Ghost stories: Sean Carman on fiction from Seigel and Pessl

Sean Carman is an occasional contributor to Here he reacts to Andrea Seigel’s To Feel Stuff and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

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.

Andrea Seigel’s To Feel Stuff is a ghost story in the literal sense. Elodie Harrington, one of Seigel’s three narrators, and a disease-ridden permanent resident of the Brown University student infirmary, starts to see a ghost around the time she starts dating Chess Hunter. Chess is a campus singer who lands in Elodie’s ward after being physically assaulted during an a capella performance of “Tarzan Boy.” (Side note: As Chess is one of the novel’s protagonists, and a genuinely nice guy, the reader naturally feels conflicted about the attack. I wanted to know whether he was wearing a candy-striped vest and straw boater at the time, but Seigel doesn’t say.)

There is also a specialist in paranormal psychology who narrates journal entries about Elodie’s pronounced susceptibility to disease, and tries to figure out what’s up with the ghost thing. Seigel is a graceful writer with a pitch-perfect ear for how young people think and speak. Her novels (the first was Like the Red Panda) are a pleasure to read. Her prose is as lucid as glass; her stories glide elegantly across its polished surface.

Seigel tells most of the novel from Elodie’s and Chess’ dual points of view, and doesn’t let the reader in on anything they don’t know or feel, which gives her work a young adult feel. Dr. Mark Kirschling’s voice felt a little clunky to me (he only makes a few appearances), and it’s difficult in any story, I think, to juggle three points of view. Did we really need the medical reports? I’m not sure.

But I really liked To Feel Stuff. It is a well told story about first love, an entertaining read, and in her complex narrative Seigel has found a beautiful way to describe love’s peculiarities — how it is powered by forces beyond our control and how a doomed love can still be, or at least feel very much like, the real thing. The ending is perfect, too. Seigel lets Elodie make the unlikely but perfect choice.

If Andrea Seigel’s prose glides smoothly across the page, Marisha Pessl’s cartwheels off of it. The conceit of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is that you are not reading a novel, but rather taking AP English Literature. So the table of contents is a syllabus, the afterword a final exam, and the text littered with literary and cinematic references, real and imaginary, from Nabakov to Che Guevara, from Broadway musicals to film noir. Pessl seems, from her author photograph, to be getting plenty of sun, but you wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s never been outside. Where did she find the time read so many novels and see so many movies, so as to intelligently reference them all?

It feels like Pessl is using the first three-fifths of her novel to position all of the pieces she’ll need for its conclusion. You wonder where it’s all heading. Which isn’t so bad. Pessl is such a talent that it’s worth the price of admission just to hear her talk. Her narrator, Blue Van Meer, speaks in jaw dropping similes, sparkling asides, and clever Phrases Set Off With Initial Capitals. Here is one typically majestic sentence: “I reread each [letter], and then, with the same clarity that overtook Robespierre as he lounged in a bath and liberte, egalite and fraternite sailed into his head — three great merchant ships coming into port — I knew what I had to do.”

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.

It is, in fact, a masterful tour de force.


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