Well, I’m Baffled

A couple of weeks ago, I read Liesl Schillinger’s review of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the New York Times, which begins as follows:

Whoever coined the phrase “everybody loves a winner” probably wasn’t one. When the news came out that a distractingly pretty actress, playwright and Barnard College graduate named Marisha Pessl, only 27, had sold her first book (which she also illustrated)–a “Nabokovian” thriller about an intellectual widower and his precocious daughter–for a substantial sum, the pick-a-little, talk-a-little publishing blog brigade went into conniptions. “She’s the latest in a long, long line to suffer from ‘Hot Young Author Chick’ Syndrome,” one blogger grumbled; another wrote in a headline, “It’s Not About Marisha Pessl’s Looks and Money–Is It?’ and asked if the book would have been snapped up so quickly if Pessl hadn’t had such a “drool-worthy author photo.” But don’t hate her because she’s beautiful: her talent and originality would draw wolf whistles if she were an 86-year-old hunchbacked troll. And in Pessl’s case, Nabokovian doesn’t need scare quotes. Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate–“Pnin” meets “The O.C.”–is a poetic act of will. Never mind jealous detractors: virtuosity is its own reward. And this skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more.

Like Alan Bennett’s delectable and brilliant play “The History Boys,” now on Broadway, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” tells the story of a wise newcomer who joins a circle of students who orbit a charismatic teacher with a tragic secret…

Excited by the prospect of such a book, I ordered a copy. Since then, Gawker has been having fun debunking the drool-worthiness of Pessl’s author photo. And tonight, after returning from an afternoon performance of The History Boys (which really is delectable and brilliant) and sitting down with Pessl’s book, I’m here to debunk her talent, originality, and virtuosity. I wish Pessl no particular harm, and wouldn’t have anything to say about her book if I hadn’t read such laudatory reviews. But having read them and the first forty-five pages of her book, I’m puzzled.

Pessl is certainly an enthusiastic writer, but enthusiasm shouldn’t be confused with ability or accomplishment. She writes as though English is not her native language and she is using a thesaurus in a misguided attempt to conceal that fact. She sounds sort of like Alex, the Ukranian part-time narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, but unlike Alex, she’s not funny and I don’t think her style has been adopted for literary effect. And as jarring as her word choices and metaphors can be, her allusions can be even more inept. I’m left wondering not at the range of her references, but at whether or not she has actually read, seen, or heard the works to which she refers in sentence after sentence. I’m also left wondering if Liesl Schillinger has ever read Nabokov. And finally, I’m left wondering whether or not I should trust today’s review of The Emperor’s Children.

3 Replies to “Well, I’m Baffled”

  1. You know, maybe it is just being 40 that makes me so crabby. But I sure am tired of untalented, unserious nymphs and sartyrs young enough to be my children being fawned, having doors flung open for them in whatever field of endeavor, simply because they’re sexy and hot.

    When it’s Britney Spears, glamorizing motherhood, at least we make no bones about her appeal. It’s not her brain or accomplishments we’re celebrating, it’s her nubility. The NYT and other highbrow venues are far less honest about their literatti, than Enquirer is about its stars, as the quote about Pessl, juxtaposed with your reading experience, illustrates so nicely.

  2. I don’t know… Maybe it’s just me. My brother-in-law is reading Pessl’s book, and he says he’s really enjoying it. But for me, it was like speeding down a highway that had been described to me as a well-maintained interstate and, though it’s generally very smooth, hitting a pothole every few yards. It was just jarring. In this past week, I’ve also seen The History Boys, read A. B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem, and given Bob Dlyan’s new album a few listens. I’ve found those experiences so much more rewarding, and those works are all, in one way or another, expressions of age and great wisdom. But I don’t think it’s only a matter of age. James Joyce, after all, was just twenty-five when he wrote “The Dead.”

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