in a way that is, if not more powerful, perhaps more engrossing, more capable of enveloping your world. One, it is much longer. Two, it is paced more slowly, truly giving us time to to feel the story as it develops.
Also, we enter the world a very beautiful, funny and compelling intelligence here, wherein gestures, people, actions, situations, etc., fit into Types of Things Like That, and all those things are connected to books and movies (see, The Entirety of the Western Canon, Vol IV). Therefore, by means of constant reference, the world of this large novel is made even larger.
The voice of Blue has a tremendous faculty for analogy–which, come to think of it, is that same thing again. “She smiled at me and abruptly looked away, like offering me a handkerchief she didn’t want to get wet.” These analogies are so good they feel entirely natural, never forced, never too extended, either.
The ending, with its final exam of unanswered questions, is close in spirit to The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This is postmodern fiction, truly, with heart.
This novel is mostly a slow build-up to a rapid-fire series of events that turn it abruptly into something resembling a murder mystery at the end–but not nearly to the annoying degree of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Because it’s not thin slices of hte present diving into a bottomless pit of backstory, but rather a slow but steady acceleration towards the action-oriented part of the tale.
The plot twists are foreshadowed, so they’re when you look back, but you’re not looking for them when they occur. This has a wonderful effect, because you don’t realize you’re reading a murder mystery until the end.
A realization; a story built around language, in the 1st person, is a story about character. The language is their perception, the way they view “the” world (as we know that any possible world is subjective) that has the effect of creating the world of the novel. Think of Vernon God Little by X–perfectly coherent voice = perfectly coherent character.
And character is destiny, they say. Which seems to suggest that once you really know the voice of a character on paper–what’s easy, comfortable, interesting and amusing to yourself–then you know not only who your character is, and can figure out, without too much backtracking, what’s going to happen.
An interesting theory, at least. Of course, we’re all reinventing the wheel as we go, but consider this as a mechanism for building character-driven fiction.
A pitch-perfect debut, equally balanced between the head and the heart, which is rare.
A novel that arises from knowing who you are–rather than simply who you’d like to be–at a young age.