One of the reasons we read stories, I think, is to get a glimpse of the mystery that animates our experience but seems to lie just beyond it. So many stories are powered by the anxiety that knits together the edges of what we can describe and understand.
Pessl’s novel brims with tricks and conceits (although there are limits — Chapter 12 references a URL that isn’t, in fact, the address of a fake website set up by Pessl to divert the curious reader. Oh, well.), all of it glossed over with a Gothic/Victorian/Noir/30’s Hollywood veneer, and the question you will ask, as you push your way through Pessl’s myriad tapestries, is whether the story itself will ever emerge from all of its lush beauty to engage you.
Luckily, right around the giving-up point (for this reader, anyway), Special Topics becomes two amazing things: a murder mystery, and a page-turner (secret note: please don’t do this, but if you find yourself flagging, as a last resort you may jump to the beginning of Part 3). This happens, by the way, as the characters have left town for a weekend camping trip, and at the moment they should, by all rights, be telling ghost stories around the campfire. At that moment a harrowing calamity emerges from the darkness and Pessl’s novel grabs you by the collar, and it doesn’t let go until the last page.
The last 200 pages of Special Topics in Calamity Physics are a marvel, a virtuoso performance that will leave its grace notes ringing in your ears long after you’ve left the concert hall. What Pessl does so expertly is conjure the darkness in our lives, the nothingness at the limit of our experience, the emptiness of all we truly know about ourselves, and bring it so close to the surface we can almost see its faint traces in the water below. As if it were a beast passing under our little boat, something unspeakable in the world that reveals itself as a shadow we can only glimpse, and then can’t be sure we’ve really seen.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics feels, for a good number of pages, like an entertainment, like the work of a brilliant student using her precocious imagination to bend ideas into new and captivating forms.