Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 16, 2008

The Blue-Pessl Connection

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 1:49 pm

Thinking about Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the way that Kathleen Fitzpatrick wants us to think about postmodern fiction and the anxiety of obsolescence proved particularly challenging for me, mostly because there is so much to think about within the novel (and outside of it), so focusing on one single thread of thought was nearly impossible.

I think that Fitzpatrick makes some fascinating arguments regarding the anxiety of obsolescence, ones that make me consider my own position as an academic. When thinking about Pessl’s novel, I began by thinking about the character of Blue’s dad. He is a quintessential representation of a old, white, man whose position is ostensibly being undermined by the proliferation of new technology. As a professor, he is forced to teach students who “emerge from the womb predestined for Grand Theft Auto Vice City” (11), a man who is engaged in a life-long love affair with books and the written word.

However, Gareth van Meer is not the one chosen to narrate the novel. Instead, it is his daughter, Blue, part of the generation of writers who are born after the 1950s, a generation that has always had television. For this reason, Blue is caught in an uncomfortable position between the ‘old order’ she knows from growing up with her father, and the current habits of the teens surrounding her. For much of her life, Blue is able to remain separate from her peers, having to move often with her father, and this refusal “to interact with the surrounding culture” (Fitzpatrick 52) puts Blue in a position, according to her father, where she will “have no choice but to go down in history” (Pessl 24).

But what might Pessl be saying when she writes Blue as she does? In this article on, Pessl admits that there is only a little bit of herself in the character of Blue van Meer, but that she does have a similar love affair with literature. (and that is literature, not just books). In chapter 5, Fitzpatrick cites her goal task as:

examine the ways in which the novelists…mobilize popular and theoretical discourses about contemporary culture in formulating their own responses to television and other forms of electronic media. (201)

In doing this, Fitzpatrick argues, the text will reveal the anxieties of displacement the writer feels, and that the anxiety itself is being used by the author as a writing strategy. With this in mind, I see a number of connections between Blue and Pessl. For Blue, and ostensibly, Pessl, the safety and truth of any situation lies in its references. Behind every argument, there must be supporting details for it to be valid, hence the plethora of citations on every page. For fiction writers, as well, it is impossible to write a novel without acknowledging the centuries of writing tradition that have preceded the writer (and STiCP is hailed as intensely Nabokov-ian).  As Blue begins to discover herself within the world of normal teen interaction, she takes on a variety of teen characters, trying to find her ‘real’ individual self.  Her problem ends up being that this search for her true individuality is accomplished through being a version of a stereotype that ultimately masses all teens together. And, in the end, she must revert back to her training in careful research in order to solve the mystery of Hannah Schneider.

For Pessl, the character of Gareth van Meer represents the death of academia. He lives in his own world, marginally successful, and completely inflexible. However, when Blue attempts to break away from the tradition her father is a part of, she quickly begins to lose her valuable quality of uniqueness; she becomes an American teenager, despite her father’s analogy that “American teenagers are to a weightless vacuum as seat cushions are to polyurethane foam” (Pessl 115).  Important to note is that it is only through being ostracized by her American teenager ‘friends’ that Blue is able to solve the mystery.  However, solving the mystery also means losing her father.  Pessl’s message:  the American author must be a tortured, lonely soul.

The piece of the puzzle that really confuses me: Why does Gareth decide to only teach at very small colleges? Is it an ego, big fish/small pond thing?  And, please, please, will someone talk about the relationship between Gareth van Meer, PoliSci Professor and Socrates, Nightwatchmen HR guy, it’s good stuff.

P.S. If you want to get a little bit of a feel for Marisha Pessl’s personality, here is a video of her describing the plot of the novel.


1 Comment »

  1. Esther,

    I think I viewed the connection between the two works in a very similar way that you did. I figured I’d chime in on what I thought about Gareth and the small universities question you wrote. I am going to have to say that it has to be a big fish/small pond thing going on. Gareth always wants the admiration of those around him: even Blue states he is taken aback when people don’t know who he is. He thinks he is the alpha and omega of academia, and he must spread himself out to the world around him. He teaches at small colleges for the respect, and moves around so that he stays in the public consciousness. Despite his endeavors in Journals, no great amount of the population reads him. Therefore, he must travel so that people recognize his intellect. Perhaps he sees himself as the academic guerrilla(or is it reactionary guerrilla?)who goes on grass roots campaigns to activate small cells of thinkers all around the country.


    Comment by timesnine — February 19, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

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