I'm in no position to have a problem with mysterious journeys filled with ambiguity -- I've been watching Lost for the last three years. But Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as fun as it was at times (like Zack, I liked the valediction), just didn't click for me.
I know some of the reasons why. Five, actually.
1. It was about 200 pages too long.
In fiction, I'm very biased toward conciseness. Partly because I have the attention span of a gnat, but also because when a concise writer shifts gears for a scene or a character or a bit of dialogue, I will slow down, too. By page 100, I was already reading paragraphs halfway and then moving on. Countless times, I found myself wondering what it would be like if Gareth was the only character who spoke floridly, or if there were only two or three Bluebloods, or if anything could be described in 25 words or less. Upon hearing that Pessl wants readers to hunt through the book for clues, all I think of is, well, a small sewing implement and a large pile of barnyard grain, plus another 50 word paragraph.
2. The point of view is off, somehow.
Don't get me wrong...I have no problem with Blue as a character, or as a narrator. It's just that there should have been slightly more acknowledgment of storytelling. Sure, STICP is intended to be a life story written down by an introverted, brilliant Harvard student. But at the end of the day, it's also intended to be a novel. A balancing act, to be sure...and the balance is off. Maybe not much, but if it's enough to notice? It's too much.
3. The outside world is off, too.
There ARE two worlds in this book, after all. There's the one with Hannah's house, Jade's house and car, most of St. Gallway's, Paris, the bar, and the no-tell motel. And then there's the one with the convenience store, anything within a fifty foot radius of Zack, and morning news television programs. (I think there's a thesis in it for someone about which side the national park falls on, a shorter paper about where the Internet belongs, and an exam question about Gone With the Fucking Wind.) The outside world in Special Topics in Calamity Physics begins as just about overdone parody, and it doesn't really change. It only serves to prod Blue along when no one else is available. If the Massive Twist has the mission that I think it does, shouldn't the proletariat have more to do than offer slurpies and mysteriously (really, I AM totally stumped on Zack) unwavering loyalty?
4. Blue is never in peril herself, or even particularly afraid.
Disillusioned, sure. Embarrassed? Oh yes. Frustrated? Most definitely. But if you're going to write a mystery and tinker with form, is straight up first person danger a key ingredient that you can omit? Especially when you don't have to? Which leads to the biggest issue for me...
5. Would an 18 year old genius, particularly without much outside
distraction, really be oblivious about the things in which she is
purported to be oblivious?
Blue is a character who cites sources for descriptions, but turns a blind eye to strange things in her environment? I don't buy it. Even if you argue that she is subconsciously protecting herself from the Massive Twist, we've been told, repeatedly, that she's a bibliophile and an academic. Wouldn't the itch to research have become too much to bear, long before it actually did? Wouldn't there be question marks, long before there were? All those dinners...nothing? Really? The trajectory of factfinding would have made more sense to me if Blue were a little more ordinary -- and even then, I think I'd still lift an eyebrow.
All of that said, I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation that was announced recently. If nothing else, it will force some paring down -- both plot-wise and voice-wise -- and it won't surprise me much if improvements result from that alone.