Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

So, I never do this – I have a policy against doing this, in fact – but just this once, I’m going to break the rules and talk about a book I didn’t finish. I think it goes without saying that it’s also a book I didn’t like very much, but I want to be clear about something up front: this is an exceptionally well-written novel. My not liking it has absolutely nothing to do with Pessl’s talent, her dialogue, pacing, or plot. I genuinely believe this is a book worthy of all the acclaim it has received since publication. The only reason I feel I can talk plainly about what didn’t work for me in this novel is because I would recommend it to any number of friends without reservation.

It’s actually painful to me to start a book, to get halfway through 514 pages and decide that I just need to stop. Part of me desperately wants to keep reading because the story is surprising, and I’m genuinely curious about where the author’s going with it, but a larger part – the part that has been wrestling with this book for the better part of a month – is ready to surrender. I have to come to terms with the fact that, as much as I like her stylized writing and wit, I cannot stand a single one of Pessl’s characters, and it’s impossible for me to go on with them.

I have a quirk when it comes to entertainment, and it’s not something I think I’ve mentioned here before, namely because it precludes my enjoyment of whatever I’m reading or watching to the point that I stop. I try not to review things that I actively hate, so it stands to reason that I’ve never written about a book filled with characters – well-developed, perfectly reasonable characters – who talk and act and think in a way that is so uncomfortable to me that I get no joy from following them to a resolution.

The first book I remember feeling strongly about in this way was The Catcher and the Rye. I was tremendously excited to read it at the time (I was fifteen), and many friends had told me it was their favorite book. Unread, it held an air of mystery, of rebellion, and debauchery, and it seemed custom-made for an oddball reader fanatic like me. Well, unlike Special Topics, it was a quick read, and thank goodness for that because otherwise, I don’t think I would have made it. My initial, overwhelming gut reaction upon finishing the book was that I needed to punt Holden Caulfield as far from me as humanly possible. I despised him. It’s clear to me now that I didn’t understand him, and while, with age, I’ve grown more sympathetic, I’ve never completely shaken that initial distaste.

I experienced the same thing a few years ago when I tried to watch Mad Men. It seemed like everyone I knew was flat-out obsessed, and I made it through about half a season before I realized that this just wasn’t for me. I remember getting into several heated debates over my refusal to give it another chance. Its supporters were shocked that I could fail to be magicked into that world – what I tried to tell them was that I had. I, in fact, had zero problem imagining that world, like Caulfield’s, smothering the hope right out of me, and I had no interest in returning to it whatsoever.

When I read or watch something, I don’t mind if it makes me sad or anxious or angry sometimes. Books, especially, provide cathartic relief for an entire spectrum of emotions, and I love that about them. A book that makes me feel nothing is read and forgotten in the saddest way. The difficulty I have with a book like Pessl’s is that she didn’t write a single character I’d want to be friends with, and that, in a nutshell, is the test every novel or movie or show has to pass for me. I’m willing to put up with a whole cast of hateful characters if there is even one I connect with; in this case, although I felt badly for everyone in the book, I ultimately didn’t want to know what awful thing happened next. All I could think was that these pitiful, hurting, angry people were going to unravel in ways that destroyed the joy of everyone around them. The end result would be misery, and blame, and loneliness, and self-recrimination.

We all have what my fangirl best friend calls a “squick.” In case you’re unfamiliar with this term, it implies a very personal revulsion to a particular type of circumstance; it does not, however, imply a judgement that said circumstance is bad or wrong – it’s just a knee-jerk reaction of repulsion. One of my major squicks is broken characters headed down awful roads into lives of spiraling misery. Many people find reading that type of story highly enjoyable, and that is a-ok with me. I just can’t do it.

Maybe I’m selling Pessl short by choosing not to finish. Maybe if I labored on, one of these characters would surprise me. I’m happy to be spoiled in the comments by such revelations, but for the time being, I have to give this book a pass.


For more about Marisha Pessl, go here.

17 thoughts on “Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

  1. This is one of my good friend’s favourite books, I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time and you’ve actually made me more intrigued by it. It’s nice to hear a different point of view on it.

    1. That makes me happy! I was a little worried about writing a negative review because I’m loathe to pull readers away from something they might otherwise enjoy, so I’m glad to know it didn’t have that effect on you!

      1. I wouldn’t worry, hopefully people will always make their own minds up! :) If I see like 3 or 4 bad reviews for a book, then it would probably be put me off but yours wasn’t *really* a negative review anyway. Seems pretty balanced to me.

  2. Not every book is written for every person. I admire the way you wrote this that doesn’t necessarily turn me away from her as a writer, but just made me realize it wasn’t for you. I think that’s fair.

    1. Thanks Katie! I haven’t been this nervous about a review in awhile. I really don’t like how much hatred and judgement happens online and try to steer clear of it, but I’d committed to reading so much of this odd book already that I felt like I had to talk about!

    1. It’s funny. When I went online and looked for spoilers (because it KILLS ME not to know how a book ends), I was completely surprised by what happens after I stopped reading. I never would have guessed that’s where she was going, so I definitely give her points for creativity!

  3. And this is why I enjoy reading your reviews – because sometimes, no matter how well reviewed or how well written, sometimes, we just don’t like something. You are one of the few bloggers I’ve found who is willing to spend the time writing about what they didn’t like (and explaining why). I think most simply don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings. Or the feelings of their own “followers” who may have loved the work being reviewed.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks! I’m definitely aware of the fact that a bad review really can hurt an author (especially a non-famous one), and I don’t enjoy being negative just for the sake of it, but not every book is for every person. I’m actually quite good at determining what books I’ll like and I was genuinely surprised at my reaction to this one. It seemed worth writing about if only because of that!

  4. Oh my gosh! I felt the same way about Catcher in the Rye! I was excited to read it since it was a classic and well-liked by people I admire, but I found myself not liking Holden.
    And I also relate to you on your statement about not wanting to endure a novel/show/movie if none of the characters draw you in.

    1. I felt nervous posting my anti-Rye views online because I get so much hate from friends whenever I say a word against it! I’m relieved to know I’m not completely alone!

  5. I’m so glad it’s not just me who feels like that about characters in fiction. If I’m going to spend time with people, even fictional people, I want to be in the presence of at least one person I get along with. At the risk of causing howls of anguish, probably from all the people who love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, this is precisely the reason I couldn’t really appreciate ‘The Great Gatsby’.

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