On Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity.

In a recent pre-review of D.T. Max’s upcoming David Foster Wallace biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, Lev Grossman asks the question so many young writers—writers who, like Sergio De La Pava, were raised on “E Unibus Pluram” and Consider the Lobster, writers who, like I, were raised to worship the very novels for which these Big Reads were designed, Life: A User’s Manual and the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy being but a few—are currently asking of themselves: is there still room in fiction for Infinite Jests, for Underworlds, for extreme, expansive novels hell-bent on simultaneously attempting to capture the fractal-like complexities of 21st-century life as well as structurally conceding that the whole effort is in vain? De La Pava—who may have evolved as a writer during a postmodernist boom (he spent the years between 1998 and 2006 writing ANS, when weird novels like House of Leaves, Middlesex, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time were still on the tips of the literati’s tongues) but who, at 41 this year, was not defined by 9/11 but rather witnessed it as the horrific apex to a lifetime marked by Vietnam and Chernobyl—seems to be the best modern example of a potential whip-smart yet breezy medium. ANS certainly belongs in the echelon of heady tomes that can still challenge the limits of what fiction can do, but at its core exists the beautifully simple thread of a heist; its plotting, its execution, and its aftermath rival most Hollywood crime dramas in elegance—not to mention surely eclipsing them in sheer idea-power. The three most magnificent tirades (the first being DeLeon’s eleven-page expulsion of information; the second being the entirety of Chapter 10; and the third being the beautiful allegorical fairy-tale Casi reads to Mary) are not only crisply fluid, but also laden with philosophical and moral implications. The novel consistently stands in stark contrast to books like Douglas Coupland’s jPod or Wallace’s Jest that seem unconcerned with traditional ideas of plot.

J R by William Gaddis
Or compare it to another book being read in hordes this summer: I plunged into A Naked Singularity early so as to be able to take part in both Conversational Reading’s Big Read and the group read of J R hosted by the Los Angeles Review of Books. My experience with J R, however, was short-lived as I found myself severely frustrated shortly after beginning. Lee Konstantinou, who is leading the read, remarked that contrary to the Dalkey Press edition’s foreword, the novel was indeed a challenge, although pointing out that it wasn’t any more difficult than, say, Infinite Jest. I had to disagree: I found it far more of a challenge than Jest, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or tedium-based American Psycho, or even certain parts of 2666. Gaddis is clearly a master at dialogue, which makes for a fresh read (I can’t think of another novel taking place almost entirely within dialogue), but without rest-stops, chapters, defined waypoints to latch onto—without epigraphs to guide us—it’s an incredibly intimidating one as well. Not that that doesn’t seem to be part of its genius: an early passage remarks on the inability of fabricated structure to properly impose order on the universe’s inherent chaos, a theme I come upon frequently in my own work, as well as one that arises several times in ANS, and one which J R seems to exemplify. (This, of course, is only one of many thematic parallels. And there are most certainly times when De La Pava reaches similar levels of dialogic mastery.) But whereas Gaddis’s attempt at such an experimental tour-de-force can be off-putting, De La Pava handles a much-needed compromise—between deadly serious, highly original fiction, and compelling yet rewarding page-turners—so deftly that I’d argue it’s A Naked Singularity that should take its place—or at the very least its side—at the throne of tomes.

However, like Detective Arroyano’s sudden appearance—one which sent shudders down my spine and showed me just how much I wanted Casi to “get away with it”—the primary plotline is but a red herring. Across the novel lays the translucent veil of metafiction: A Naked Singularity is, for much of its 678 pages, the story of De La Pava’s attempt to write it. “Nothing else matters to me the way this thing I’m writing does,” says Casi as the Kingg case comes to a head. “Let’s just save this kid that’s all. Save the kid.” De La Pava’s urgency in his attempts to destroy our previously-held moral sensibilities comes through with the same ferocious gusto the novel’s prosecutors have for incarceration: De La Pava reads us our Miranda rights in the opening pages as he slaps the handcuffs upon his reader (for, really, few novels manage to arrest me so immediately and with such intensity) before leading us across step after legal step toward our eventual end: Death Row. In De La Pava’s world, the reader is King(g). It is our salvation with which he is ultimately concerned.

What is the place of genius in society, and what do we do when we realize that we are nowhere close to that unattainable level of perfection?

And yes, A Naked Singularity is very focused on our definition of justice; De La Pava forced me time and again to confront exactly how far I was willing to go toward opposite ends of the spectrums, from total condemnation of Dane’s evil genius (to borrow a term from one of Casi’s heroes, Descartes) who draws Casi into the heist with arguments afoul with the stench of grandiosity—and worse, grandiosity that bases itself upon Ouroborian logic—to the overwhelming desire to forgive Jalen Kingg, whose misdeeds were thrust in my face with his Guard’s “Anti-Sympathy Packet.” I, despite myself and despite the Packet, wept briefly upon reading the final letter in the series of correspondences between Casi and Kingg (which recalled the similarly tear-jerking set of letters in Mark L. Danielewski’s aforementioned pomo-masterpiece, House of Leaves).

