Sunday, November 12, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Imagine if The Secret History were written by John Irving, and you've got a bit of an idea.

Perhaps a reflection of the book itself, the reviews were all over the place; I wasn't sold on reading it until after the third review I saw. (Plus, when confronted by a young author's first novel that is getting lots of press, there's that feeling, sort of the opposite of Schadenfreude*, best summed up by a quip attributed to Gore Vidal: "Whenever a friend of mine succeeds, a little something in me dies.")

So then the book shows up, and it's HUGE, and there's a waiting list, so I won't be able to renew it. With trepidation, I plunge in — hey, the water's fine! Despite the term-paper-like parenthetical references, which I'd expected to be annoying, it's breezy reading with a compelling story and a protagonist whose appeal somehow outshines her dad obsession and adolescent social ineptitude. (Or maybe I just like her because I'm a nerd too.)

I also had the good (mis)fortune to be a bit under the weather on a rainy weekend, which allowed me to immerse myself in the book, reading for hours at a stretch. I never lost the thread, my attention never wavered, and I managed to get in a pretty good guess at what the ending would be; still, the finale is so twisty, my prescience didn't spoil it. Either way, it was good preparation for the Final Exam, in which the reader is invited to draw conclusions and theorize about what really happened in the book.

*Some claim the opposite of Schadenfreude is mudita, a Buddhist concept of sympathetic joy or pleasure in another's success; but if Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortunes of others, its true opposite is sadness in the good fortunes or success of others, which has been translated variously as Erfolgtraurigkeit, Erfolgstraurigkeit, and Gl├╝ckschmerz. Anyone else have a word for this?

No comments: