Friday, March 06, 2015

Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity (2008)

There were two compelling reasons to read A Naked Singularity: one, because it was billed as being in the tradition of the sort of long, maximalist, postmodern novels I always used to read but haven’t much lately, and there was a strong allure to returning to the form; and two, because of its publishing history: initially, unable to find a regular publisher, De La Pava got it printed in a small edition by XLibris, just to have something.  Against many odds, it was noticed, and eventually reprinted by the University of Chicago and won literary prizes and stuff.  Every self-published author’s dream, no doubt.  Anyway, that history was far too intriguing to pass up.

Our narrator and protagonist, Casi Last-Name-Always-Cutely-Elided, is a public defender in New York City (as is De La Pava).  A significant portion of the book is focused on the injustices, petty and otherwise, that people caught up in the US justice system on this level suffer.  The plot, such as it is, involves a heist that Casi’s sociopathic coworker Dane convinces him to participate in after he’s accidentally stumbled onto some inside information about a big drug deal that’s going to go down; concurrently, he’s involved in a desperate effort to get the death sentence of a mentally disabled man in Alabama commuted.

And so but, that does not provide much of a sense of the book, which, as expected with this sort of thing, is crammed with all kinds of jokes, digressions, and shaggy-dog stories: one of Casi’s wacky neighbors comes up with a plan to watch every episode of The Honeymooners over and over and over in order to bring Ralph Kramden into existence.  A lengthy retrospective of the career of the boxer Wilfred Benitez is essayed.  Casi’s long, rambling Catholic confession turns out to be secretly being recorded for an HBO show (“I don’t want to be on TV.”  “It’s not TV, it’s HBO!”).  And so on.  One frequently feels that De La Pava is going for a kind of pervasive, Pynchonian absurdity, but it doesn’t quite work on that level—individual incidents amuse, but it doesn’t quite cohere into a larger whole.

However, let us give the book its due: it’s pretty darned entertaining.  A very large percentage of it consists of long, speechifying conversations, which are a lot of fun to read.  Yes, the interlocutors basically all sound the same, and no, it’s not as profound as maybe was intended (the effect is of highly intelligent and highly stoned college students who just happen to be hyper-articulate in that David Foster Wallace way, and if that sounds like the worst thing you’ve ever heard, A Naked Singularity is definitely not for you), but it pretty much works.  The ereader edition is almost nine hundred pages, but they went down quite easily, even as the story kinda fizzles out in the end (as, in my heart of hearts, I secretly knew it would), and maybe doesn’t add up to as much as one would’ve hoped (though in fairness, it’s worth noting that Infinite Jest is another novel that basically just stops, so at least De La Pava is in good company there).  There are genuinely affecting parts, parts where I was howling with laughter, and the heist, when it finally goes down, is honest-to-god exciting.  So I can’t complain too much.

NONETHELESS, I cannot just pass in silence over the fact that the book was initially self-published without an editor.  ‘Cause the fact is, there are parts that feel like it (though granted, it’s an open question to what extent my thinking so is influenced by knowing it was).  At the very least, it’s baffling to me that, when it was taken up by a real publisher, they didn’t get someone to eliminating the not-infrequent mechanical errors and bits of stylistic clumsiness; it would not have been difficult, and it would have made a world of difference.  Then again, there are bits that feel amateurish simply because De La Pava—obviously gifted in many ways!—also has limitations as a writer; these would’ve been harder to address.  He does not have the poetic gifts of a Pynchon or a Gaddis, and when he tries to enter that mode, he generally falls flat.

Still, I don’t want to end on a negative note, because on the whole I genuinely enjoyed reading A Naked Singularity.  I’m unquestionably going to read De La Pava’s (much shorter) second novel one of these days, and I have high hopes that editorial assistance will help him to unlock his full potential.  Cheers.  I think it’s back to Trollope now.


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