A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava. Xlibris. 692 pp., $23.99.
Editor’s note: This book review tends closer to an endorsement than we would usually publish. The reason for this is that the book under review is atypical. It is unusual, at the least, to review a self-published book that is nearly three years old. This book, we believe, merits continued attention. There is a growing body of evidence that it is a remarkable work of fiction that has been unjustly ignored.
At the end of 2008, Sergio De La Pava self-published his novel A Naked Singularity, a postmodern, re-envisioned, linguistic assault on the standard crime/heist/legal thriller. It’s very good—one of the best and most original novels of the decade.
It’s narrated by a public defender named Casi. Between his ruminations on boxing, television, philosophical conundrums, the existence of God, the legal system, ethics, morality, how to make empanadas, why you should never talk to the cops, and diverse other subjects, he processes the cases of the criminals who come through his office and works pro bono on a death penalty case involving a mentally retarded man named Jalen Kingg, who is imprisoned in Alabama, while elsewhere in New York an infant has been kidnapped and Casi’s downstairs neighbors are working on bizarre psychological experiments.
It’s one of those fantastic, big, messy books like Darconville’s Cat or Infinite Jest or Women and Men, though it’s not really like any of those books or those writers. Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook and The Easy Chain are perhaps the most apt comparisons, though the heavy use of dialogue will of course bring William Gaddis to mind as well. (I mean messy as a compliment: books that just fill themselves with facts and stories and subplots and digressions and in doing so create a much richer reading experience than novels which only include the details necessary to move the plot forward.)
But see here: I refuse to divulge too much of the plot, because watching it unfold is one of the great joys of the novel. The first 300 pages of A Naked Singularity are a joy to read—frequently very funny, insightful, gripping—for in those 300 pages it’s never entirely clear where, if anywhere, the narrative is going, but then around page 300 you start to get suspicions of what is going to happen and then when it clicks, you realize that De La Pava, in a purposely meandering and thorough manner, has been setting up the final 400 pages, which are an explosion and immensely difficult to stop reading. (The book itself also offers no sort of plot summary on the back, just a quote from the novel.) It’s a masterful display. In the end, it’s a thriller for people who can’t abide mass-market tripe—a wonderfully-written genre novel that’s too smart for its genre (think Plus, Joseph McElroy’s foray into sci-fi).
De La Pava is almost certainly a lawyer himself, or involved in that profession in some manner; otherwise he has gone to great lengths to make it seem that way. The prose in A Naked Singularity is remarkable—De La Pava handles pretty much everything with ease, from the chatter of the criminals to the legalese to the language of deadbeats to the articulation of complex philosophical issues to the narrative nonfiction recounting professional boxing in the seventies and eighties. Much of the early part of the novel has Casi interacting with the people he’s been assigned to defend (all of whom are obviously guilty), courtroom showdowns (both the mundane/routine and the exciting/unexpected), and legal strategizing/philosophizing with his colleagues, all of which display De La Pava’s skill with dialogue, as seen here in Casi’s discussion with a robbery suspect:
Well the fact is that 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.
What’s the opening?
You really want to know?
And you won’t tell anyone?
Yes. Even if I wanted to, the attorney-client privilege would prevent me. I’d lose my license to thrill.
Casi, who’s never given a last name, talks and listens a lot—long stretches of the novel are composed almost entirely of dialogue, whether through arguments, conversations, or long, slowly related stories (including one of the funniest scatalogical tales in contemporary literature). He’s a wily defender, taking an avant-garde approach in many of his arguments.
The novel takes place in the present but is fortunately free of cellphones/internet/texting/et cetera—one of De La Pava’s several themes is our unhealthy obsession with entertainment and the media. All the descriptions of television (always written “Television” in the novel) are hilarious—it’s a world with commercials-only stations (which people watch!)—and The New York Post‘s front-page exclusives are increasingly ridiculous but never enter the realm of the unbelievable.
What I keep coming back to is the audacity of this novel, which is truly a towering, impressive work—De La Pava’s not hesitant to break and then mirror the narrative with the story of professional boxer Wilfred Benitez, or insert a recipe, or the heartbreaking letters between him and Kingg (“I cannot just come and get you out, that’s true. But we can, and will, make it so you cannot be executed”), none of which hinder the narrative but rather shape the entirety of the book, making the actual story and its effect on the characters (and the characters’ actions that shape the story, et cetera) more profound.
It’s mindblowing (but I guess not really) that something this good had to be self-published—not that traditional publishing has recently shown interest in difficult works of genius (Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain—another candidate for best of the decade—seems to have been self-published as well). Without knowing any of the backstory, my suspicion is that no publisher would look at a 689-page debut novel, no matter how good it was. As Casi himself says later, about a lengthy brief he’s written to get a stay of execution for Kingg: “It’s not really that long if you look at it from a certain perspective, provided of course that perspective is one from which things that are very lengthy nonetheless appear to be quite short either due to Lorentz contraction or some other as yet undiscovered phenomenon. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Near the end of the book, another public defender named Toomberg, speaking about Casi’s brief, could be talking about De La Pava’s novel: “And all that work for nothing. I hate to say it but you may have poured your very soul, as you obviously did, into the creation of this work and it may never be read by anyone [ . . . ] how awful.”
We have to keep that from happening. If you like The Wire, if you like rewarding, difficult fiction, if you like literary, high-quality artistic and hilarious yet moving novels that are difficult to put down, I can’t recommend A Naked Singularity enough.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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