Personae: A Novel

Personae: A Novel

by Sergio De La Pava

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Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity was one of the most highly praised debut novels in decades. The Wall Street Journal called it “a propulsive, mind-bending experience,” and named it one of the ten best books of the year. The Toronto Star did the same, calling it “a great American novel: large, ambitious, and full of talk.” In Slate, Paul Ford proclaimed,“It’s a fine thing for an author to bring forth something so unapologetically maximalist.”  
This book is nothing like that one. Just look at it: A Naked Singularity was a brick of a book, 678 pages, and this one’s slim--lean and focused. A Naked Singularity locked us into the unforgettable voice of its protagonist, Casi, while Personae shimmers and shifts among different perspectives, locations, and narrative techniques.

But sharp readers will quickly see that the two books are the work of the same hand. The sheer energy of De La Pava’s sentences, his eye for absurd humor, his commitment to the idea of justice--all will be familiar here as they carry us from the tale of an obsessive, damaged psychic detective consumed by a murder case, into a Sartrean drama that raises questions (and jokes) about responsibility, fate, death, and more. And when De La Pava eventually returns us to the investigation, this time seen from the other side, the lives and deaths bound up in it feel all the more real, and moving, even as solid answers slip away into mist.
Shelf Awareness
declared that A Naked Singularity "heralded the arrival of a tremendous talent." In some ways, despite its brevity, Personae is even more surprising and challenging--and, in its ambition and fierce intelligence, it’s proof that Sergio De La Pava is here to stay.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226079042
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/30/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 445 KB

About the Author

Sergio De La Pava still does not live in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Sergio De La Pava


Copyright © 2011 Sergio De La Pava
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07899-1


Our Heroine and Her Work

The ensuing is the report of one Detective Helen Tame. I am Helen Tame, the ensuing is my report, and it is not true that this second sentence adds nothing to the first. I should note at the outset that this Department is obsessed with reports and I am not; if I had to cop to any obsession it would be with Truth. Truth in its multifarious instantiations, ranging from simple if inviolable mathematical truths to other less evident yet persistently attractive ones. How it is true that a three-year-old's smile is an unambiguous good whereas decades later those same lips must first be parsed, how certain narrative memories will attach to an extant piece of music and refuse to ever again let go, but mostly how an unexplained human death nonetheless retains a core truth that can be teased into discovery. What I do is make these discoveries then, because of the above-mentioned obsession, write about them:

The apartment I responded to was a Manhattan special, meaning you cannot believe a human being who is not incarcerated is not entitled to more space. I am here because of blood, blood that makes little sense. John Doe is on the kitchen floor but Mr. Doe is so obviously and severely weathered, so far along his now conclusive personal timeline, that his status as a DOA would occasion no mystery remotely warranting the tentatively solicitous phone call I received but for, again, the blood.

There is blood just above the molding in the hall leading to the kitchen and less in other spots but none in the kitchen. P.O. Avery is correct and seems pleased.

"They said call you in these instances, just this morning in fact." I say nothing because I'm mildly curious what he will add. The resulting silence causes him stress he's unaware of and he says, "I took the number down. Everybody was kind of taken aback you know? Since day one it's been call crime scene, you know, don't touch anything just call. Then suddenly today it's call you instead if attendant circumstances suggest that a high degree of notoriety will attach to the case or resolution of the matter will prove particularly thorny, that last part starting with attendant my sergeant read from a piece of paper, he doesn't talk like that."

I am slowly walking throughout the apartment and while it is true I can attend to two matters at once, that is, I can listen to Avery's noise and still begin making the necessary observations and thoughts, I would prefer not to, that the thoughts may be richer, and for that I will have to speak. I turn to look at him directly. His pupils dilate and he has somehow managed to bore me further. He is still talking.

"I told him I had to disagree you know? Don't get me wrong, he's a great partner and all," he is glancing at him in the hall, maybe thinking great was too strong. "But I told him that I think this is exactly what they were talking about this morning with the thing with the attending circumstances. Because I think that's blood, fresh blood at that, and yet it doesn't appear to have come from the body, the deceased, the decedent I mean."

"Stop talking," I say, and he does. I am putting on gloves I designed years ago, gloves that only became the industry standard once I relented and let my name attach to them even though their physical makeup changed not in the slightest between reluctance and acquiescence, and staring at a clean spot on the carpet. "You can go now," I add, but he hesitates. "That means leave in Etiquette."

"Just that, well, they didn't really say what to do after calling you. In other words, does calling you, uh, obviate the need to call CSU? Do I fill out a report?"


"Nothing about what constitutes proper procedure from here on out you know? So I'm at a bit of a loss."

