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First novel about detail-obsessed young heroine hits home
MARISHA PESSL reading in the Brigantine Room Saturday (October 21), 4 pm, and on a panel with Yves Beauchemin, Bernice Eisenstein and Alon Hilu in the Lakeside Terrace on Sunday (October 22), 5 pm. Rating: NNNNN
It’s no wonder marisha pessl has the self-confidence to put out a 500-page novel on the first try.
“If I scribbled a few words on a cocktail napkin and showed it to my family, they’d proclaim it astonishing and more culturally relevant than the Bible,” she admits to me.
Throughout grade school, Pessl enjoyed a Royal Tenenbaums-like frenzy of after-school activities: horseback riding, ballet, tap, jazz, drawing, painting, music and theatre.
“In spite of such an enriched artistic life, during many of those activities I really just wished I were cheerleading.”
The product of a bookish North Carolina family known to read aloud to one another from Crime And Punishment or The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Pessl has written a debut novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, about a teenager obsessed with all things literary and quotable.
“In America, people of a certain age ask, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ In my house you were more likely to be asked, ‘Where were you when you first read The Catcher In The Rye?'”
Pessl wrote her first story in the fifth grade.
“My mother recently dug it out of our basement and made me read it it features a five-page section detailing what the main characters ordered at McDonald’s.”
Despite these early forays, Pessl, now 27, became a financial consultant after college, aspired to be an actress and didn’t always know she wanted to write.
“I kept circling warily around full-time writing. I’m quite social and love the collaborative aspects of other arts, working on a play or film, which being a full-time novelist just isn’t about – at least for me.”
Pessl describes her main character as about as different from her own teenage self as you could get. Blue Van Meer comes off as shy and insular, but like Pessl alive with observations about the people around her and her environment.
“Blue also tries for the truth, too, attempting to be a very reliable narrator, which is something else I like about her,” she says.
Throughout the novel, Blue annotates almost every thought or feeling with a bibliographic reference.
I asked Pessl why she sometimes used accurate notations and made others up.
“Blue’s relentless annotations, which thin out over the course of the novel as she experiences life rather than reading about it, were there from the beginning. They were a simple extension of her character, how she interprets the world. They’re intended to be funny, yet painfully so. And my inventing the majority of reference texts was a simple offshoot of creating a detailed world for my book. It was only natural I’d come up with a library specific to the book, too.”
Pessl has been the object of a fair amount of criticism and suspicion from the literary press since she came on the scene. Consider Jessa Crispin’s column in The Book Standard called, It’s Not About Marisha Pessl’s Looks And Money – Is It? Pessl’s amused by the hype.
“Well, I don’t think I’m so marketable now that I’ve just returned from my book tour. I have circles under my eyes the size of potholes and my voice is raspier than Leonard Cohen’s. Funnily enough, countless other debut American novelists had considerably larger advances than I did – so it’s sort of bizarre that I’m being singled out.”
Of course, any easy-on-the-eyes young female author with a popular literary novel is going to be called the next Zadie Smith. Pessl doesn’t mind too much.
“I like Zadie’s writing, so that’s a compliment, but obviously as a novelist you want to forge your own path, even if it’s a tiny path in a dark corner of a yard no one will enter willingly except a few squirrels. Personally, I see myself more as a Danielle Steele-meets-Pynchon-meets-Napoleon Dynamite. But that’s just me.”