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Authors: Marisha Pessl

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

BOOK: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Book Jacket

This mesmerizing debut, uncannily uniting the trials of a postmodern upbringing with a murder mystery, heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in literary fiction Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge—and is quite the cineaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah’s friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide—or misguide—her. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl’s debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl’s own.


a novel...


Blue v
an M
a brainy, deadpan, and preternaturally erudite girl who, after traveling from one remote academic outpost to another with her professor father (see "Gareth van Meer"), has a head crammed full of literary, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. (She is also a film buff and can recite pi out to sixty-five decimal places.) When she is sixteen, due to certain nuclear events, her previously dull life is forever transformed.

Flying Demoiselle:
an archaic means of hanging someone, popular in the American South between 1829-1860. It is also, in all likelihood, how Hannah Schneider died.

Gareth Van Meer:
a handsome yet maddening man prone to aphorisms, meteoric affairs, (see "June bugs"), and high-end bourbon.

June bugs:
single women aged 35-45 who, for reasons unclear to Blue, cling to her father like lint balls to wool pants.

Lion sex:
something that happens in Room 222 of the Dynasty Motel.

a clue.


grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City. This is her first novel.

Jacket design: Paul Buckley Back jacket photograph © Adalberto Rios Szalay/ Sexto Sol/Getty Images




A member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York. N.Y. 10014

I Printed in U.S.A.





VIKING Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R oRL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pry Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pry) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R oRL, England

First published in 2006 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

10 9 8 7

Copyright © Marisha Pessl, 2006 All rights reserved

Illustrations by the author

Publisher's Note This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA Pessl, Marisha. Special topics in calamity physics / Marisha Pessl.



p. cm. ISBN 0670-03777-X

1. Young women—Fiction. I. Title. PS3616.E825S67 2006 813'.6—dc22 2005058474



Printed in the United States of America Set in Electra LH with Omatic Designed by Daniel Lagin

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

ForAnne and Nie


Core Curriculum (Required Reading


PART 1 13

Chapter #1: OTHELLO, William Shakespeare 15

Chapter #2:

Chapter #3: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Emily Brontë 35


Nathaniel Hawthorne 45

Chapter #5: THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins 54

Chapter #6: BRAVE NEW WORLD, Aldous Huxley 61

Chapter #7: LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos 73

Chapter #8: MADAME BOVARY, Gustave Flaubert 83

Chapter #9: PYGMALION, George Bernard Shaw 108


Agatha Christie 131


PART 2 147

Chapter #11: MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville 149

Chapter #12: A MOVEABLE FEAST, Ernest Hemingway 171

Chapter #13: WOMEN IN LOVE, D. H. Lawrence 193

Chapter #14: "THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL," John Cheever 211

Chapter #15: SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, Tennessee Williams 230

Chapter #16: LAUGHTER IN THE DARK, Vladimir Nabokov 242

Chapter #17: THE SLEEPING BEAUTY AND OTHER FAIRY TALES, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch 254

Chapter #18: A ROOM WITH A VIEW, E. M. Forster 262

PART 3 277

Chapter #19: HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, Allen Ginsberg 279

Chapter #20: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, William Shakespeare 293

Chapter #21: DELIVERANCE, James Dickey 311

Chapter #22: HEART OF DARKNESS, Joseph Conrad 328

Chapter #23: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Ken Kesey 337

Chapter #24: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Gabriel García Márquez 346

Chapter #25: BLEAK HOUSE, Charles Dickens 361

Chapter #26: THE BIG SLEEP, Raymond Chandler 375

Chapter #27: JUSTINE, Marquis de Sade 385


Carlo Emilio Gadda 403 Chapter #29: THINGS FALL APART, Chinua Achebe 413


Chapter #30: THE NOCTURNAL CONSPIRACY, Smoke Wyannoch Harvey 426

Chapter #31: CHE GUEVARA TALKS TO YOUNG PEOPLE, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna 436

Chapter #32: "GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE," Flannery O'Connor 457

Chapter #33: THE TRIAL, Franz Kafka 460

Chapter #34: PARADISE LOST, John Milton 471

Chapter #35: THE SECRET GARDEN, Frances Hodgson Burnett 479

Chapter #36: METAMORPHOSES, Ovid 495




I had always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out   his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

"Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond—
Bond—you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began—with a wheeze."

Given such rigid parameters, I always assumed I wouldn't have
Magnificent Reason until I was at least seventy, with liver spots, rheumatism, wit as quick as a carving knife, a squat stucco house in Avignon (where I could be found eating 365 different cheeses), a lover twenty years my junior who worked in the fields (I don't know what kind of fields—any kind that were gold and frothy) and, with any luck, a small triumph of science or philosophy to my name. And yet the decision —no, the grave necessity—to take pen to paper and write about my childhood—most critically, the year it unstitched like a snagged sweater—came much sooner than I ever imagined.

It began with simple sleeplessness. It had been almost a year since I'd found Hannah dead, and I thought I'd managed to erase all traces of that night within myself, much in the way Henry Higgins with his relentless elocution exercises had scrubbed away Eliza's Cockney accent.

I was wrong.

By the end of January, I again found myself awake in the dead of night, the hall hushed, dark, spiky shadows crouching in the edges of the ceiling. I had nothing and no one to my name but a few fat, smug textbooks like
Introduction to Astrophysics
and sad, silent James Dean gazing down at me where he was trapped in black and white and taped to the back of our door. I'd stare back at him through the smudged darkness, and see, in microscopic detail, Hannah Schneider.

She hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord. Her tongue — bloated, the cherry pink of a kitchen sponge —slumped from her mouth. Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman, and they saw nothing. Or else that was the problem, they'd seen
J. B. Tower wrote that the moment before death is "seeing everything that has ever existed all at once" (though I wondered how he knew this, as he was in the prime of life when he wrote
And her shoelaces—an entire treatise could be written on those shoelaces—they were crimson, symmetrical, tied in perfect double knots.

Still, being an inveterate optimist ("Van Meers are natural idealists and affirmative freethinkers," noted Dad) I hoped lurid wakefulness might be a phase I'd quickly grow out of, a fad of some kind, like poodle skirts or having a pet rock, but then, one night early in February as I read
The Aeneid,
my roommate, Soo-Jin, mentioned without looking up from her
Organic Chemistry
textbook that some of the freshmen on our hall were planning to crash an off-campus party at some doctor of philosophy's but I wasn't invited because I was considered more than a little "bleak" in demeanor: "Especially in the morning when you're on your way to Intro to '60s Counterculture and the New Left. You look so like,

This, of course, was only Soo-Jin talking (Soo-Jin whose face employed the same countenance for both Anger and Elation). I did my best to wave away this remark, as if it were nothing more than an unpleasant odor coming off a beaker or test tube, but then I
start to notice all kinds of unquestionably bleak things. For example, when Bethany brought people into her room for a Friday night Audrey Hepburn marathon, I was distinctly aware, at the end of
Breakfast at Tiffany's,
unlike the other girls sitting on pillows chain-smoking with tears in their eyes, I actually found myself hoping Holly
find Cat. No, if I was completely honest with myself, I realized I wanted Cat to stay lost and abandoned, mewing and shivering all by its Cat self in those splintery crates in that awful Tin Pan Alleyway, which from the rate of that Hollywood downpour would be submerged under the Pacific Ocean in less than an hour. (This I disguised, of course, smiling gaily when George Peppard feverishly grasped Audrey feverishly grasping Cat who no longer looked like a cat but a drowned squirrel. I believe I even uttered one of those girly, high-pitched, "Ewws," in perfect harmony with Bethany's sighs.)

And that wasn't the end of it. A couple of days later, I was in American Biography, led by our Teaching Assistant, Glenn Oakley, with his cornbread complexion and habit of swallowing right in the middle of a word. He was discussing Gertrude Stein's deathbed.

" 'So what is the answer, Gertrude?' " Glenn quoted in his pretentious whisper, his left hand up as if holding an invisible parasol, pinky outstretched. (He resembled Alice B. Toklas with that specter-mustache.) " 'Well, Alice, what is the quest-gurg/i-tion?' "

I stifled a yawn, happened to glance down at my notebook and saw, in horror, I'd absentmindedly been scribbling in strange loopy cursive a very disturbing word: good-bye. On its own it was breathy and harmless, sure, but I'd happened to scrawl it like some heartbroken lunatic at least forty times down the entire margin of the page —a little bit on the
page too.

n anyone tell me what Ger
trude meant by such a statement? Blue? No? Could you stay with us please? What about you, Shilla?" "It's obvious. She was talking about the insufferable vacuity of subsistence."

"Very good."

It appeared, in spite of my concerted efforts to the contrary (I wore fuzzy sweaters in yellow and pink, fixed my hair into what I considered a very upbeat ponytail), I had started to twist into that very something I'd been afraid of, ever since all of it had happened. I was becoming Wooden and Warped (mere rest stops on the highway to Hopping Mad), the kind of person who, in middle age, winced at children, or deliberately raced into a dense flock of pigeons minding their own business as they pecked at crumbs. Certainly, I'd always felt chills tiptoeing down my spine when I came across an eerily resonant newspaper headline or advertisement: "Steel Magnate Sudden Death at 50, Cardiac Arrest," "CAMPING EQUIPMENT LIQUIDATION SALE." But I always told myself that everyone —at least everyone fascinating—had a few scars. And scars didn't necessarily mean one couldn't be, say, more Katharine Hepburn than Captain Queeg when it came to overall outlook and demeanor, a little more Sandra Dee than Scrooge.

My gradual decent into grimdom might have continued unabated, had it not been for a certain startling phone call one cold March afternoon. It was almost a year to the day after Hannah died.

' said Soo-Jin, barely turning from Diagram 2114.74 "Amino Acids and Peptides" to hand me the phone.


"Hi. It's me. Your past."

I couldn't breathe. It was unmistakable—her low voice of sex and highways, equal parts Marilyn and Charles Kuralt, but it had changed. If once it had been sugared and crackly, now it was porridged, grueled.

"Don't worry/' Jade said. "I'm not catching up with you." She laughed, a short,
laugh, like a foot kicking a rock. "I no longer smoke," she announced, obviously quite proud of herself, and then she went on to explain that after St. Gallway she hadn't made it to college. Instead, due to her "troubles" she'd voluntarily admitted herself to a "Narnia kind of place" where people talked about their feelings and learned to watercolor fruit. Jade hinted excitedly that a "really huge rock star" had been in residence on
floor, the comparatively well-adjusted
floor ("not as suicidal as the fourth or as manic as the second") and they'd become "close," but to reveal his name would be to forsake everything she'd learned during her ten-month "growth period" at Heathridge Park. (Jade now, I realized, saw herself as some sort of herbaceous vine or creeper.) One of the parameters of her "graduation," she explained (she used this word, probably because it was preferable to "release") was that she tie up Loose Ends.

BOOK: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
7.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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