“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, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Personae

By Sergio De La Pava

Last year I reviewed Sergio De La Pava’s brilliant, 689-page, self-published novel A Naked Singularity, a wonderful book that blends the crime thriller with the ‘postmodern’ literary novel (eg. Pynchon, Wallace). This month, however, De La Pava has released his second book, Personae, which is much slimmer at around two hundred pages, and is also a genre-jumping work that proves A Naked Singularity was no fluke.
            Personae begins in the mode of a crime novel. We are told that the book comprises the police report of one Helen Tame, who we quickly learn is no ordinary detective. As a former world-class concert pianist, who has a nigh-supernatural ability to turn virtually invisible (a feat she accomplishes due to a mastery of arcane physical properties of light and acoustics), Tame only works unusual cases that have not been solved through normal means.
            In this instance, Tame is called to a crime scene involving the suspicious death of a very old man, and she comes into possession of a series of unusual manuscripts that appear to have been authored by the deceased. But while this set-up is wonderful and Tame is a fabulous character who could easily occupy a novel of many hundred pages, Personae unexpectedly swerves in another direction. We leave Tame’s narrative, and are suddenly given the contents of the manuscripts, which wander across various forms and genres, including a series of notes and errata (including an extended critique of the English-translation of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) a modernist-style short story (‘The Ocean’) whose attention to detail is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, an absurdist two-act play (‘Personae’) that recalls Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and a novella (‘Energeias’) that alternates between two different storylines, as well as a variety of pieces of newspaper articles, essays and the like.
            If this sounds a bit unusual, it is. But Personae’s charm lies precisely in this unceasing variation, which is very much intentional. The book makes continual references to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which clearly provides the form for the relentless innovation of this novel, which also contains a recurring leitmotif: Personae is very much an elegiac novel, which focuses on the notions of grief and death (which, in retrospect, is no surprise for those who have read De La Pava’s brilliant essay, ‘A Day’s Sail’, on Virginia Woolf, boxing and death over at Triple Canopy).
            The variations are all entertaining, although they might throw some readers who were expecting Personae to repeat the pulse-raising narrative of A Naked Singularity. In particular, I suspect that two sections of the book (the two-act play and a later moment that recounts what appears to be a conversation between a man and the devil) will frustrate readers who are allergic to characters discussing lofty philosophical issues (although De La Pava specifically ironises such a reaction at one point in the text). But, to be honest, that’s their loss: the pleasure of Personae lies precisely in the joy of tracking both the similarities and the disjunctures between each iteration of the novel (and it also demonstrates the virtuosity of De La Pava’s writing), and while it’s inevitable that some sections may work better than others, at its best Personae is as good as any contemporary writing coming out of the U.S.
Moreover, the book slowly reveals itself to have a deep, emotional centre which also touches on the issue of what it means to behave ethically in the world. The way in which De La Pava handles this slow transformation is absolutely masterful, as we being to realise that the book we are reading is actually very different from the book we thought we were reading (and I can’t say any more for fear of ruining the surprises), and it ends with a moment of beauty that recalls the final aria of Bach’s composition.
            Personae is another excellent book by De La Pava that demonstrates once again that he is one of the most dynamic and important younger novelists coming out of the U.S. But while Personae reveals this talent, it is also essential to note that, in many ways, it is an (intentionally) difficult book, and perhaps even more challenging than A Naked Singularity (despite being less than a third of its length). Indeed, I wish that more novelists had even half of the ambition and talent that De La Pava does.
For readers interested in an unusual and unforgettable experience, Personae presents a rewarding challenge and is already one of the most intriguing and brilliant novels I’ve read all year. This is a beautifully written work that I’ll keep thinking about for some time to come, and as soon as I finished the book, I immediately wanted to read it again—and I can’t think of any higher praise than that.

Read an excerpt from the book and buy Personae here.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.


thoapsl said...

Good timing with your review – I ordered this book a few weeks ago and it arrived at my door just today! I really loved A Naked Singularity so I'm definitely looking forward to this one. Thanks again to your blog for introducing me to De La Pava in the first place, cheers!

sprag80 said...

Great review, Mr. Stinson. I am finding, as you point out, the 100-page two-Act play frustrating.Irony can take one only so far. Nonetheless, I'll read through because I enjoy De La Pava's many voices.

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