But just as the plot of the novel is essentially moved forward by Dane’s desperate wish to craft an act so perfect it both exists wholly outside of himself as well as causes him to exist outside of everything else—Casi often feels like a prisoner of his surroundings, as did I by the time Part One came to a close when I too felt in “a hurry to feel a sense of accomplishment, of forward momentum, … that a discrete, meaningful segment is behind me”—so does the creation of the novel feel compelled forth by De La Pava’s wish to violently infiltrate his reader’s psyche, and do so better than the strongmen who have come before him. (It was telling, but not quite surprising, that De La Pava named Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment as favorites.) In attempting destroy any illusion we might have previously held about the “justice” our justice system provides us and to force us to demand of ourselves and our society what “justice” really means in the age of Television, De La Pava ends up pointing the reader toward questions in an entire other dimension: what is the place of genius, and what do we do when we realize that, however talented we may be, we are nowhere close to that unattainable level of perfection?

Wilfred Benitez, aka "The Bible of Boxing"As a writer, I focused primarily on this attempt to create perfection during my read, with specific regards to art, to argument, and to conviction (in all senses of the word). The intricate heist-plotting akin to the nuance required to elicit the right emotion from one’s reader, the fervency with which Casi eventually comes at the Kingg problem, Dane’s obsession, the meticulously-placed typos: it felt possible to see De La Pava at work on the story, coming to terms at every corner with whether or not he was—or was even capable of—accomplishing what he had set out to do. The whole concept is universal even for those who won’t be the next “Kepler, Newton, Galileo,” or who aren’t Ludwig van, Johannes Sebastian, or Fyodor. If we draw meaning from that at which we are talented, then how do we cope with not being the Wilfred Benitez of our field? Would it even be worth it, when these masters meet nothing but an unglamorous end? And despite all of this, are we, as able beings, responsible for trying anyway? Chapter 29′s epigraph stood out as the most crucial, especially as the reality of the novel quickly unspooled: “Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fibula narrator?” Who are we—the readers—to judge; and yet, if we don’t judge, who will?

Part of the reason I am so enamored with the novel despite its flaws is because of its desire to be such an object of Greatness. We are all aware of the finitude of our lifetimes, and the corresponding limitation on how many novels we can consume over that period. In a utopian literary landscape, there would be but one encyclopedic story which would be both compellingly addictive and completely comprehensive: it would be the only story we would ever need to read to glean everything we could from a piece of literature. But culture is so fractured, so divided into infinite subcultures, each with its own preconceptions toward and potential reactions to art: no one novel could possibly do it all. (I, for example, found a special tie with Casi’s cast of Colombian family members, whose interactions reminded me of childhood gatherings spent with my own South American relatives; but I couldn’t expect others to comprehend the nuances, or connect with them as deeply as I did.) So, in lieu of this perfect piece of Entertainment (to borrow from Wallace once more), it seems the challenge to young writers entering a field being overhauled—by Kindle singles, by tales Tweeted, by multimedia iPad-based books—is not to downsize, but to swell: to prove that their novel is the one that can cover as many bases as possible for its specific readership.

It seems the challenge to young writers is not to downsize, but to swell: to prove that their novel is the one that can cover as many bases as possible.

A Naked Singularity, like its Big Read siblings, is one of these novels. The only heist more impressive and calculated than the one that transpires in the events of ANS is the one De La Pava commits: he has tried to steal us,in our entireties, and done so right in front of our eyes. By consistently provoking and engaging us with regards to everything under the sun, from sex to religion, to self-help and love, to ego and fame and guilt, to age and family and duty and race and class and addiction and physics, De La Pava argues that, yes, there is still room in this century for this sort of fiction, and that, yes, it can do what it sets out to achieve. John Jeremiah Sullivan said famously of David Foster Wallace (whose influence, as has been noted, bleeds brightly through the novel): “Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle [of being alive at the end of the twentieth century] and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.” Now on my second read of the novel, I am still undecided as to whether De La Pava succeeded, whether he pulled off his heist, at his hijacking of our consciousnesses. Although I’m holding out until I read his sophomore effort, Personae, and whatever might come next (imagine what De La Pava could do with Internet), it seems like the answer echoes that of our protagonist’s accidental name:


[This piece was originally posted on Scott Esposito's companion blog to A Quarterly ConversationConversational Readingas part of the ANS Big Read.]