Thursday, March 28, 2013

Due Processes: Sergio De La Pava's "A Naked Singularity"

The story behind Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity is one of the more uplifting examples of an unknown writer getting some moments in the spotlight. The novel, a massive, 600+ page comedic and dramatic look at law, bureaucracy, the immigrant experience, and family, was self-published in 2008. Based on the fairly little information available, De La Pava self-published the work and likely would have stopped there, but his wife sent out galleys to literary magazines and journals. A Naked Singularity started to pick up some attention, slowly but surely, before a glowing review in The Quarterly Conversation led to its official publication by the University of Chicago Press in a beautiful, dizzying paperback edition. As of today, De La Pava has a small website, no Twitter feed, an interview with The Believer, and reviews of his work in other publications. It's such a far cry from other self-published novels. It's an excellent, hilarious debut, one worthy of the author doing as much DIY publicity and promotion as possible. In a social media world in which anyone can publish anything and subsequently badger strangers about it, I'm still amazed at how little I know about De La Pava, save for his work. Perhaps he wants it that way, or he's in the process of readying more writings and novels.

A Naked Singularity tells the story of Casi, a Colombian-American public defender in New York City. He represents the most troubled people in society: petty shoplifters, addicts, the mentally unstable. The novel opens with a fascinating, edgy collage of voices, trials, and the introduction of Casi's work life. In a blurb on the paperback edition, William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore claims that De La Pava has "Gaddis's ear," and this is a rare example of a blurb being absolutely correct. De La Pava doesn't imitate Gaddis, but rather uses a similar style to evoke the late writer's penchant for voices and conversations bouncing off each other. After a few pages, the reader is quickly humming along, an eager spectator to the proceedings.

"All right continue, where did you live at this time?
I lived in the park that's why I was always playing chess there. Anyway I noticed that this man, Mr. David Sanders, would come and observe on quite a few occasions and so we got to conversating.
You became friends.
Now don't go jumping the gun that's the problem with you youngsters nowadays. We didn't become friends at all in fact we were in constant disputation.
About what?
Well the fact is I done come up with a new chess opening. And the truth is that this chess opening has confounded the grandmasters and dumbfounded the neophytes.
Great, so where's the problem?
Well the further fact is we had irreconcilable philosophical differences respecting just how good my opening was (De La Pava 23)."

These details may seem minor, but they add up into realistic conversations. De La Pava is interested in everything the characters have to say, and he also deploys some Gaddisian wordplay, e.g. "I do not stand for that kind of language either. This is a goddamn courtroom not some corner hangout (41)!" In addition to these exercises in dialogue, De La Pava is also skilled in writing "regular" detailed descriptions. Some of these contain puns or wordplay, but De La Pava never winks at the reader or engages in any needless showing off. He's a talented writer, and he lets the passages do the work. Often, one will stop to marvel at his sentences. There is much comedy in this novel, but also plenty of literary imagery.

"The snow had stopped and it wasn't quite as cold anymore so I decided I would avoid the subway and walk the mile or so over the Brooklyn Bridge. While walking towards the bridge I watched a man regaled in full Superman costume run past a woman and snatch her purse. The Man of Steal then ran faster than a speeding bullet into the subway station's yawning entrance, his billowing red cape squiggily trailing behind him as he disappeared. Everyone was kind of looking at each other not really sure of what had occurred and not wanting to besmirch the good name of a beloved superhero. I waited around for the requisite time when something bizarre happens, made the similarly expected eye contacts and shrugs, then kept walking (De La Pava 108)."

If you're looking for a strictly literal plot description, there are a couple ballpark estimates which are accurate yet don't fully explain what the novel's aim is, overall. Casi and a colleague learn about an impending drug deal, which coincides with Casi having a very complex existential crisis. He realizes that his work as a public defender comes with limitations and sometimes goes in circles against his better efforts, despite his having never lost a case. Casi and his colleague, Dane, end up seeing the deal as a way to make a serious payday. In a seeming nod to David Foster Wallace (as with Gaddis, I'm using real examples, not merely linking these three writers on the basis of book length), one of his neighbors watches The Honeymooners constantly, trying to pick out themes and links between the classic television show and today's obsession with programming. His family is rendered in a very realistic fashion--he has a loving, slightly overbearing mother and a wise sister. The biography of Puerto Rican boxer Wilfred Benitez is given dozens of pages, serving as one of Casi's many obsessions. News reports of a child kidnapping circulate through television news programs and casual conversations. Like any large, ambitious novel, these links might seem bizarre on their own, but they do weave together very succinctly (in a novel that's the exact opposite of succinct).

