What I’ve Been Reading – March 2008
Important Literature has been at the mercy of my decreased reading schedule. Important Literature, like those Essentials I’ve since taken off of the site, have become less and less essential; more a reminder than a goal, a wish list, not a syllabus.
1 Dead in Attic – Chris Rose
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #26 – Dave Eggers (editor)
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Instead, I’ve turned back to Clever Literature and New Fiction, the things I should have been keeping up with the whole time. The classics will always be there, but there’s a little twinge of excitement in reading a book that’s relatively recent, a book that just a year ago was featured on several best of lists and book award shortlists.
Now, when I say New Fiction, I really mean New Fiction that Has Been in Paperback for About a Year Or Two. I’m by no means the type of guy who’s scouring the pre-release lists looking for new authors or Clever Literature. I let them fall to me, picking them up when they’re on Borders’ Three for Two table, when they’ve become just popular enough to overstock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics was one of these Three for Two table books (along with The Kite Runner and Bill Buford’s Heat). I had heard “Things” about it, and in my book-addled mind those “Things” added up to rave reviews and a must read book.
I can see why the literati loved this book. It’s the very epitome of Clever Literature, using a non-standard narrator (Blue Van Meer, a young, brilliant girl in her senior year of high school who is fond of quoting books and sounding incredibly smart) and a non-standard plot – Blue and four other high school seniors become close through a teacher’s attention.
It sounds simple, actually. High school friendships, the awkwardness of the teenage years, you know, the usual. But it’s not. These five have little in common. The teacher, who is a part-time film instructor at some fancy pants private school, is one part den mother, one part creepy co-conspirator. The kids act like adults, the teacher approves. And people start dying.
Dying? Hell yeah! Excitement is often lacking from Clever Literature, so it was exciting to see a little action in the midst of Blue’s too-smart references, most of which I didn’t get. It was like a sudden alley-oop in a defensively inclined basketball game. It was welcomed and even a little thrilling.
Oh yeah, the references. The book is riddled with them, sometimes four or five on a page, little snippets that refer to other books or authors or poets or whatever. It was like the book was designed like a research paper (and considering Blue’s brilliant father is a college professor, and the chapters are arranged like a literature syllabus, this makes perfect sense.)
The effect is that reading Calamity Physics is like listening to Dennis Miller rant about being a kid. It’s packed full of obscurities, and it swings wildly back and forth from teenage girl angst to intelligent diatribe on the state of Middle Eastern Politics. I suspect you’re not supposed to understand it, just like you’re not supposed to understand Dennis Miller’s ramblings. You accept as “smart” and you move on.
And that’s the central problem with the book. You accept Blue Van Meer as smart. In fact, you accept her as much smarter than you. Than anyone, really. Much smarter than anyone in the history of the world.
“She’s too smart,” I thought about Blue Van Meer. “She’s unlikely to be put into these situations. It’s just not believable.” It turned from Zadie Smith cleverness to the weaker moments of Jonathan Safran Foer. Simply put, Pessl is too cute for her own good.
If you get over that fact – and I eventually did – you’ll enjoy the book. You’ll find the style irresistible. Even if it’s cute, it can be brilliant. For example (in a scene where Blue is talking with an emotional Hannah):
Her teeth snagged her bottom lip, there was a little manifestoed frown between her eyebrows. I was deathly afraid she’d go on about needing to go live on a kibbutz or relocating to Vietnam where she’d become a hash-smoking beatnik (“Hanoi Hannah,” we’d have to call her) or else she’d turn on us, chastise us for being like our parents, odious and square. Even more frightening was the possibility she might cry. Her eyes were wet, murky tide pools where things unseen lived and glowed. I felt there were few things in the world more horrific than the adult weep – not the rogue tear during a long-distance commercial, not the stately sob at a funeral, but the cry on the bathroom floor, in the office cubicle, in the two-car garage with one’s fingers frantically pressing down on one’s eyelids as if there was an ESC key somewhere, a RETURN.
(Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl, p.188)
It’s passages like that – passages that perfectly mix culture and history while melding with well-envisioned thoughts and plot – that helped me forget about the cute stuff. I forgot about how weird the idea was. I forgot about how awkward it seemed at times, like no real girl would talk like this, how unreal the entire concept was. And I just floated around enjoying clever turns of phrase.
Maybe it was the extreme wordsmithing of Pessl’s novel. Or maybe it was just a set of rose-shaded spectacles that had long lost their tint. But when I picked up Fahrenheit 451, this year’s South Dakota Big Read selection, I had trouble fighting through it.
I mean, I’ve read it before. It’s a classic book, one I enjoyed in high school and held with me. I was in a band and we wrote a song about the book. In terms of life changing literature in my life, it was pretty important.
We all know the book, right? It’s a dystopic novel about firemen who burn instead of save, where reading and knowledge are seen as threats and books are illegal. It’s a science fiction romp through censorship and discovery, where one man goes from setting fires to running from his own department, waist deep in new knowledge and ready to fight for the world’s great ideas.
It’s important. The story is timeless. I loved it as a kid and consider it an all time great.
The fact is, it’s not written that well.
Maybe that’s too harsh. It is written well. But it’s not written beautifully. It’s not complex. It’s basic and it moves too fast. It feels as if something important was left out. Its characters aren’t fleshed out, its plot seemingly thrown together and its excitement waning.
I had just finished a book that was clever, showing brilliance with each constructed sentence. And afterward, I turned to an old classic that hasn’t aged well, that had been propped in the corner as a symbol of the good old days but unfortunately no longer held up to today’s new group of daring writers.
But is that the books strength? Fahrenheit 451 has gracefully declined. How many of today’s authors will be able to claim the same? Thirty years from now, how will they look? Do they have the stamina to hold up? Will Pessl’s book be tossed around and thrown asunder with the sentences fracturing under a new era of critique? Will Letham and Eggers and Safran Foer look up from the ground where their battered works lay scattered and wonder why time hadn’t treated them in the same way it had the classics?
Will Fahrenheit 451, a little aged but still wily, stare down, shake its head and walk away, knowing that while it may not be a technical marvel, it’s still relevant and striking as always.
It begs us to consider the new wave of literary marvels, dressing up each book in a cape, a gown, topped with ballroom grandeur. Great words may stimulate the present. But like a classic suit, muted and admittedly a little boring, great ideas seem to last a lot longer. In the end, you always laughingly look back on the overdone eveningwear and shake your head. And in the end, you always grab the old suit and head out for another event.