Tartt’s younger, more extrovert, funnier sister?
Firstly, I confess I often find comparisons between very successful, admired, popular pieces of work, erroneous pieces of publicity and marketing drive. I’m currently reading a new author being hailed and compared with Donna Tartt’s magnificent (in my opinion) The Goldfinch. And it ain’t, not by a long flight.
Anyway, having been steered to Pessl’s second novel Night Film, by another reviewer, I was sufficiently impressed to miss her, and have very quickly read her first novel. And – a good test, at the end of ‘Calamity Physics’ I am feeling cross and bereft that there are no other Pessls to read. Whilst not quite as long time a writing as Ms Tartt, there was a gap between Pessl one and Pessl two of some 6 years, so I am guessing patience will be my watchword for at least 5.
Comparisons between the two are most clear between Calamity Physics and Secret History. Both writers are FIERCELY and I mean FIERCELY intelligent and erudite, widely read literati; good users of language, unfurlers of a measured narrative drive, but determined to make their readers observe the countryside they are travelling through, and not just driven speedily by ‘what happens next’ plot impatience. Both create complex, layered characters, both set their books within academia, and moreover the academia of the glitteringly brilliant. In both books, there is a charismatic, magus type teacher figure who exerts undue and ultimately destructive power over a group of young, impressionable acolytes. This is obviously a well-worn groove, which can be brilliantly done – Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie an early example of the genre, and can be, well, dire. I have read some of these, and screamed and hurled those as derivative, sensationalist and unbelievable. Pessl, like Tartt, inhabits the vibrantly successful end of the spectrum, though both lack Spark’s ability to pare down to the bone, and produce a piece of writing which runs clear, arrow like and lethal to its conclusion.
Tartt’s book has an older group, at a New England college, studying Ancient Greek. These are the makers and shakers of society in the future, entering their twenties, already partially formed. Pessl takes a group a handful of years younger, 15-17, from privileged backgrounds – the group are called the Bluebloods, under the influence of a darker, less stable Jean Brodie type figure, Hannah Schneider, who may or may not be who she claims to be, and who unravels through the 500 odd pages of the book. Just as there was an outsider figure, both OF and not-of the elite group in Secret History (Papen) we have one here, 15 year old Blue van Meer. Blue, like Richard Papen, is the narrator. She is sophisticated, fearsomely intelligent, well-read in a number of fields. Yes she is precocious; but this all makes perfect sense – she is the daughter of an equally precocious, opinionated, well travelled academic professor, and her mother (who died when Blue was very young, in tragic circumstances, which are not fully unfurled till late on in the book) was a passionate and erudite lepidopterist, specialising in a particular blue butterfly (after which Blue was named). Like Tartt, Pessl starts with the crime – in this case, the death of the charismatic teacher, discovered by Blue (no spoiler, it’s on the dust-jacket ‘hook’ for the book) So, right from the start, we are given the shock we will work towards. This book is written by Blue, a year after the discovery of Hannah’s body, and Blue is now an introverted, melancholic, young student now at Harvard. In an attempt to free herself from, and understand the past, she begins to write the story.
I know that this book has garnered widely differing reviews, with some readers at screaming pitch, finding Pessl arrogant, pretentious and a show-off, and others (I’m one) absolutely savouring the literary illusions (each chapter has the title of a piece of literature which references in some way that chapter) She also does full referencing of texts .Blue is of course now a student within higher education and referencing is de rigueur. Some of the texts are real, some are there because Pessl is playing with us, and you sense the mischief. There are also what Blue calls ‘visual aids’ scattered throughout the text – her drawings of photographs, or just her drawings, illustrating the people she is writing. And, yes the illustrations are from Pessl’s doubly gifted pen.
I think it comes down to, do you resonate with the author’s voice – do you want to listen to what she says, does she grab your attention, or do you find her like chalk on a blackboard. I found Pessl – or rather Pessl subsumed into Blue, marvellous funny, witty, her humour sharp, dry and sometimes cruelly deadly.
I guess this IS Pessl’s wit, as the central character of Night Film is equally acerbic and ouchly, wickedly, funny. Where Night Film references films, Calamity Physics is literary,
For a brief flavour, Blue on her father, who unfortunately was a magnet for females, whom Blue named the June Bugs – they had an intense life in Gareth Van Meer’s bed, just like those brilliant short summer insects, before being suddenly abandoned for a newer bug:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now :June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle”, Ordinary Insects, Vol.24)
There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout , “Gareth, you’re a fool, ” with her back to him. Dad’s cue to run to her, turn her around to see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her round to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it were an abstract painting. Then he went into the kitchen for a glass of bourbon.
Blue (and the Bluebloods) are, yes, at times operatic, self-indulgent, melodramatic, cruel and without a shred of empathy. But they are very young, still, and often this age is cruelly judgmental, especially to its peers. Experience and suffering (life) develop empathy and nuance.
After having taken us through the huge events, the teenage tantrums, the cruelly funny dismissive barbs of young teens, which it is (or was) impossible for this reader to avoid laughing at, whilst wincing at the cruel put-downs, Pessl skilfully steers us to the not-so-sudden bleakness of an ending. The one we do not want, but the one which changes Blue, the one which makes her able to “feel a little guilty using it now”. Blue enters bleakness, the wit and the humour suddenly ripped aside, and we suddenly are slap-bang into a depth. The ending, which I am still thinking about, still going ‘oh no, oh no’ is perfect, and Pessl has made the reader inhabit this likeable, frightening, irritating, far too worldly, intelligent adolescent, and really engage with the journey.
When I read the book again (as I surely will) I will ensure I have also read the chapter heading literary works I DON’T know, in order to gain a bit of extra nuanced flavour from the chapter it announces. It is absolutely possible to enjoy this book hugely if you are completely unfamiliar with any of the texts, but knowing them, adds a bit of spice.