Casi and Dane's heist is thrilling and would be the climax (or lead-up to the climax) in virtually any other novel, since the plotting and discussion of it come and go consistently until its actual moment. But this isn't a novel about a heist. After this whirlwind audacity, Casi's attention focuses on one of his defendants, a mentally challenged young man being imprisoned in Alabama. Casi makes a trip to visit him, and toward the end of the novel, we read some incredibly touching correspondences between the two. As the letters pile up, Casi begins to break out of his professional demeanor and moves toward genuine empathy and comfort for someone who desperately needs it.

"Dear Jalen:

I checked and you can of course write me a letter with an account of what happened that resulted in you being placed in isolation by prison officials. Please do so as soon as possible so I can try to help you.

In several days, the Supreme Court will hear argument on Atkins v. Virginia. The brief in your case is basically completed as well, with just some final editing to do.

Hang in there, I know this is a difficult time. Everything can still work out, both with this disciplinary thing and with your case in general.

Your good friend,
Casi (De La Pava 638)"

"Mister. Casi/

Pleese rite me sum more letters fast please. You

don't have to tell me about the case because i just want

thje letters four the reason i stated before.

P.S.i am only aloud to get leterrs from you (De La Pava 639)."

Altogether, Casi's role as a defender, a consumer of information, and a conflicted human being make him one of the more vibrant main characters in contemporary literature. This information consumption is both wanted and unwanted, and, in yet another nod to Gaddis (especially The Recognitions), bits and pieces are constantly flowing throughout. De La Pava's comic timing and observations are terrific.

"For some reason my alarm clock went on then. The radio said I could have the world provided I gave them twenty-two minutes in return. The woman said that a man was shot in the face and killed on 123rd street while horrified witness looked on from their windows. Police responding have made the grisly discovery of several more bodies in a nearby apartment as well as in the surrounding area. No word yet on a possible motive for the killing but police are urging anyone with information to call the NYPD's tips hotline. The woman then added that a car must have its oil changed every three thousand miles in order to operate optimally but that nothing prevented one from doing so more often than that. She then identified what she felt was the best place to go for that purpose (De La Pava 524)."

The uneasy question that will likely be asked: is A Naked Singularity worth the nearly 700 pages of a reader's time? I'm answering yes on this one, even though there are some passages of dialogue that could have been edited out, not for lack of being good, but for being occasionally repetitive. However, this novel has received very accurate praise in the last year. The reviews have been positive, but not shouts from the rooftops. It's an intelligent work that takes time, care, and an openness to a wide variety of themes and ideas. Granted, De La Pava's work might not appeal to wider reading circles, but it's definitely worth the attention it has received, and is a great pick for anyone looking for something entertaining and thought-provoking. It's wholly original, yet in addition to the shades of Gaddis and Wallace, I also felt some hints of Teju Cole and Roberto Bolano. However, De La Pava doesn't copy any of these writers; he goes down his own paths. I've often critiqued certain books for being too complex for their own good, but there's a definite method to De La Pava's work. He's not tossing in his ideas and voices carelessly. This is a meticulously plotted collage of everyday life, with a mix of the fantastical. I'll definitely read this again in the future, and perhaps in that time, it will have gained an even bigger cult following. But it's great to write about a previous unknown getting attention for literary audacity, rather than a gimmick. It's been over a month since I finished reading this, and I'm still contemplating it. There's so much to take in and experience, and anyone who rolls his or her sleeves up will get something beneficial out of it.

Work Cited:
De La Pava, Sergio. A Naked Singularity. Copyright 2008 by Sergio De La Pava.

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