Friday, December 05, 2008

I'm a finisher*

I suppose everyone has his/her Open Sesame, his/her Abracadabra or Presto Chango, the arbitrary word, event or unforeseen signal that knocks a person down, causes him/her to behave, either permanently or for the short term, out of the blue, contrary to expectation, from nowhere. A shade is pulled, a door creaks open, some kid goes from Geek to Glamour Boy. And Milton's Hocus-Pocus, his Master Key, happened to be a flowy sentence in Mr. Johnson's generic speech, a speech Dad would call "stirring as a wall of cinder blocke," indicative of the "Hallmark fever infecting our politicians and official spokesmen of late. When they speak, actual words don't emerge, but summer afternoons of draining sun and tepid breeze and chirping Tufted Titmice one would feel gleeful shooting with a handgun"

"When he said that thing about Hannah bein' like a flower," Milton said, "like a rose and all, I felt kinda moved." His big right arm lumber-rolled on top of the steering wheel as he edged the Nissan between the cars and out of the Student Parking Lot.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics goes on like this for 500 pages. You are either captivated by this type of gushing prose, or you are not. Why on earth I persisted, is a mystery. Actually, the book might have made a good 150 page mystery. I am the type that has to find out whodunit and I had to read it to the finish Final Exam.

All along the way, I wondered if Marisha Pessl was paid by the word or the pound. The first-person narrative by teenage genius, Blue Ver Meer, is just too precious. She paints mental images with words, accompanied by "visual aids" illustrations drawn by Blue/Marisha. The imagery is certainly vivid, but she and her editors never ask, "Is this image necessary?"

Pessl also hit my two pet peeves, the portrayal of Asian Americans and of modern physics in novels (for I cannot bear to call this book literature). Nearly all the characters are white, and there are plenty of insulting stereotypes to go around. But the portrayals of Asian Americans is particularly galling.

Character development for Blue's roommate at Harvard:
"You," said Soo-Jin, barely turning from Diagram 2114.74 "Amino Acids and Peptides" to hand me the phone.
and for a fellow high school classmate:
"I hope you're reincarnated as a mammal and our paths cross again, sooner rather than later because when I go to med school I doubt I'll have a life," wrote Lin Xe-Pen.
'Nuff said. What about the physics?
Whenever I heard an awful noise, one I couldn't identify, I told myself it was nothing but Chaos Theory, the Doppler Effect or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to lost people in the dark. I think I repeated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in my head at least one thousand times; the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of concurrent measurements of position and momentum in a specified direction could never be less than Planck's constant, h, divided by 4 π. This meant, rather encouragingly, that my uncertain position and zero momentum and the Beast Responsible for the Sound's uncertain position and uncertain momentum had to sort of null each other out, leaving me with what is commonly known in the scientific world as "wide-ranging perplexity."
Huh? Read Heisenberg's own words.

IMHO Phillip Roth wrote the best use of physics imagery in literature I have ever read. Do you remember the line about the (white, lace) shiksa curtains? He described that fleeting moment each evening when glass becomes transparent (when the inside and outside light levels are roughly equal and the incidence angle of the light is less than Brewster's angle). In those few sentences, I could see the window, the curtains, the position of the sun and the yearning boy outside. I could even hear the sounds of dinner preparation inside.

Marisha Pessl is no Phillip Roth.

* One of my coworkers earned a PhD in engineering from CalTech while his wife pursued a PhD in Engligh Lit at UCLA. He told me that the piles of unfinished books around their house was driving him crazy. He didn't understand how she could start so many books and not finish them.

He called himself a finisher, a completer. Even when he didn't like a book, he felt compelled to finish it, just for the closure. He simply could not understand how she could put down book after book before the end. She never did complete her PhD dissertation and it bothers him more than it bothers her.

Anyway, this book taught me I am a finisher, too.


  1. Anonymous10:58

    For the novelist who takes (and shares) the most giddy delight in physics, I'd nominate Thomas Pynchon. I don't know where he picked it all up, but he knows a lot of physics, or at least a lot of physics lore, and I love the way he folds it into his books.

  2. Light can be both wave and particle, a collection of short stories by Ellen Gilchrist, is actually quite good.

  3. Anonymous19:15

    "You are either captivated by this type of gushing prose, or you are not."

    I AM NOT. I couldn't even get through your excerpt.

    I would never force myself to finish something written this way, just because I had started it, if I were not being very well paid or getting a badly needed grade to do it.

  4. I should have guessed the ending. I mean, a bunch of teenagers go into the woods. Blue becomes separated from the others, alone in the woods with the killer. Of course Blue, a virgin, will survive. Duh.

  5. I was reading a knitting blog recently where the author talked about all the projects she has started and then ripped out to use the yarn for other purposes because she didn't like the way things were going. While I have dozens of books around the house that I have never finished, I try very hard to finish my knitting projects simply because you really can't tell if you are going to like something until it is done. So I guess I am a "finisher" for some things and not for others.

  6. Well, I am a finisher also, and I usually hate this kind of prose, but I will finish a book no matter how awful. It certainly makes no sense, mathematically, physics-wise, philosophically, and yet I enjoyed this novel despite its rather major shortcomings. I think the author tapped into some-kind of adolescent angst that I could at least partly relate to; there was some thread of a certain lost-in-her-head and out-of-touch-with-reality disconnect that I could definitely tap into from some distant chidlhood memory.

    Still I think it is a fluke more than talent or skill. I am not convinced that Pessl is a good writer or could pull of a standard novel. She is certainly no Phillip Roth or Ellen Gilchrist. So even though I had no trouble reading this book, and even enjoyed parts of it, I was also aware that I should have disliked it more than I did. The plot was truly weak and filled with cliches and sad little stereotypes.

  7. I slogged through this one too. I liked it for the first hundred pages and then it got old. I kept reading because I agree that it could make a great 150 page mystery novel so I was kind of interested in the story. But holy cow was it precious. Enough with the SAT words already!

  8. I'm with you. I almost always finish a book, no matter how bad. If I stop half-way through it is usually because I became too distracted by something else.