Tuesday, November 16, 2010
By Sergio De La Pava
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.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 9:55 AM