GROWING UP BLUE
By Bill Kohlhaase
Your college English prof calls them “coming-of-age” novels. But we like to call tales of teenage angst “thumbsucker lit.” Thumbsuckers include everything from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic The Catcher In the Rye (the book to which all thumbsucker novels are inevitably compared) to more recent works such as Joe Meno’s Hairstyles Of the Damned and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. The genre’s name comes from Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel Thumbsucker (and the 2005 movie of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Bratt and Lou Taylor Pucci), a story which contains just about everything a great thumbsucker novel needs: awkward sex, strange acquaintances, soothing substances, well-meaning adults and heaping helpings of high school alienation. And what better image suggests the two qualities that collide in adolescence—childhood innocence and adult indulgence—than thumb sucking?
Despite its college catalog title, Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, has all the ingredients of a good thumbsucker, as well as its own special twists on alienation. Blue Van Meer, destined for Harvard, has followed her professorial father from one obscure small town college to another (Hicksburg State College, the University of Oklahoma at Flitch). She’s amassed stellar grades while consuming just about every book, real and imagined, ever written, many of which are referenced in the story (if you followed Blue’s every suggestion to “see” various texts that crowd the pages, it would take you a lifetime to finish her story). Her mother, killed in a car accident, lives on in her butterfly collection. Meanwhile, her father amasses his own collection of “June Bugs,” the name Blue gives the women who are attracted to this screen door of a dad. Dad also waxes wise, though sometimes unwisely, during what Blue calls “Bourbon Moments.”
The two wind up in Stockton, North Carolina, and Blue, in her senior year, sets about to dismantle St. Gallaway school’s top-ranked student Radley Clifton. Father and daughter meet Hannah Schneider in the produce section of the local supermarket and Hannah, with “the brazen self-confidence present only in one who had shucked off the label of Sweater Girl and proved herself to be a dramatic actress of considerable range and talent,” informs them that she teaches Introduction To Film at Gallaway. Blue immediately casts Hannah as a potential June Bug. Dad, strangely enough considering his ongoing love of entomology, doesn’t show any interest. Complications? You bet, especially since Blue tells us in the first two pages she will later discover Hannah “hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord.”
Hannah involves our heroine in her circle of high school favorites, a group that Blue labels the “Blue Bloods.” Children of privilege, they have the goods and cynicism that come naturally to rich high school kids. The girls, Jade and Leulah, like to pick up older men in bars (they have fake IDs) and blow them in the toilets. The group, sensing Blue is beneath them in certain ways and above them in others, resists her inclusion into their little clique. But Hannah insists.