Friday, March 7, 2014

Twists and turns

Some books can be discussed without too much fear of giving the plot away, though you may stop short of the actual ending, and you feel that you've given some sense of the overall structure and feel of the book.  It's still nice to give out spoiler warnings for major events, particularly those in the second half of the book, but you can still have a meaningful discussion.  In other cases, a major twist occurs within the first 10-20 pages (and often ends up on the back cover of the book), so if the author "spoiled it," then that was information that the reader was supposed to have all the way through.  In those cases, the "journey" is more important than the final destination.  That's sort of how I feel about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, though I did put a few spoiler warnings in that review.  Then there are books that are sort of like the film The Usual Suspects where almost anything said about the film is too much information for the first-time film-goer.  That's what the book I am reviewing is like, so don't continue if you don't want it spoiled.


I've tried not to even give out the name of the novel, though close readers of the blog may have guessed it.  It is Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  This book came out in 2006, over a decade after The Usual Suspects, and I basically can't imagine the book being written without The Usual Suspects playing in the background.  (I'm hardly the only one (see this review), though I'm not sure if Pessl ever copped to using The Usual Suspects as a template.)  At any rate, Pessl seems deeply involved with film and film studies.  Hannah Schneider, one of the major figures in the novel, is a film studies teacher at St. Gallaway, an elite school where the main character lands in her senior year of high school.  Pessl has written one other novel called Film Night, which is even more twisty-and-turny (and indebted to The Usual Suspects, but perhaps even more to the Nicholas Cage film 8mm).

So what we find out in the first few pages is that Hannah Schneider has hung herself, and that this traumatic event has eventually led Blue Van Meer to write out her own life story and her interactions with Hannah (after reaching St. Gallaway) in an effort to understand what actually happened.  It is a very convolved tale told in a way that seems a bit unlikely.  A person that actually went through what Blue went through would probably have cut to the chase rather than leading the reader through so much detail.  Some readers cut Blue some slack and say that she is just processing events, but I figure she could process in the first draft and then be a bit more straight-forward in the final version.  No, this is Pessl just showing off and being "literary."  At any rate, after one goes to the end of the book, one is left just a bit empty and one starts picking at some major plot holes, which is pretty much the same thing that happens with The Usual Suspects.


So if you are still with me, there are roughly 4 sections to the book.  First, Blue goes into the story of her childhood.  Her mother died in a car crash when she was an infant.  She was raised by her father, who was a visiting professor all around the South.  They generally did not stay anywhere for more than one semester.  (This is a bit fanciful, but perhaps possible back in the 80s.  Nowadays, such a person would be thought of as an adjunct and not accorded any respect.  Certainly nothing like the rock star treatment her father got everywhere he went.)  This part certainly feels the most pretentious, as we hear over and over from Blue (and her second-hand relating of what the many women in her father's life said about him) about what a deep thinker he was.  No question he was in love with himself and his mental prowess.  He was a Harvard alum, and was insistent on getting her accepted there.  (Second problem.  Sure, there is a big alumni "boost," and Blue seems smart and ends up valedictorian, but how likely is it that Harvard actually accepts a student with such an irregular past?  And yet she does end up there, even after her father disappears on her...)  Perhaps the most interesting thing during this period is that their incompetent gardener, Andreo, is shot, and Blue gets him to the hospital in time to save his life.

Then a large chunk of the novel details Blue's senior year.  She is sort of recruited by Hannah (the film teacher) to join a group of students called The Bluebloods by other students.  They are sort of a cruel clique that seem to derive their power over other students based on the fact that an adult (Hannah) spends so much time with them.  Even though she occasionally worries that she will lose her job over it, she invites them to dinner ever Sunday (Blue tells her father that she is going to a study group focused on Ulysses) and then later takes them camping, with disastrous consequences.  The book does drag a bit here, though there are some interesting set pieces, as when Jade, one of the Bluebloods, comes and kind of ruins Blue's quasi-date at a school dance with Zach.  Also, one of the women that Blue's father is dating comes and wrecks his study.  There is also a moment when Hannah tells Blue about the terrible things in the other Bluebloods' lives (teenage runaway, real parents in jail etc.) and that they are quite fragile under the facades they maintain.  Perhaps the most sordid part of this chapter is when the children spy on Hannah and find out that she is seducing truckers each month at a sleazy motel.  The most freighted moment is when they crash a costume party at her house and are there when an old friend of Hannah's winds up dead in the pool.*  All this generally leads up to Hannah taking them camping in the mountains.  By this point, Blue has worked out that Hannah is not the most stable of individuals (obsessed with stories of women gone missing), so it is a bit odd that they all agree to go.  But kids will do a lot of crazy things when asked by an adult that they still admire. 

Up on the mountain, Hannah gets Blue away from the others and tells her that she is going to tell her the truth.  Then a figure comes by and Hannah chases after it, telling Blue to stay right there.  After what seems like an eternity, Blue tries to get back to the campsite, fails at that, but finds Hannah's body hanging in a tree.  She eventually manages to get down to a road and flag down some motorists, but is practically comatose.  The other Bluebloods aren't found and rescued for another 2 days or so.

