“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: A Naked Singularity

A Naked Singularity
By Sergio De La Pava
Amante Press

Recently, The Quarterly Conversation, a U.S. literary magazine, ran a review of Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity calling it one of the best and most original novels of the last decade. While there is perhaps nothing unusual in a reviewer heaping praise on a book, De La Pava’s novel presents an interesting case: it was actually self-published via the company Xlibris in 2008. Even more impressively, there is no hyperbole in The Quarterly Conversation’s claim: A Naked Singularity is, without a doubt, one of the best and most original novels of the last decade, and the fact that it was self-published is simply astounding, given the complexity, formal inventiveness, and the brilliant writing in this novel.
            The book follows the story of a public-defense attorney named Casi (which is Spanish for ‘as if’), and opens by following him during a standard day as he negotiates a series of clients through the inhuman order of the New York criminal justice system. This opening section not only suggests an intimate knowledge of these processes, but also offers a blistering critique of the U.S. justice system and the disastrous consequences that result from calls to implement stronger notions of law and order; De La Pava renders the violence produced by state systems of control in all of its naked reality. But these grim insights are also alleviated by a dark comedy that delineates the absurdities of legal, bureaucratic processes.
            The first 200 pages or so of the book continue following Casi through his day as we are also introduced to his neighbours, including a Columbia psychology student who is watching every episode of The Honeymooners on repeat in an attempt to make Ralph Kramden into a person that feels psychologically real to him. We are also introduced to Casi’s family (who come from the other Colombia), through a hysterically funny party scene.
            But despite these wonderful digressions, at the heart of this book is a complicated and thrilling crime novel depicting a dangerous caper that involves international drug dealers. As this moment slowly approaches, the novel becomes increasingly compulsive reading, and the climax is a tense affair that is sure to set your pulse racing. And this is what is so impressive about De La Pava’s achievement: his book is both an innovative novel of ideas and a plot-driven thriller all at the same time, as both genres are thrown together (which is a sort of naked singularity of its own).
            This book has everything and then some: reflections on Descartes’ radical scepticism, The Jetsons, a discussion of Hume’s doubt that cause and effect exists, contemporary physics, a human embodiment of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a comprehensive history of middleweight boxing, an eight-page poem translated into broken English, a developmentally disabled inmate sentenced to death in Alabama, and a hotel that bears a strange resemblance to the Garden of Eden. This is a truly encyclopaedic novel, which is full of clever, punning prose. Consider this debate between two characters over the greatest man (with the gender specificity of said discussion noted in the novel) to have ever lived:
‘We have Homer . . . um . . . Simpson, Virgil. Aeneid. Who else did we say? Milton . . . Bradley. Bach, all the three B’s in fact, Bach, Leonard Bernstein and the other B. Hume, Kant, all the guys in that book, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, anybody who went to Berkeley. In fact anybody who went to any institution named after a dead philosopher including naturally Georgetown and Stanford, which are of course named after Phyllis George and Stanford Marsalis respectively. Gutenberg who conducted the Gutenberg trial. Nureyev Rudolph. Rudolph Valentino. Engelbert Humperdink for that matter. The guy who invented the Gouldberg variations, T.S. Eliot Gould. Oppenheimer and Manhattan, you know, of the Oppenheimer project [. . .] Hannibal. American Vespucci. Verdi. Vendredi. Veni, Vidi, Vici, all three of them. The Marx Brothers, Karl and Groucho. The guys they worked with, Engels and Harpo. Socrates and the guy who poisoned him then put him in a hemlock. Darwin and the first guy who coined the term Darwinism. Don Quixote and his sidekick . . . Tonto . . . Villa I think. The guy who discovered the nap. The guy who founded the Freudian slip. Pasteur, the inventor of milk. The guy who unearthed the tango, the guy who discovered cash. Tango and Cash. Locke along with Stock . . . even Barrel.’
            A Naked Singularity is raucous, wild writing that will appeal to readers who already enjoy writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo, Evan Dara and, especially, David Foster Wallace (indeed, fans of Infinite Jest need to run—not walk—to their nearest computer and buy A Naked Singularity immediately). But while it shares some surface similarities with these writers, A Naked Singularity isn’t imitation either. And more impressively, for all of its cleverness and artifice, this is a book that also contains moments that are truly moving as well; De La Pava seems able to master every genre and every possible register of prose.
A Naked Singularity announces the presence of one of the most interesting and important voices in contemporary American literature. This novel isn’t good, and it isn’t great—it’s phenomenal. Go buy it now.

9 comments:

emfish said...

Hiya Emmett, I heard your review of this book and want to buy a copy - looks like they only deliver within the states, is that right? Cheers, Emma

Emmett Stinson said...

It looks to me like Xlibris does international shipping, but you can also order it from Amazon (which definitely does international shipping) here:
http://www.amazon.com/Naked-Singularity-Sergio-Pava/dp/1436341981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1290049097&sr=8-1

emfish said...

Great, thank you :)

thoapsl said...

Ah, I was looking forward to your review of this!
I was intrigued by your mention of this book in another post a few weeks ago, and then so impressed by the extract on the book's own website that I bought it from BookDepository.co.uk (A$26.32 and free shipping, bargain) -- so it's definitely available in Australia via them. I haven't had time to actually read it yet, but if the whole book is like the extract above then I can't wait. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Emmett Stinson said...

I'm glad to hear that I've actually helped to convince a few people to buy the book! I think it's great, and I hope you enjoy it (and I suspect you will if you liked the excerpt...)

Lian Hearn said...

I was so pleased to see your review of this. I heard about it from Conversational Reading, and ordered it from amazon. I finished it last week and can only agree with everything you say. The book is brilliant, funny, compassionate, inventive. But why did no editor see this?

Emmett Stinson said...

Dear Lian:

I'm glad to hear that you liked it; it really is an exceptional book. I can't be sure as to why no editor picked it up (indeed, I don't even know for certain if De La Pava actively sought a publisher or not), but given the cutbacks on editorial staff and the increased economic rationalism of publishing across the globe, I think books like this, which are more likely to be "cult" hits than big sellers, are the ones most likely to get left out. To me, this book is precisely the reason that we need good, adventurous editors, who are able to see the value in unusual works and put together inventive marketing plans that will make them work...

Lian Hearn said...

This book has risen to the surface to a certain extent and is getting some of the attention it deserves - I used to believe that talent always would - but there are so many self-published books now that it would have been easy for it to have been missed all together. Obviously more authors are going to have to self-publish, as the good adventurous editors (and the accountants who will support them) are becoming fewer, and the publishing industry changes into something that no one is quite sure about yet. So blogs like this one, and CR, become quite important in bringing great books to our attention. Maybe you could do an interview with De La Pava...

Emmett Stinson said...

I think you're right, Lian, that talent doesn't always rise (sadly), but it's very heartening to see the buzz this book is getting over the internet. It's books like A Naked Singularity that remind me why I spend so much of my free time reviewing books and writing this blog! And, I agree Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation are absolutely amazing--pretty much my favourite book sites on the internet.

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