One of the very first books I wrote about after creating this blog (well, the Blogger version, anyway) back in 2008 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I picked up because physics and then didn’t like terribly much, possibly due to the book’s decided lack of physics. But even though I did not love the book as much as I wanted to, it’s been in the back of my mind ever since, so when Pessl’s new book started making the rounds of my internets to glowing acclaim, I knew I had to read it.
And good freaking lord this book deserved all that acclaim. I failed to read it in time for RIP but holy heck it is a perfect creepy, haunting book for putting on your list next year if you can possibly wait that long. Or if you’re still experiencing fall, like I am here in Florida, grab your coziest blanket, a mug of hot cocoa, find a fireplace to curl up next to, and read this story right now.
The book opens with our protagonist running around Central Park in the middle of the night, as no one does, and being watched by a shadowy figure in a bright red coat. He is smartly spooked by this fact, one of the last smart things he’s going to do in this novel.
After this prologue, we get a title page and some news-site slideshow-style faux screenshots giving us some backstory — there’s a girl called Ashley Cordova who has just committed suicide and was the daughter of a reclusive filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, known for dark psychological thrillers shown only in (sometimes literally) underground showings and available only in expensive bootleg copies. Then we meet our protagonist again and find out that his name is Scott McGrath, he’s a disgraced journalist, and it was his obsession with Ashley’s father that caused that second fact. So of course when he finds out that Ashley is dead he thinks it’s going to be a great idea to delve back into that whole investigation. Mistake number [very large number, I'm sure].
I kind of want to tell you about all the crazy places Scott goes and all the crazy people he meets and allows to tag along with him, but I would just end up telling you the entire story because it’s all so bonkers so you might as well just go get the book and read it yourself.
Instead I will tell you that in having Scott adventure to all of these places with all of these people, Pessl creates a lot of really fantastic and suspenseful scenes that had me flipping pages as fast as I could read them and cursing the inevitable end of my lunch break as I squeezed in the last pages of a chapter. I had to know what would happen next, and every time I found out I also found a new thing to worry about in the hours between reading times or to give me strange dreams later that night.
I do have to say that I nearly gave up on this book due to Pessl’s over-reliance on italics (see that quote above). They are everywhere, all the time, and I get that they are probably meant to help me hear the way that the characters speak but they mostly made me wonder where the characters learned to speak English (see: my exact same rant about Fables). These italics pulled me out of many an otherwise absorbing scene and it took sheer force of will and an intense interest in the story and the characters to ignore them. Ugh.
But the characters! Even though I think Scott is kind of an idiot, I was rooting for him completely in his investigation and in his personal life, a lot of which we get to see. He’s also got some annoying manic pixie dream sidekicks whom I wished would get the heck out of the novel, but I found their strange backstories intriguing and so I will allow them to stay (because that’s totally my decision). But of course the most interesting person in the book is Ashley, who for being dead the whole time has a heck of a character arc.
I really loved the way Pessl took the weird underground film aspect of her story and made it an integral part of the story and the book itself. As I mentioned above, the book’s prologue acts as a cold open, followed by a title card, with the real story starting after. There are also many pages that are just screenshots of the story’s internet or case files or photographs that lend a visual component, as well as three completely black pages that delineate the book’s four acts. The characters get into a lot of discussions about Cordova’s films and how they work and their structure leaks into the book’s structure (to the point where a character actually says “I think I’m inside a Cordova film”) and it is super interesting in a really nerdy way. Also, the ending, oh my goodness.
This is absolutely a book (like one Mr. Peanut) that is going to require a re-read or two or seven to really get the whole story and find all of the tiny details that I know are hidden in it, and I hope I will find the time to give it all the re-reads it deserves.
Recommendation: For fans of psychological terror, creepy films, and stories that refuse to give you closure.
Rating: 9/10 (with the story just barely overpowering the italics to keep it from an 8, seriously, I hate those italics)