After this, four of the five Bluebloods blame and shun Blue, though Milton relents a bit and takes her to Hannah's house (as he had been directed).  This begins the third main section, the aftermath of Hannah's death. Blue assumes there must be some clue in the house, and the two of them scour it.  She does find some interesting photos, but mostly there are many more clippings of woman that had simply disappeared.  What may be the most significant clue is that Antonioni's L'Avventura was left in the DVD player.  Blue starts to wonder whether Hannah was telling her that she was planning her own disappearance, and then something went dreadfully wrong.  Interestingly, she learns from Milton that everything Hannah said about the Bluebloods was a lie.  Indeed, Blue learns that all the major adults in her life are inveterate liars.  She eventually agrees with the cop who convinces her that it is suicide. And yet something keeps nagging at her, and she eventually reaches out to Smoke Harvey's daughter, who informs her that her father was ready to break open the case of the Nightwatch when he died, and that Hannah was somehow involved.  Furthermore, she is convinced that her father (Smoke) was actually murdered at the party.

This segues into the final section of the book where Blue goes into the darkest part of the internet and finds out that Hannah probably was Catherine Baker, she did kill a cop 20+ years ago, and that she saved the life of Gracey (the Nightwatch founder).  She presents this to her father, who tries to dissuade her from going to the police (what would be the point) when she quotes back one of his own quotes about the importance of Justice.  So he agrees.  Then in the middle of the night, he clears out.  This is not a metaphor.  He literally vanishes from her life, so she goes into a deep depression and does more thinking and internet searching.  Also Smoke Harvey's notes arrive in the mail (mailed by the daughter).  She realizes that her father was deeply involved in the Nightwatch movement and she actually met Gracey in Paris.  She and her father stayed at his luxury apartment, which turned out to be a rentable suite, etc.  Nothing that she thinks was the truth checks out, aside from the fact that her father did teach at various universities and he did date a lot of women.  It is more than likely that her father ordered Hannah to be eliminated after her erratic behavior and possibly Andreo the gardener carried out the task.  The book never really emerges from the rabbit hole.  Blue hints at some further connections in the final pages (the Final Exam).  Hannah and her father may have had a torrid affair early in their life which led her mother to kill herself.  Blue's father, with his cover essentially blown, may have decamped to Africa to stir up rebellion.  Blue may have hung out with Zach all summer while waiting to move to Boston to start her freshman year at Harvard.  Quite a few loose ends in general.

But as I keep thinking over the story, so many things just don't quite add up.  Her father clearly had access to extra cash (and he even set up a trust** for her, which apparently was going to pay for her to start Harvard).  But where does a secret cult get its funding?  And why do both Blue's father and apparently Hannah keep recruiting agents of the Nightwatch when they do so little, aside perhaps knocking off the occasional corporate executive?  I would argue that cults can't survive completely in secret.  They really do need publicity.  Especially if they are making serious money in some kind of completely unexplained fashion.  And maybe that is what the father was up to with his articles on The Nightwatch in obscure academic journals, i.e. keeping the group in circulation in the appropriate circles, though this seems just a bit too much Poe's purloined letter, hiding in plain sight.  They didn't think that the author of all these pieces on The Nightwatch group might not occasionally attract the attention of the FBI?  And the father's behavior was not a little bizarre and likely to attract attention some day?  What was he thinking?  (I guess he really was a megalomaniac who just thought he was smarter than 99.9% of the rest of us and would never get caught.)  Speaking of odd decisions, why would her father have risked so much to come live where Hannah was living?  And then for them both to pretend they had never met.  Was it just to keep tabs on Hannah?  As others have pointed out, he probably was secretly keeping tabs on Blue, so why he thought allowing her to keep meeting over at Hannah's home and then going on that camping trip(!) was a good idea is completely beyond me.  I kind of feel a bit suckered, since there is a big hole in the plot that just doesn't make any sense to me.  On the other hand, that is sort of the ultimate message of L'Avventura -- that life is sometimes inexplicable.  One basically never really knows the inner workings of another human, even if one thinks one knows the other person well.  Still waters run deep and so on.  I don't regret reading it, but I wouldn't read it again, even to go through looking for clues.  I also have a pretty good idea of what kind of a novel Film Night is (unlike my impressions when I started Calamity Physics), and I wouldn't say I am particularly eager to tackle it.

* This may be the second biggest misdirect of the book.  The dead man, Smoke Harvey, was working on a book about The Nighwatch (an underground radical group) and was starting to get close to uncovering some truths, namely that Hannah was probably Catherine Baker.  So why would he so nonchalantly go to Hannah's party and pretend to be an old friend?  That simply makes no sense.  Unless he really did fall under her sway...

** Generally, kids simply can't get their hands on trust money without a guardian.  There are too many things that a parent still needs to do and sign for her to be able to go on to Harvard after his disappearance.  So this is quite unbelievable.  I don't think Blue's cover story, that her father had contracted throat cancer and was no longer able to speak on the phone or go back to the university would hold up for more than a week or two.  Certainly not long enough for her to actually get enrolled into Harvard.

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