Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 11, 2008

Many, many, many special topics

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 10:48 pm

Reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics made me think about the act of reading, the way of reading, myself as a reader, the other readers that inhabit the world, who is reading this novel, and the reading the author has already done in order to write this novel.  Just to begin.

I believe this novel is what they call an “academic novel” as in, it is done in an academic style that appeals to academic readers.  I like to think of myself as an ‘academic’ if for no other reason than I have been studying for years now to learn to read appropriately/correctly/intelligently/efficiently, and whatever other goals an English degree aspires to in terms of reading.  But, this book is more than a little saturated with references to texts real and fictional.  The references to books or stories I had read truly enhanced the reading experience, because it added a richness and added depth to the fairly light coming-of-age story.  The obviously author-engineered references (such as “see “Martian 14,”  Profiling Little Green Men:  Sketches of Aliens from Eyewitness Accounts, Diller, 1989, p. 115″) (p 154) could have been left out.  Because, as one reviewer noted, “Much of it was dense academic blathering–in character, to be sure, but still very annoying to read.” (from Amazon book reviews)

Why did Pessl need seven citations per page?  What did they bring to the book that it would not have had without it?  And, what does the average (non-English Major, normal individual not asking these questions) reader do with this format?

In academia, the citation is meant to bring authority to an individual’s argument.  I like to think of it as the pieces of different puzzles that the academic writer collects and fits carefully together to create a new, (hopefully) beautiful puzzle.  But, if not all of the references are referencing actual work, it  begins to break down the authority of that practice.  In many ways, this fictional work seems to be mocking the tradition of the academic citation. 

And what about the reader that has read few of the remaining ‘real’ references?  From the reviews that I have read online, the citations seem to only get in the way.  The same reviewer as I mentioned above faults the author for her intense use of metaphors and clever references.  She writes:

But much as I love the TV show “Lost,” but have no interest in the ongoing “Lost Experience” on the web, I am resigned to accepting that I may never unravel the knot that still lies at the heart of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” Writing a master’s thesis on Nabokov would be a good place to start, but I think we’d all agree that’s asking a great deal of one’s readers.

Certainly readers cannot be expected to undergo an intense English education or to write a thesis on Nabokov, so is this then a novel designed specifically for the ‘trained’ reader?  That theory breaks down as well, since the book is not teeming with as much traditional “literary value” that would endear it to generations of readers. 

I haven’t figured this out.  I have figured out that Pessl’s novel is different from the ‘average’ novel, be it academic or mass-market.  But I haven’t figured out what audience it is so well suited for.  Perhaps that indicates my belief that the future of the novel involves drastic polarization between the ‘literary’ novel and the ‘popular’ novel.  Yet, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a NY Times Bestselling book.  Boy, I can’t wait to get to class and hear what everyone else has to say. 

Side Note:  Pessl has a website designed a la J.K. Rowling and Dawson’s Desktop-obnoxious, but the most obnoxious of all- the ‘spoiler’ is designed to look like a cliff notes booklet, but all it says inside is “in life there are no shortcuts”  It seems strangely arrogant to me, because I’m not sure that there is as much depth to the novel as many presume, but, in the mode of postmodern fiction, it is not what the novel says, but what it does, that the interest lies.


1 Comment »

  1. Esther-

    I have mixed emotions when it comes to the references. I love that they show how Blue’s academic mind is constantly linking her experiences with the books that she’s has read. They also easily allow Pessl to establish that Blue isn’t only a smart, perceptive kid, but a genius capable of uncovering the bizarre truth about her father, Hannah, and an entire underground society.

    At the same time Pessl over killed the charm and novelty of this literary technique. At a certain point I wanted the references to end. I eventually found myself skimming them, especially when the fictional references and bogus Web sites started showing up. I agree that the false references break down the authority of the work. The only acceptable false reference would have been the published essays of Gareth van Meer.


    Comment by bhkite — February 12, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

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