Monday, September 24, 2018

Sergio de la Pava, Lost Empress (2018)

You remember Sergio de la Pava: he's the one who, after innumerable rejections, self-published his first novel, A Naked Singularity (a maximalist, somewhat David Foster Wallace-ish thing); improbably, it achieved enough positive buzz that it was reprinted by the University of Chicago, where it went on to win a PEN/Bingham Prize for best first novel. I found it rough but very compelling and really funny in places. He wrote a second novel, Personae, a much shorter, more abstruse thing, but I wasn't sure whether anything else would be forthcoming or not: from interviews, he seemed more concerned with his job as a New York City public defender than his nascent literary career. So I was very excited to see that he had a new one coming out, especially a new one that seemed to be more in line with his first novel than second in terms of scope and ambition.

I will try to tell you the plot of this book: this is a slightly parallel universe with a different NFL (something that's actually addressed in-text). The Dallas Cowboys are currently the dominant franchise, with three super bowl wins in a row. The patriarch of this dynasty gives the Cowboys to his dutiful son and leaves his rebellious daughter, Nina, with a team from the marginal "Indoor Football League," the Paterson Pork (the book seems unaware that Arena Football, though also somewhat marginal, is a real thing). She vows to SHOW THEM ALL by making the team and the league a huge success. That's one of the main plot strands. The other concerns one Nuno DeAngeles, a prisoner at Riker's Island who needs to prove his own innocence and also effect a revenge killing and an art heist while in prison. The main connection between these two plots is that Nina's assistant, Dia, was formerly romantically involved with Nuno. Nina and Nuno (the fact that those names only differ by vowels can't be a coincidence) are kind of elevated, larger-than-life characters, effortlessly smarter and tougher than everyone around them (and, it must be admitted, a little insufferable for that reason). But there are also somewhat more grounded aspects of the book, concerning regular people around the Paterson area: a 911 operator, a priest, an EMT, a prison guard, and like that.  A Naked Singularity was in the first person; this one is an omniscient third, which allows de la Pava to sketch out a wide variety of characters.  One criticism of that novel--that everyone basically sounded the same--is, if not invalid here, then at least less of an issue.

It is so hard to know where to even start with this book. There are just so many criticisms one can make. One can note that the whole football business--which is a lot of the book--feels kind of half-baked. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could write a story about football that doesn't address the massive issues with the sport, but while de la Pava kind of glances at the rapacious greed of owners and the horrendous toll it takes on men's bodies, it's never much more than a glance. And, really, you could say the same about a lot of the book: the cruelty of prisons, of mass incarceration and solitary confinement, is obviously something he cares about a lot, but again, it just receives little attention. Oddly, it feels to me like the book may actually be too short, at six hundred fifty pages: a lot of it, in fact--not just the football--seems a bit half-baked, like more space was really needed to develop its themes. To me, some of the most effective parts of the novel were the ones involving the regular people, but I feel that they ultimately get short shrift. And as for Nina and Nuno...well, the latter develops, to an extent, beyond being a superpowered cartoon, but the latter never does. And, I mean, we're apparently supposed to be rooting for her, but why, exactly? She's a one-percenter with very little evident concern for the problems with the sport she's involved with. Am I really supposed to care if she shows up her brother, who doesn't seem any worse than she is? I don't know. I feel like there's just so much missing. And don't even get me started on the thing that annoyed me most about the book. See, de la Pava is a huge, huge, huge Joni Mitchell fan. That much is very, very obvious. Nina makes Dia listen to her albums, and there is a lot about her greatness; without venturing an opinion on the question, I can still definitively state that this is tedious and insufferable.

Nonetheless. NĂ©anmoins. It must be said, de la Pava has talent to burn, and Lost Empress is frequently really, really compelling, even as it's also messy and undisciplined and exasperating. There's real insight here, even if it's not always clear how it all fits together, whether he's going on about theology or quantum mechanics. And, I mean, it can be pretty exciting, even if there's no setpiece to quite match the heist in A Naked Singularity. I'm pretty sure that English is not de la Pava's first language: he's fluent, obviously, but there are odd things going on with diction and syntax and occasional word choice that you wouldn't quite expect from a native speaker. And yet, somehow, I found that, once you get used to this and start rolling with it, it adds to the effect. Obviously, he's familiar with the literary tradition; you couldn't call this outsider art. And yet, there's another sense in which you kind of could. He brings a sensibility and a kind of energy to his writing that you really don't expect from an established writer, and as such, I think he's groundbreaking in a way that almost no one is these days. I might put him with Evan Dara in that regard; he's not as avant-garde as Dara, but I get a similar sense of someone impatient with the usual conventions and limitations of fiction. In this profile, he says that next, he plans to write "something unlike anything [he's] ever created before." I am SO onboard.


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