Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Naked Singularity

Having finished reading A Naked Singularity I can affirm that (1) it's a very good, sometimes an exciting, book, (2) Sergio de la Pava is a very good writer who might become a great writer, and (3) the fact that I/we almost had no chance to read this book and meet this talented, promising and extraordinarily original writer says a lot about the publishing industry in this country. More on that last later. First, the book.

I don't generally use this space to provide plot synopses, good thing since it would be pretty hard to do with this innovative, often surprising novel. There is a plot, of sorts, having to do with a plan for a perfect heist--so it's a caper, then, but no; having to to do with a death-row appeal case for a poor, mentally disabled inmate doomed to death in Alabama--a legal thriller, then, but no, not at all, this is as far from that genre as it could be; having to do with a young public-defender lawyer's unraveling life or coming of age or personal awakening--a character study, then, but no; having to do with the legal system and its vile brutal racist inequities--a cri de coeur, then, a literary companion to The New Jim Crow, but no; a treatise on the career of Wilfred Benitez with learned exegesis on 1980s-era boxing and its leading lights including Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns--a meditation on the sweet science, then, but no; a screed against television and popular culture featuring a cameo appearance by Ralph Kramden incarnate--it's none of these things, it's all of these things and more, I could go on and on. As de la Pava does in the course of 688 pages. I didn't love every page of it. I could for example have used many fewer or much shorter scenes in the protagonist Casi's neighbors' apartment, scenes that often felt over-pumped and sophomoric. I would also wish that the publisher had made sure of much better proof-reading, as the text is rife with typos, misplaced apostrophes, misspellings, word mistakes (who's for whose, it's for its, etc. ). This sort of thing becomes quite distracting especially in a book like this that is already playing with language and style; you want to be able to get at it cleanly, give yourself over to it, without being repeatedly stopped short by unintended dissonances.

But--see, I'm saying I have my quibbles but they are just that, quibbles, so pay attention to this but--but overall I very much enjoyed the long and usually very stimulating trip that reading this book is. I felt myself in the hands of an extraordinarily interesting mind.

If I were to try to craft a real chapter-by-chapter synopsis you'd probably conclude that, jeez, this thing is all over the map, and superficially you'd be right, but big-picture-wise you'd be wrong, you'd have missed the point. Ultimately this big sprawling mess works. Wherever the words went, I happily followed. Most of the time I was mesmerized. Much of the time I was moved, as well, especially in any and all scenes having to do with the actual workings of the criminal justice system, which de la Pava depicts very well in all its horrific depraved injustice. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force tour of the hell that is the route between the Tombs and night court. The last two pages are a sweeping culmination that left me breathless, stunned.

Randall Jarrell famously defined a novel as "a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it." Well yeah. This one fits the bill. Sometimes I wasn't moved. Sometimes there was a show-offiness to the cascade of words and ideas, the rat-a-tat dialogues that went on for page after page, that was off-putting. But only sometimes, and even then I'd soon get pulled right back in by something amazing, thought-provoking, challenging, sad or hilarious. By de la Pava's gimlet eye on the shape of things.

Let me take my stand on something much commented on among readers and reviewers: this author's similarity to David Foster Wallace. Me? I don't see it. Yes, a lot of words, well lots of writers use a lot of words, so OK yes de la Pava is in the putter-inner group not the taker-outer. The similarity, in my view, ends there. I loathed Infinite Jest. Forced myself to read the whole damn thing to see what all the fuss was about, and felt not one tingle of feeling, was not moved to one shadow of human emotion in the course of all its thousand-plus pages. Nor stimulated to think one interesting thought. Infinite Jest lives in my reading memory as all artifice, all look-at-me-I'm-so-clever privileged-straight-white-male wordplay to no purpose. There's no there there. No resonance, no connection to life. Nothing to touch my heart or awaken my mind, both of which de la Pava does. Look, sure, Wallace deserves our human compassion for the personal pain that killed him, but he was a Reaganite so the disconnect of his big fat book full of nothing shouldn't surprise. In contrast, A Naked Singularity is bursting with connections, not artificial connections, but visceral, real, substantive, the, pardon my excess, stuff of life, and in particular the struggles of the poor, left out, oppressed. De la Pava may be a polymath, as his novel suggests, but his wide-ranging mind is socially engaged a way that strikes me as important for the creation of art that matters.

De la Pava himself was almost left out. His book nearly didn't make it into my or anyone else's hands. It was rejected by something over 70 agents and so finally he self-published it. Which usually means death. I don't understand the part of the story where the novel somehow drew someone's attention, started getting read, and finally found its way to an actual publisher, the University of Chicago Press, which actually published it so people can now buy it, take it out of libraries, read it. I'd like to understand it, partly out of curiosity and partly because my novel too has been widely spurned and so this unknown-author-who-could-and-did story is nice to hear. More important, it makes me think again about all the unheard voices. All the art that never makes its way to us because the artists--driving buses, cleaning hospitals, teaching, ringing up groceries, typing, or, like de la Pava, public defending--have no route to recognition, no way to get anyone to consider let alone take on their work. That it happened this time is a lucky fluke that you should take advantage of as I did. Read this novel.