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Calamity

Marisha Pessl thanks Susan Golomb, her (uncredited) agent, in the Acknowledgments that appear at the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I don't see why. I myself should like to bring a lawsuit against Ms Golomb. Thanks to this lazy agent, I had to wade through three hundred pages of exuberant foam (if I may rearrange slightly Jonathan Franzen's blurb) to find out what all the excitement was about. The second one hundred fifty pages were excruciatingly boring. They were also very annoying. The little tics that had been funny for a little well before degenerating into facetiousness had by now become positively irksome.

Marisha Pessl is a young, first-time writer. She is not yet thirty. That she should be unaware of the limits to a mature reader's patience is not surprising. That her agent should fail to enlighten her, with a bit of gentle but determined insistence, is grounds for non-payment of percentages.

As you can see, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has put me in curmudgeon mode. I'd never have read it if it hadn't gotten such glowing reviews, reviews that I don't believe that it deserved. The overwriting, as I've noted elsewhere (here and here) is prodigious. Here's another example:

Deb [a grief counselor], a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

I hasten to note that this passage comes from the chapter entitled "Justine." As I have never read Sade, I would not catch any references to Justine that may be curled up in the passage that I have quoted. But nothing could justify the incredibly awkward clause about Mirtha Grazeley, which doubles the sentence's length to no purpose whatsoever. The "walking wedge of Camembert" quip made me think of consulting Pope's Peri Bathos: there's a wrongheadedness about this metaphor, not least because Camembert is one of those stinky cheeses that tastes much milder; a triple crème might have been more apt if, again, rich cheeses were categorically disagreeable. There is no need to mention the narrator's destination (always these AP classes!). There is no real need to assert the narrator's presence at all. Talk about "fatty in word"! The two sentences could easily be wrapped into one:

Deb, a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays[, where she]. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

And I think that I've been generous to leave in "her own." It's not that I'm against panache, but I do insist on the discipline of deleting all words that do not add to the sense of a passage. (We don't need the information about Mirtha Grazely here.) Life is too short for gratuitous embroidery, and, once I got to the "good" part of the book, I saw that the embroidery was far more extensive than I'd imagined. As the logorrheic immensity of the book laboriously came about, at about the four hundredth page, it became clear that the cool kids whose antics preoccupy the novel's first three hundred pages are not very important to the suspenseful tale that really does have one turning pages toward the end.

As published, this novel is still very much a work in progress. It is perhaps two books, one of them a coming-of-age story that might interest Ms Pessl's age cohort but would be almost certain to tire older readers, the other a rather thin and unfulfilled tale of Oedipal discovery. That's the damnedest thing about Calamity Physics: having been stuffed to revulsion with clever but pointless bon-bons for what seems like phone-book length, one ends up wanting much more of the substantial fare that the ending promises but does not quite deliver.

A good editor might have helped Marisha Pessl wrest a truly Nabokovian novel out of her hulk, but I'm told that agents don't deal with editors who want to make substantial changes, that agents today simply shop a book around on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If that's the case, then Ms Pessl was done a terrible disservice by the publishing industry. She does not strike me as the sort of person who doesn't care if people read her book as long as they buy it; quite the contrary. But many readers will weary of Calamity Physics long before the wind freshens and set it aside. Many more will learn the story by word-of-mouth and never crack it open. And readers who like to stay au courant (see I Confess, Hitchcock, 1953) should not be flogged for hundreds (hundreds!) of pages with lines of arch ostentation.

Mr Franzen, by the way, is another client of Susan Golomb. Perhaps that how the Calamity Physics came to bear the following blurb: "Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut novel is a dark, strong drink." Most astute: what Mr Franzen neglects to mention is that the espresso portion of dark, strong drink is served beneath a swimming pool of foam.

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Comments

Dear Blague-er,

First time reader of your blog, and I like what I've seen so far. Quality of writing and content seems better than the usual blog fare. I had googled this hot novel "Calamity Physics" and saw your site. The writing does seem longwinded and careless based on your examples. Fatty in word indeed! There's nothing wrong with exuberance, but have some limits. Regarding your site's name, I assume you intended to sound like Prague, and not like plague? Or maybe that ambiguity was intentional?

Nice work.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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