Your Saturday Book Review: A Naked Singularity

Yeah, I’m writing my Saturday book review on a Sunday. And yeah I haven’t written a book review in weeks. But A Naked Singularity is a freaking 700 page novel, and not an easy read.

I’ve never gotten through Moby Dick, or Ulysses, and must confess that although I have referenced him shamelessly, I’ve got a problem with Faulkner. David Foster Wallace has too many footnotes. As for Pynchon, only The Crying of Lot 49. So I am proud that I least got through this massive piece of work.

For those unaware, Sergio de la Pava’s debut novel started out in the world in 2008 as self-published fiction. It gained a following, and some VIP raves and wound up being published by the University of Chicago Press. 2012. In August of 2013, it was awarded the PEN/Robert W.Bingham Prize given to a promising first published novel or story collection.

I probably shouldn’t review it or should as WW (not Walt Whitman) might say “tread lightly,” lest I be accused of venting my extreme envy of the writer’s success. You have no idea what the depth of my schadenfreude would be should it be discovered that de la Pava actually plagiarized the unpublished work of a dying colleague or put it together by cutting and pasting from different classics. While some self-published authors may dream of the commercial success of Amanda Hawking, Colleen Hoover, Hugh Howey etc, – I’d sell my immortal soul for the critical acclaim of those important enough to convince others of their importance.

But as no one outside of a small circle of friends will ever read this post, I’m free to review, however biased my conclusions.

A Naked Singularity is not a great novel, but it has greatness in it. The flaws are in its reach and exuberance. It reads like it was written by someone who read and absorbed everything, but never had the opportunity to sit in a writing workshop and watch his darlings get slaughtered by his peers.

In a dazzling first chapter, we meet our protagonist, Casi, a brilliant young public defender in the City of New York. His pre-court conversations with his clients in which they recount the circumstances that brought them to One Centre Street are at times as laugh-out-loud funny as they are tragic and mundane. The tone is realistic, but also stylized and surrealistic. Simply brilliant, but it’s the kind of brilliance that occasionally throws the reader off balance, and challenges our attention deficits. It’s also something we don’t often see in American fiction, a look at the utter and complete absurdity of a system that has taken the line “Are there no jails?” from a A Christmas Carol and used to form a public policy that criminalizes poverty.

While we eventually get back to many of those first clients, we get too many other set ups and people in the interim. Characterization in particular suffers. As one of the few negative customer reviews on Amazon put it, there are too many characters who are “not quite there enough to be actual characters.” In fact, it’s an almost solipsistic in its viewpoint with the protagonist/narrator as the only one who comes across as real.

Plot gets lost in all the sauce or sauces as well. A novel doesn’t need much of a plot to work, but there has to be some momentum to get the readers to pick the book up again after they’ve put it down or maybe not put it down in the first place. I enjoyed myself while reading the book, but sometimes didn’t get back to it for weeks. There was nothing urgent, nothing compelling. (I write this on a Sunday when I am now counting down the minutes till we find out Hank’s fate on Breaking Bad. There’s something to be said for cliffhangers.)

The plot does begin to emerge eventually– or rather two strands out of many do. Casi is working on the death penalty appeal of a developmentally delayed man in Alabama. At the same time, he is being drawn in more and more by his colleague Dane, who is trying to recruit him as a partner in the perfect caper – stealing millions of dollars from drug dealers.

Dane at first comes across as a mouthpiece to state clearly the absurdity and inequity of the criminal justice system, but then his scheme takes over and he turns into Mephistopheles from Faust, manipulating Casi, using every means available to draw him in. Here the author is extremely skillful. It was believable how the twenty-three year old Casi could go from dismissing Dane outright, to listening, to problem solving as though it were merely an intellectual exercise, to actually considering it and beyond.

There begins to be a little suspense regarding whether or not Casi will  go through with it and if he does whether or not he’ll be successful. The robbery itself, which doesn’t exactly go as planned, was extremely well written, and makes clear de la Pava’s skills as a storyteller. But in the aftermath of that and the last hundred pages or so the pace again slackens, and we go from the surreality of every day life to a kind of deus ex machina explanation as the laws of the physics begin to unravel.

Like the robbery, theoretically this could all work. But there’s just too much of it. Too many absurdities. Too many abrupt and clumsy changes in tone. Too many pieces that seem intriguing – his neighbor, Angus’ obsession with bringing Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners to life, Casi’s near obsession with the life and career of Wilfred Benitez, his niece’s elective mutism – to name three. And finally too much of a feeling that de la Pava is not completely in control.

I’m not sure where or what should have been cut, but I’m pretty sure if the novel lost a hundred pages or so it would have been better. Would I lose Casi’s mother’s recipe for empanadas? Maybe not, but I skipped the several pages long story in verse which he tells his niece. Would that have drawn all the threads together?  I’m not sure what was up with the monkey by the Brooklyn Bridge either, and he could have skipped or tightened some of Casi’s many encounters with his neighbors.

I’ll go with the Slate review in which Paul Ford suggested that de la Pava writes like someone who was afraid he’d never be allowed to write another novel, so everything had to go into this one. I’m also in agreement with Stuart Kelly’s assessment in The Guardian, “As much as I loved it, I wished he had had an editor.” (Given my beliefs about self-publishing, I’d be willing to amend that to “I wish he’d had at least a few honest beta readers, and the judgement and humility to listen to them.)

Is it worth the read? Yes. It’s at least worth the attempt. For all its excesses, it’s better than 95% of the books out there. It’s interesting that it was a university press and not one of the big boys that eventually took a chance on it, but it’s not surprising given that corporate publishing only cares about the potential for commercial (not artistic) success. I’m glad de la Pava is getting the attention he deserves, but I doubt it will lead more of the important people to be less automatically dismissive of self-published works. This novel would have been just as good if the University of Chicago had not picked it up, but it wouldn’t have been eligible for the award it received. Wouldn’t it be great if its discovery caused organizations like Pen to think differently about self-published work? To seek out the good stuff from whatever source?

Like that’s going to happen.

(Like Sergio De La Pava, Marion Stein’s work has been favorable compared to Jonathan Lethem’s [among others], but apparently not by anybody who counts.)