Who wrote the classic novel?

by DG Martin

Let’s take a test about North Carolina writers.

Here is your assignment: Identify the young North Carolina author who grew up in Asheville, moved to New York, and wrote a 500-plus-page novel about a teenager living with a dominating parent in a fictional city that is obviously Asheville. Some reviewers said the novel lacked focus and was too verbose. Nevertheless, many commentators immediately called it a groundbreaking classic and praised the author’s amazing talents.

Obviously, the answer is Thomas Wolfe?

Correct. But now there is another correct answer: Marisha Pessl.

Last month, the New York Times named Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics one of the five top books of fiction for 2006.

‘ Earlier, Times’ critic Liesl Schillinger gave this unrestrained praise: “The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low darts and dives of Pessl’s tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring.”

Janet Maslin, also writing in the Times, wrote that the book is “a whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice.”

Scarlett Thomas, reviewing for the British Independent on Sunday, said, “This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive debut novels I’ve ever read’…. It consistently crackles with wit and intelligence.”

With such generous praise (and there is much more of it) from authoritative outsiders, why haven’t North Carolinians heard more about this North Carolina book?

Before I try to answer that question, let me tell something about Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

In short, it is a story told by Blue Van Meer, a precocious senior in a private school, and how she seeks to solve the mystery of the death of her favorite teacher. Actually, the murder mystery part of the book only begins on page 336 when Blue finds her teacher, who had led a group of students on a camping trip, dead, hanging from a tree in a forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Although Blue does tells us briefly at the beginning of the book about her teacher’s, death, most of the early part of the novel is Blue’s account of her life with her single parent college professor father, Gareth Van Meer.

Gareth is a brilliant scholar and teacher. Rather than settling down in a high prestige research university, he is a roaming visiting professor, usually spending a semester at one university and then moving on to the next. Thus, Blue never settles in anywhere.

Gareth’s main project is preparing Blue for a successful intellectual career and, especially, for admission to Harvard. On their travels they read and study together. Gareth requires factual statements and opinions to be backed up with authority, so almost every paragraph of Blue’s story specifically cites a book or article.

Blue’s description of her dependent relationship with her father and her struggles to find her place as a new senior in a new school is so compelling and poignant that the reader forgets about the death and mystery to come. Her account of an Asheville teenager coming to terms with herself, though different from that told by Eugene Gant in Look Homeward Angel, is quite properly to be compared with it.

Why then have you not heard more about this important new book and author?

Some North Carolina potential readers might be intimidated by the title, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which seems to promise complexity. Perhaps the voice of Blue, which seems academically pompous and “overeducated,” puts off others, as it did me at first.

Only when the book continued to get national attention did I pick it up again. And then, until I finished it, I put it down only to sleep and eat.

The beginnings of other great North Carolina books (Cold Mountain and Look Homeward Angel, for instance) proved difficult for readers to “get into.” But the difficult beginning to a great book can often turn out to be a necessary initiation for the reader’s deeper and richer reading experience – as it was for me in Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Read it or not, I promise that you will hear more and more about this book and its North Carolina author, Marisha Pessl.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina “Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.