A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, (Quercus – August, 2013)
When David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest came out, apart from anything else, its great length was extraordinary, and I understand that Bolano’s novel 2666 was not actually intended as one volume, but this year the long novel seems to be back in fashion. David Peace's Red or Dead is a whopping 720 pages, Richard House’s The Kill is 1002 pages, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winning masterpiece The Luminaries is 832 pages and the forthcoming novel by Robert Coover, The Brunist Day of Wrath, is going to be around 1100 pages. Are we returning to the days before TV, when we happily spent long winter nights with Richardson’s Pamela or Tolstoy’s War and Peace in front of a fire? Or is this trend reflecting the fact that length hardly matters when it comes to downloading ebooks which some might merely aim to own rather than read? Maybe there is a different way of reading novels; not cover to cover but a little bit here and a little bit there? Or do consumers need to be won with XL commodities suggesting greater value for money?
Sergio De La Pava’s, A Naked Singularity (864 pages), is one long novel that came out this year and it apparently aims to provide the answer to everything you ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask. This includes the New York legal system, the authentic recipe for empanadas, the greatest hits of the Puerto Rican boxer Wilfredo Benitez, the mathematical principle of Perfect Numbers as well as the theory of evolution as understood by Darwin and others.
The narrator of this tale is Casi, an ambitious, twenty-four year old, public defendant of Colombian parentage whose clients are mainly busted for illegal possession and petty crimes. He jabbers away like a second-hand car salesman on speed with a touch of brilliance; he has analytic method but without any common-sense perspectives, especially when it comes to his personal life. Although Casi’s intention is to be a ‘good man’ he keeps getting himself into unhelpful situations. He is so eager to please that he indiscriminately gets involved in hazy projects. In this case Melvyn Toomberg persuades him to assist in a death row case and Dane recruits him as his accomplice in a multi-million dollar heist. Despite trying to do the ‘right’ thing Casi ends up making enemies with those in power; in particular Judge Cymbeline, and Ballena—a lethal gangster.
De La Pava’s writing has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, D F Wallace and William Gaddis. Although I found De La Pava to be a highly skilled and compelling writer, I could not detect a convincing overall style among the many voices he successfully appears to be imitating. Not unlike the chimp in his novel the author seems keen to show off a colourful parade of radically different approaches. In chapter twenty, for instance, we have a hilariously funny depiction of the hotel ‘The Orchard’, a surreal parody of the biblical Paradise itself, and this is interspersed with highly poignant, social-realist description of Holman Prison. Perhaps the author wanted to emphasise how close the two sides of a coin can be only that the currency he uses gets mixed up. As Casi remains the protagonist throughout, it seems as if he sporadically suffers from a personality disorder. The author treads a thin line between being interesting and just being bizarre for the sake of it. This said; versatility could have been a virtue if he would have established multiple narrators and/or a shifting point of view.
Even so the author’s resourcefulness is refreshing and helps to drive the story forward, as ever new and surprising subplots sprout left, right and centre. De La Pava certainly cares about keeping his readers entertained. The story improves as it goes on and the eight hundred pages do provide much food for thought but it is not an orderly, sit-down six-course meal instead it is an endless Sunday buffet; there is something for every taste yet the reader never quite knows when they might find themselves back with the antipasti.
I guess De La Pava’s hallmark, if there is one, is his playful dialogue with equivocal misunderstandings, which he often exploits for comical purposes. His ear is as sharp as that of a lawyer. He twists and expands meaning even in the most mundane situations:
“You physically assaulted Liszt.”
“No his person.”
“Liszt has a person now?”
Plot and characters have a strong aura of pastiche and little attempt is made to hide the derivative notion of déjà vu; we find traces of Dante’s decent into hell, a court scene resembling the trial of Alice in Wonderland, one character sounds precisely like Hulk from Marvel Comics and the heist is an exact replica of the dilemma in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There are long passages that seem to be straight copies from legal transcripts, biographies, cookery books and scientific dictionaries (intact with lecturing monotony). Although the recycling of all this is well presented and cleverly justified, its effect is hit and miss.
In an interview De La Pava gave the following advice: ‘Tell don’t show, write what you don’t know and always include a chimp.’ Ironically, De La Pava disregards not only these but all laws taught in creative writing classes and still seems to get away with it. His idiosyncratic approach seems to generate an intriguing appeal—an eccentric departure that reengages with the classics. Saul Bellow suggested back in the 90s that:
Some of the greatest novels are very thick. Fiction is a loose popular art, and many of the classic novelists get their effects by heaping up masses of words.
De La Pava does eventually convince through sheer magnitude—almost as if we can never get too much of a good thing, especially as it is made up of things we have already endorsed.
There is no doubt that A Naked Singularity is a good thing—a success story, in fact. It was completed in 2004, eventually self-published in 2008 and awarded the PEN prize for debut fiction in 2013. I understand the author put much effort into publicising the work through word of mouth—or from tweet to tweet—until it could no longer be ignored. I would not be surprised if this stunning copycat of a novel might in time become a new classic, although I am not sure if this would come down to size. The question of how long or short a novel should be is not new. Bellow suggests:
There is a modern taste for brevity and condensation.  People of course do write long, and write successfully, but to write short is felt by a growing public to be a very good thing – perhaps the best.