Nabokov’s Lolita is credited with adding a previously forbidden theme–of pedophilia, pathology, psychopathy, whatever negative label you wish to apply–to mainstream American fiction (even though it’s the French who dared publish it first). But, actually, Lolita made an even more significant and enduring contribution to the American literary scene. It added a new style of writing that began to rival in popularity the action-packed, “masculine” terseness of Hemingway and Steinbeck’s vivid, fluid descriptions. With Nabokov–Russian-born yet adopted as a quintessentially American author–the first-person narrative with a mandatory, almost ruthless sense of irony has become a staple of American fiction. Highly successful novels ranging from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections have experimented with it. In fact, I suspect that by now literary agents and critics have come to expect it from contemporary fiction. It’s difficult to compete with Nabokov in his capacity to reinvent the English language or in his use of irony and wit to render endearing and engaging even the ugliest human beings.
I think, however, that Marisha Pessl manages to do it in her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her book was met by critics with resounding praise and made it to the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006. One of the main attractions may have been that Pessl was only 28 years old when she first published her novel. Although overtly repudiating Romantic clichés, the literary and artistic milieux still covertly fetishize the residues of what used to be called, during the nineteenth century, “artistic genius.” “It’s always refreshing to find [a writer] who takes such joy in the magical tricks words can perform,” declares the Los Angeles Times. “This blockbuster debut, over five hundred pages chock-full of literary and pop cultural references and illustrations by Pessl herself, demands attention,” seconds People magazine.
What makes this novel stand out are not the traditional elements that help other contemporary novels sell well: plot and characterization. Action-packed novels like The DaVinci Code sell well largely due to their suspenseful plot. Literary fiction that sells well and gets great reviews tends to have compelling, “realistic” characterizations such as we find, say, in Wally Lamb’s novels (particularly in I know this much is true, a psychological tour-de-force of mainstream, character-driven fiction). Although Special Topics‘ plot becomes increasingly tangled and implausible as the novel progresses and its main characters are at times farcical, thanks to its style, I believe that Pessl’s first novel nonetheless stands on a par with some of the best contemporary American novels. In Special Topics, like in Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary and Nabokov’s Lolita, the style steals the show. Not since Nabokov have I read an author so adept at verbal gymnastics that make you experience the power of language, with unexpected freshness. Nor have I read a narrative able to sustain for over 500 pages an irony and wit that never become old or tired. “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink,” writes Jonathan Franzen. In great fiction, style isn’t just surface, it’s also depth. The style permeates the main characters, who without it might seem somewhat stereotyped: the timid yet perceptive, nerdy young narrator; her narcissistic, academic father with a scathing sense of irony towards everyone but himself; the circle of bizarre friends with sociopathic tendencies; the charismatic teacher who commands their attention like a cult figure. Each of these characterizations shines through with vitality and depth due to the freshness and inventiveness of Pessl’s narrative style and her tireless wit, which makes her first novel a book you’ll enjoy reading again and again.
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon