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Winner of the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize
— Tim Feeney
— Miles Klee
— Steve Donoghue
— Miles Klee
"Exuberant, hyperverbal . . . a minor masterpiece of humor, paranoia, and even flashy technique."
Sergio de la Pava's first novel, A Naked Singularity, is 700 pages long and was originally self-published, but now, thanks to a long slow swell of enthusiasm on the Internet, it is available in a beautifully designed — if not 100 percent copyedited — paperback from the University of Chicago Press, and I strongly encourage you to overcome whatever hesitation the phrase "700-page self- published novel" may inspire in you and pick it up. It is a beautiful monster of a book, a novel that left this
Reviewer, at least, feeling like maybe there's some point in reading novels — and writing them — after all.
Casi, the narrator of A Naked Singularity, is a twenty-four-year-old Colombian-American public defender in Manhattan, an occupation he shares with de la Pava (about whom little else is known, except that he likes boxing and, according to his author bio, "does not live in Brooklyn" — at a guess, I'd put him in Queens). The novel is extensively informed by its author's experience; it gives us a worm's-eye view of the New York City criminal justice system, which de la Pava describes, plausibly, as a maddeningly slow and unequal contest between feckless defendants and hypocritical judges. So for instance we meet Rory Ludd, a black man who has been locked up for loitering in a public park; he's about to be released when he has the bad sense to shout, "TOTAL BULLSHIT!" To which the judge replies, "Well the situation was one of your own making young man. If you don't break the law you don't get arrested it's as simple as that. I do not stand for that kind of language either. This is a goddamn courtroom not some corner hangout!" And, poof! Ludd is back in jail.
De la Pava has been compared to the novelist William Gaddis, a great renderer of American speech in all its odd registers, and the comparison isn't inapt: the comma-free prose of A Naked Singularity feels almost embarrassingly contemporary, as if we were watching a new literary norm hatch from its egg. De la Pava's long courtroom scenes, told mostly in dialogue, also recall Gaddis's comic novel A Frolic of His Own, except that where Gaddis entertained the reader with the absurdity of civil procedure (my favorite instance of this being the lawsuit brought by the Episcopal Church against the Pepsi-Cola Corporation for trademark infringement, on the grounds that "Pepsi-Cola" is an anagram of "Episcopal"), Casi's story vibrates with grim intensity. Years and lives are on the line; one of the things A Naked Singularity captures best is Casi's perpetual overcommitment, his impossible attempt to do right by too many people who, too much of the time, can't do right by themselves. There are a number of good novels about work (Ed Park's Personal Days, for example) but not so many about overwork, and this is one of them.
Casi begins the book with a perfect record: all the cases he's brought to trial have ended in acquittal. But the reader knows, maybe better than he does, that his winning streak can't last forever. When he finally does lose a case I can only describe as extremely minor (it involves the attempted theft of some painting supplies) and which, let the record show, occupies nearly fifty highly engaging pages of the book — this testifies both to de la Pava's skill as a writer and to the fact that there is something inherently compelling about legal proceedings — anyway, when Casi loses, something in him snaps. The consequences of his breakdown, and his subsequent, desperate attempt to return to a state of perfection, occupy the second half of the novel. They are implausible but entertaining.
As the novel goes on, though, it becomes less about justice — with the notable exception of a death-penalty case that Casi has taken on pro bono — and more about, well, about books. It's no coincidence that the archvillain whom Casi must eventually (sort of) confront is named Ballena, the whale: the book has become a wacky Moby-Dick, with a shout-out to Genesis when an organization with the nakedly Pynchonian acronym SERPENT holds its annual convention in a luxury hotel called The Garden. To me, this postmodern play reads like a symptom of exhaustion: de la Pava either can't tell his good ideas from his bad ones, or, 600 pages in, he doesn't care, and there's no editor around to throw a bucket of cold water over his head.
This is not the novel's only problem. Like Infinite Jest, to which it has also been compared, and without which it would probably never have existed, A Naked Singularity drags in places. Did we really need, e.g., the six-page synopsis of an in-flight movie? Or the nine pages of bad poetry that Casi reads to a cute child? It's nice to see de la Pava experiment with what he can do with (or to) the reader, but the result is that the reader too begins to experiment with how much he or she can skim, or skip. And unlike anything that happens in Wallace's work, there are places where A Naked Singularity reaches for an intelligence that it doesn't quite possess. Casi's exegesis of Time, for example, begins, "Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that's what Time truly is." It ends by telling us not much that we didn't already know.
Nobody's perfect; but these dull patches have to be weighed against the things the novel does brilliantly. The death-penalty case that looms large in the novel's second half is heartbreaking and, if an interview de la Pava did with Publishers Weekly is to be trusted, it's also procedurally accurate. (It also involves Skittles in a way that weirdly foreshadows the Trayvon Martin case.) And despite his habitual lack of restraint, one of de la Pava's best moves is to veer toward a story that never comes. At one point, fairly early on in the book, Casi and a colleague pass a construction hoarding in Lower Manhattan. It's covered by a curtain, with a sign that reads,
Reviewer: Paul La Farge
My getting out or what?!
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil and, oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us and anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street's AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
The puppetmaster pulling strings from behind the bench was a bloated pink one on loan from the Bronx. The nameplate directly before him announced J. MANOS in calligraphic gold. Its owner and referent had decided no one would taste freedom that arctic night and had been slowly apprising us of that decision for the aforementioned seven-plus hours. And all that while he fostered this ugly habit of echoing the end of his sentences, but only after the kind of delay that fooled you into thinking you were in the clear, as in bail is set in the amount of ten thousand dollars ... ten thousand dollars and often all emphatic(!) too.
The DA was essentially bony but with a slightly bulbous face beneath a mushroom hairdo that rose and expanded from dark root stem to bottle-blond cap. She displayed no discernible personality or affect as she uttered (through an inconsistent lip-distorting-yet-thankfully-dry-lisp) the customary declarations of mock moral outrage like this defendant hath warranted on every one of his twenty three cathes, this defendant itha four-time predicate felon and this defendant hath used twelve different aliathes. Unsurprisingly, these words—when spoken in those or similar combinations and to that audience—were more than sufficiently persuasive and as such invariably caused high numbers with commas to emerge from behind the nameplate. The numbers then attached to a body, one that by then had traversed the entirety of a creaking assembly line, and as a result the body stayed in.
[bod-y (bod'e) n., pl.—ies. 9. CJS. Inarguably odious term used by N.Y.C. Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendants: There are three hundred bodies in the system so we should be busy. He's bringing the next batch of bodies down now, I'll let you know if your guy's one of them.]
And this was before anything even remotely insane had happened when I still occasionally thought about things like how it was that people were reduced to bodies, meaning the process. How you needed cops to do it and how their master, The System, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted. And if you learn only one thing from the ensuing maybe let it be this: the police were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make an arrest, rather the police had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing. Consequently, the decision on who would become a body was often affected by overlooked factors like the candidate's degree of humility, the neighborhood it lived in, and most often the relevant officers' need for overtime.
None of which tells you the exact process by which someone, let's say You, becomes a body, which account I sort of impliedly semi-promised, so imagine you are on the street, then in an incident, then a stranger's hand is on your melon making sure it doesn't bang the half-blue/half-white American-only car with the colorful bar across the top. Imagine that, easy if you try. Now the police have twenty-four hours to get you in front of a judge for your criminal court arraignment but if you're the perceptive sort you will monitor Time's ceaseless consumption of this period yet rightly detect no corresponding increase in ambient urgency.
Your first stop is the appropriate precinct where the arresting officer or A/O stands you before another cop known as the Desk Sergeant. He tells him the tale of your alleged sin and the two, speaker and audience, join their heads to decide what section(s) of the New York Penal Law to charge you with. Now you've been informally charged and with that out of the way you may be asked to remove all your clothes (the propriety of this being debated at the time) and kindly spread open your ass. This strip search is one of several ways that additional charges can still arise so while you may have been arrested for a triviality like displaying an open bottle of Heineken to the public—a prosecution normally conducted in a decidedly minor key and resolved right at arraignments—your glove-clad searcher may now discover what you most sought to conceal, that you are currently holding one of the area's surfeit of readily-available-yet-technically-illicit anesthetics in amounts ranging anywhere from the ghostly residue of celebrations past to multiple powder bricks and in locations as presumably inviolable as within your underwear or even up your ass or maybe you possess one of the other less popular forms of the all-inclusive law enforcement term contraband. In that way can minor breaches be converted into major faults and this happens often, not occasionally. The police know this and are therefore unlikely to ignore even nonsense like the above Consumption of Alcohol in a Public Place (AC §10.125). People like you know this as well yet permit it to alter their conduct not in the slightest, ensuring in the process that the number of bodies will always remain fairly constant.
Another way you have to be careful not to pick up more charges is by resisting capture, even if only verbally, because such conduct can incite some of your lesser blue pacifists into a bit of retributory violence, with said violence then necessitating that you be charged with Resisting Arrest (PL §205.30) if only by way of explaining your injuries; which injuries better be minor lest they result in the added felony charge of Assault in the Second Degree (PL §120.05), a more extensive explanation whereby a misdemeanor assault becomes a felony one by virtue of involving a police officer.
Still at the precinct, you are printed, each of your fingers rolled in black ink then onto vestal white paper. The resulting bar code is sent to Albany for the purpose of producing a rap sheet, an accordiony collection of onion paper that means everything where you are. It means everything because sentencing like Physics and other sciences builds on what came before so that the worse your past was, the worse your present will be, and no sane person doubts the rap sheet's depiction of the past since it's based on unalterable fingerprints and not relative ephemera like names or social security numbers. I say no sane person because when once confronted by an individual who steadfastly claimed not to recall in the slightest what I deemed to be a highly memorable conviction on his sheet and one that substantially increased his exposure, I asked him if he planned to launch a Lockean defense whereby he could not be held responsible for something he didn't remember as such act was not properly attributable to his personal identity at which point he gave me the blankest of stares in response then started saying increasingly odd things in rapid succession until I realized that he not only sort of knew what I was talking about, which was weird enough, but that he was undeniably insane and my ill-advised Locke reference was like the thing coming after the final straw to tip him over the Axis-II-Cluster-A edge, as it were, so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that.
Now there's all this paperwork the A/O has to fill out and he'll stick you in the precinct's cell while he fills. But first, if the case has any seriousness whatsoever, he and his friends want to accumulate evidence against you and since the best evidence is quite often the very words you emit, they mostly want you to make a statement, and trust me when I tell you that by the time they're through with you you'll probably want you to make a statement as well. Because while the police operated under something called the forty-eight hour rule which stated that an officer charged with any kind of official misconduct cannot be questioned about it for forty-eight hours—giving him time to, among other things, retain a criminal defense attorney—you are currently operating under a different forty-eight hour rule. This one says the police can harass, intimidate, lie, cheat, steal, cajole, make false promises, and delay your arraignment (where you would be assigned an attorney who would most assuredly not allow you to speak to the police) for forty-eight hours if that's what it takes to extract your statement. And it is following all that, not at the very instant you're arrested as mass entertainment would have you believe, that they will advise you of your Miranda rights so your ensuing statement will be admissible.
And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.
Digression begins. So Ernesto Miranda is the Miranda of the warnings and the same year a famous shooter(s) would later scatter John Fitzgerald all over Jackie he was twenty-three and creating smaller-scale mayhem. A high school dropout with the mental development of an eighth-grader, Miranda had already served one year on an attempted rape conviction. In a perpendicular universe, an eighteen-year-old Phoenix girl who I'm going to say strove to dress like the glossy girls she saw in magazines and to listen to the same records as her more desirable classmates indisputably acted as attendant to some movie theater's candy counter, the true home of such an operation's profits incidentally. She sold synthetic butter and liquid Real Things and when done tried to go home. Enter Miranda who interrupted her trip home. He grabbed her, dragged her into his car, and drove her out into the Red, Brown, and Purple of the Painted Desert where he raped her.
Fast forward one week when the girl briefly saw what she thought was the car driven by her assailant, a 1953 Packard. She reported this belief to the police, telling them the license plate of the car was DFL312. That plate turned out to be registered to an Oldsmobile but the police discovered that DFL317 was registered to a Packard—a Packard owned by Twila N. Hoffman, Ernesto Miranda's girlfriend. Off to 2525 West Mariposa (Oeste Butterfly) Street where Miranda was found to fit the description given by the girl. He was arrested and placed in a line-up. The girl said he most resembled the rapist but failed to make an unequivocally positive identification.
Detectives took Miranda into Interrogation Room Two where he was told he had been identified as the rapist and asked if he wanted to make a statement. He did, a signed written confession that took two hours to elicit following his initial denial of guilt and that included a section saying he understood his rights. Miranda was charged and assigned an attorney. The attorney, Alvin Moore, had plenty on his neck, however, and for a well-spent $100 he objected that the confession had been illegally obtained because no one told Ernesto, prior to his statement, that he had the right to an attorney. The trial judge said no way to that and after the jury consequently heard the confession, and was surely impressed by it, he got to prescribe twenty to thirty years in special housing as a remedy. Ernesto wondered if he could appeal and he could.
The ACLU grabbed the case and 976 days later they were in front of the court that never gets overruled with John Flynn saying, and this is a direct quote (no it isn't): "look dudes, and I refer to you thusly because this is way pre-O'Connor/Ginsberg, your Fifth Amendment deal is only protecting the rich and powerful: those who are brainy enough to know what their rights are or who have the dough to rent a lawyer." The Warren Supremes actually agreed and, in the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy, held that before future police could torment some illiterate sap who nobody cares about into confessing his sins, real or imagined, they would have to inform him of certain rights not covered in your average eighth-grade Social Studies class. As is customary in these all-too-rare instances, Miranda's conviction was reversed and his case set down for retrial—a trial to be conducted without his now tainted confession, without any physical evidence of a struggle, and with a dubious identification. In a stroke of all-too-common prosecutorial serendipity, however, Miranda's common-law wife, the previously-mentioned Twila, emerged to testify that Miranda had admitted the rape to her. The fact that she and Miranda were then involved in a bitter custody dispute—are these ever otherwise described?—was conveniently ignored and the new jury said something to the effect of where are your Supremes now because we agree with the first jury. Miranda was eventually paroled then, the same year his country celebrated its two-hundredth birthday party, stabbed and killed in a Phoenix bar fight. As the police arrested one of his assailants they took care to read him his Miranda rights in English and Spanish. Digression ends.
Of course so famous have these warnings become that it seems they're no longer really heard in any meaningful way so that although someone with a gun is pointedly telling you you have the right to remain silent, that is, you have the right to make their job harder, to make it more difficult for them to accumulate evidence and later proof against you, the right to decrease the chances that you will end in jail, you will still almost invariably decline to exercise that right. Instead when someone like me later asks you if you spoke you'll affirm then say things like: he said I would get out if I made a statement or they knew I wasn't the shooter so he said I would get a misdemeanor if I told them about the robbery or maybe I had to tell my side of the story or my mother said to tell them what happened or else I told them what happened but I didn't write it so it's not a statement right? or even they said once I got a lawyer there was nothing they could do for me and other similar, painful nonsense. You tell me these things and my chin drops because I'm not interested in what's good for your soul only what's good or bad for my case and your statement is bad for it.
And in what is possibly another mini-digression, here is, more specifically, why your statement is always bad or at least your classic no-win deal, regardless of its content: Realize that if what you said was good for you, you can reliably expect that it will never be repeated because the prosecution needn't present it at trial or even tell anyone about it. On the other far more likely hand where what you said damages your prospects, then you likely just reduced me to arguing that the cop misinterpreted or improperly influenced the content or, worse, just made it up out of whole cloth. Only I'm arguing this in Manhattan not the Bronx or Brooklyn meaning a substantial portion of the listening jury has graduate degrees and nannies and they don't think Police Officers do things like that and aren't about to be disabused of that notion by a criminal like you. So thanks. All by way of saying that statements are good evidence for the prosecution so the cops know to get them and thus do, with occasional help from an assistant district attorney sitting in front of a bargain videocam if the case is serious enough.
Back to that paperwork the A/O's filling out with you in a nearby cell. He's scribbling and hunting and pecking while asking you the occasional question (these are mostly pedigree questions like name, address, etc., which everyone in a robe agrees don't require preceding Miranda warnings) and you may not know it but your future's in them pages, those police reports. Because those reports are Rosario material and as such must be turned over to your attorney at some point, usually seconds, before trial. And even at that late stage believe me that these reports are usually his only true friends within the cruel, lonely world he operates in. Friends because in all their babblative beauty they make claims early and often that the cop now has to mirror perfectly or else gift him the inconsistency so that if it suits you he will stand there at trial and wave them at the cop like holier verity was never written boy. And the Rosario List that comes with the material will look substantially like this (well, without the explanatory parentheticals):
1. Online Booking Sheet: (mostly pedigree info but also details your capture including specific time and place).
Excerpted from a naked singularity by SERGIO DE LA PAVA Copyright © 2008 by Sergio De La Pava. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 28, 2012
The strength of this author's writing ability is apparent. But, his approach to a "story" is a difficult path to follow. There are times where you become totally immersed in his story line and then he jumps to a what seems a completely different plot line. I sometimes find myself skimming across the waves flipping my iPAD almost instantaneously; then in another section I find my self in a bog as if i were lifting my feet laboriously one at a time from mud sucking at my feet and I put it down to gather more strength...
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