At some point as a student I came across French theorist Roland Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), which suggests (in translation) that a text ought to be read as a “tissue of quotations” (instead of a single isolated product of a clearly identifiable authorial intention; I paraphrase and summarise wildly here). I vaguely thought of “tissue” initially as the kind of tissue you’d sneeze into, woven to be flimsy and fragile and disposable. Later, I thought of “tissue” as in the weavings of biology–something bloody and vital, connective cells, scar tissue. In Special Topics in Calamity Physics there might not be a difference? Special Topics in Calamity Physics is certainly about weaving out of borrowed and inherited words: its narrator, Blue van Meer, is a patchwork of books and films, but also a parrot of her brilliant politics professor father, a moon reflecting his blazing light, until something terrible happens and she begins to question what exactly he–and by extension her life–are made of.
Agatha Christie’s spinster detective Miss Marple (forgive the digression) uses her understanding that people tend to fall into types as a strategy for solving crimes and mysteries; at her advanced age, she has observed butchers, and bakers, and probably candlestick makers in her tiny village act in certain ways and do certain things because of the kind of people they are. When a crime in a wider circle happens, it triggers a memory of a village incident, and she can map the types of characters involved in the original incident onto the new one. Blue does something similar, I think, but she is seventeen, not seventy, and her lived experience is unconventional but repetitive: numerous homes in small-town suburbs, lots of high schools in which she easily out-intellects her peers, lots of ladies trying to be her new step-mother (Blue’s mother was killed in a car crash when she was little), lots of long car journeys between small towns reciting T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare aloud with her father.
So instead of her own memories, she turns to texts. Her narration draws on the entire white European/American philosophical and psychological and political and cinematic and literary and popular fiction canon, it seems, to frame her observations and establish her metaphors. Instead of observing crimes and transgressions through the microscope of village life, then, she views life itself through a textual lens, books and films and her own father’s commentary in order to understand it–and as the daughter of an academic, she has a praiseworthy tendency to cite her sources very precisely. She expects (or perhaps needs) things, and people, and situations, and places, to be copies of things she’s read or watched, essentially–and she’s read a lot. And in the process, the pieces of her own past become fairly indistinguishable in sensation from the things she’s read and watched–but it’s when she begins to use her own memories as the original starting point for a pattern that the tissue begins to unravel.
“I love you, Dad.”
There was silence.
I felt ludicrous, of course, not only because when one throws out those words, one needs them to boomerang back without delay, not even because I realised the previous evening had turned me into a sap, a cuckoo, a walking For the Love of Benji and a living Lassie Come Home, but because I knew full well Dad couldn’t stomach those words, just as he couldn’t stomach American politicians, corporate executives who were quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying either “synergy” or “out of the box,” third-world poverty, genocide, game shows, movie stars, E.T., or for that matter, Reese’s Pieces. (p. 259, about halfway through).
The conceit of the novel is that it’s structured like a syllabus, with a reading list. Each chapter’s title is a reference (indeed, Christie pops up, as one would hope, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles), and there’s a multiple choice test at the end, which is annoying as it seems to suggest more ambiguity in the preceding text than is actually present–the novel is complex and layered and needs a slow read, but it’s not particularly ambiguous when things start getting solved. Jonathan Franzen’s blurb on the cover states that “beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a strong dark drink” but I think this rather misses the point*–the point is that there’s no such thing as foam here. Indeed, what critics think of as foamy or frothy or whatever usually means frivolous, which often means YA or women’s writing or genre fiction. In Special Topics in Calamity Physics what looks like foam–dark academia vibes, friendship drama, amusing banter–is actually precise and sharp and riddled with clues; it’s the foam on the lips of someone who has been poisoned, not a head on a pint of Guinness.
A number of Blue’s citations are dead ends, invented by the author; part of the fun of the book is guessing whether a source is real or not. Some characters are illustrated with diagram-like precisely sketched line drawings. It’s all very post-modern, and also brilliant, but also long–I read it first when I was about twenty-two with world enough and time. I can see how it would be highly frustrating. But what I think it does brilliantly is show how terribly easily even the nice kind of tissue, the white soft ephemeral soothing tissue, can be ripped to shreds.
*or then I just have beef with him for considering Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair overrated
Title quote from ‘My October Symphony’ by the Pet Shop Boys