"More than a bit I'd say, so here's a chance for some gain. You weren't given further procedure because this is the end of the line for you. Once you call me and, more importantly, I come, then I alone make the determination of what constitutes, as you say, proper procedure going forward. Make sense?"


"So I am repeating my invitation to you to join your partner in the hall, then the street, then your RMP, to continue providing service and protection."


"Well done."

"With permission to add that when I started I told myself that to the extent I made errors they would be errors of commission and not omission."

He'd made the relevant O a little too long during which I diagnosed ambition and felt remorse. "You did well officer," I say. "It is blood and in highly suggestive locations, good work." I then take him by the elbow like a child, a quite involuntary sin of condescension that requires I atone by asking who his sergeant is then indicating I will deposit positive impressions there, and take him to the hall where I close the door before the partner can even form the intent to speak.

Now I'm tired. Even minimal social niceties exhaust me and the commitment to future such interactions doesn't help. I am walking about the apartment collecting. I touch nothing, I am collecting observations and placing them in my mind. Once they've all been crowded in I'll order them, connect them where appropriate, delete the irrelevant, promote the critical, and begin the circuitously ineffable process of forming conclusions.

The apartment is essentially two rooms. In one, a kitchen with a refrigerator and oven that look like toy models opens into the maybe two-hundred square feet of combination living/dining room. The other is the bedroom, notable at first blush primarily for the absence of any bed frame for the mattress on the floor in the corner. Bathroom of toilet, sink, shower, ends the tour, with only the medicine cabinet intriguing me and not greatly.

Can't say the same for other things I've seen, however. For example, the main room has a piano and not a bad one. The same man who slept on the floor owned a piano. But not a television or computer. There's a radio, old as sin, the kind that looks like it was manufactured to report on the progress of the Allies. The sofa facing it has recently been cleared of considerable clutter. Not so the coffee table which seems almost comprised of newspapers and magazines. The carpet is wall-to-wall and gold with the clean spot I mentioned.

I go to the kitchen and the body on its floor. The body is splayed almost prototypically, the right arm reaching up as if hoping to be called on. In the withered hand an open orange bottle of pills, pills on the ground, pills in the yawning mouth. No label on the bottle, no identifying features on the pills. Left hand palm-down on the floor near his waist. Medium-sized white tee shirt and pajama pants, nothing else. Eighteen pills total between bottle, floor, and mouth. Right side of face on the floor so I put a digital thermometer in his left ear. Beep and eighty-two degrees confirms he's been dead an hour and forty minutes. I squeeze his left thigh and estimate the density of his femur. I look at his face and open the eyes to see their reddish scleras.

He is more than a century old; was.

I walk away, to the other side of the counter where I sit on a stool and look into the kitchen. I forgot to close the eyes and now he is staring at me. The last thing he saw was dirty cracked linoleum but follow his eyes now and you can reach the Sun.

Someone is at the door. As they come in I stand and move away from the counter. There are steps you can take to stand in plain view without being seen, just as you can follow someone quite closely without them noticing, provided you understand the behavior of soundwaves and take care to maintain proper angles.

A tall woman walks in. She is leading a girl by the hand. They are dressed in almost costume plainness and as they pass the kitchen they merely glance at the body before entering the room I'm in. I contemplate speaking but decide I don't want to influence events, just want to see what will develop in my absence.

They are looking for something but the girl is merely mimicking the adult without comprehension. She is nine or ten. After the woman opens and closes a drawer the girl will then reopen and close that same drawer without looking in. They are done and go into the bedroom holding nothing. I have not been seen.

In the bedroom they engage in the same conduct with the same result. They say nothing but look at each other often. The woman puts her hand to the child's face and, with a thumb, wipes her cheek. They sit on the mattress, saying nothing, holding hands. When they rise the girl is holding something and I, who have stared continuously at her face since first locking on to it well, cannot account for the acquisition.

It is a white package and it is secured shut by twine in the form of a bakery box. She is carrying it and they are walking towards me. I decide to let them see me and to investigate, I am interested. Then I step aside and they walk past. They walk past the kitchen. The woman stares straight ahead as they pass but the girl drops her head back to look. They open the door and leave. I stare at the door. Time passes. I go to the window but see no one. I have made my first mistake in a long time and that excites me with possibility.

There is nothing that blatantly indicates where the white box came from. The piano bench, for example, doubles as storage but is sufficiently full that there was no possible room for the box the girl carried so forlornly. In the bench is a notebook. A music notebook with ledger lines forming grand staffs. Written by hand, in pencil and recently, is an aria I recognize immediately but have not played in years. I take off my gloves and sit at the bench. I play it straight through once, at first using his music then from memory, the notes surprising and moving me as I remember why I stopped playing them. Then again, but this time more deliberately, allowing some notes to fade to near silence before being replaced. I begin a variation out of order then stop. The aria is the only music in the notebook. This is a coincidence but coincidences don't impress me or cause me the slightest wonder.

The average person greatly underestimates the frequency of what they term coincidence and often the unscrupulous profit as a result. Thus the frequent discoveries that the Bible, for example, has a hidden code that prospectively details the precise unfolding of the Franco-Prussian War or whatever until someone, one hopes, points out that the real shock would be if the comparison of two immeasurably rich entities like the Bible and all of human history failed to produce any matching patterns whatsoever. Similarly, I have mentioned that Mr. Doe spent more than a century on our planet and I fairly recently concluded my fourth decade therein creating ample opportunity for something like my having written extensively on the only piece of music transcribed by the individual whose death I'm investigating; this is especially so when one of the individuals has been a compulsive producer of monographs on wildly divergent topics, although with a discernible if not exclusive focus on matters related to investigative techniques and Music, since the age of sixteen.

And there remains the matter of the box because while it is true that the girl carried it towards the front door she did not in fact leave with it and it now rests bluntly near that door where I direct stares at it as I resume playing and pretend that what I see is a residual image not yet dissolved behind my eyes and not one supported by actual presence, a pretension necessitated by a kind of urgently palpable aura emitted by the object; how I've determined that the round pills are not responsible for John Doe's pose but almost certainly the contents of the box somehow are, all meaning that I am duty-bound to approach the box but so do not want to that I contemplate the abandonment of that duty and incorporated within is the conclusion that while such an abandonment can be perfectly legitimate it can only be so if it is not specific to this incident but is, as it were, General, meaning just the kind of complete abdication and cessation I am not even remotely prepared to make, so instead I go to the box.

I am tentatively untying the box and sitting on Doe's sofa. Wait. Should I untie the box?

I have yet to fully inhale the apartment as I eventually must, but sometimes sensing is enough and I sense that whatever secrets exist therein will devolve freely under even minimal scrutiny; not so for the box.

Should I open it?

Maybe the box is empty. I'll open it and contrary to all intuition and sense impressions reveal not a saturated piece of our universe but rather the absence at the core of everything, that what is fashionable to believe has fashion only because true.

But when I open it I'm only slightly surprised by what I see. Another notebook but this one's marble and thus spongy in the way only those can become. Initially black now barely grey, it contains writing that ranges from colorful immediacy to mere ghostly impressions.

Digging further results in an untimely TV GUIDE (yes, the mini booklike magazine) this one remarkable at first glance only for its copious writing in red ink in seemingly every available margin that once provided respite from the publication's incestually suggestive coverage of the titular industry. This writing is in the same hand as they say as marble notebook's.

Next is a roll of paper towels, but not the kind you would ever find in someone's home with the heightened absorbency and easily perforated sections. No, this is brown paper closer in the spectrum to wood than most paper dares, and what on introduction appears to be meaningless scribbling, thereupon evolves on closer inspection into more writing, again with the from the same hand thing, but writing made almost indecipherable by the fact that it has been quite literally rolled over itself, so that the reader's visual processing of the most immediate letters is undercut by the many successively fainter letters that constitute later writing and which essentially bleed through the paper to compete with the more relevant letters, at least when the roll is in its most composed state.

Last, is a collection (collected, at least in the nonhuman sense, by a binder clip in the upper left corner and this clip is of the largest size commonly available in the U.S.) of research. The bright whiteness of this recent paper is sudden and intense and it takes time to notice that what signifies here is not so much the computer-generated symbols on the front but, instead, the by now familiar and severely human prose on the back of almost every page.

All this represents work. Writer needs to be officially called in but I am reluctant to do so without concrete answers and I'm getting tired and it's getting dark and, truth is, the epistemological scenery of that space, the various distances and positions, etc., will not change significantly; what will change is the person charged with interpreting that scenery, assuming she reads everything before her. I start with the notebook.

Now it is hours later, maybe the next day, and I have read everything before putting it all back in the box, exactly as I found, it then retying said box and writing something of my own.

I'm tired.

I have done what I can.

I am only one person.

Any person will be imperfect.

Blood everywhere.

The sofa is warm and soft.

It's a big world, cold and hard, and at some point someone will lie lifeless on every inch of it.

I am only one person and I am tired. I close my eyes.


1st of 3 Excerpts of Dr. Helen Tame's Introduction to Her Article: Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence

In the beginning Man had fur. And his stomach hurt. It hurt and in a way mostly foreign to now. And there was sound and noise and even Music but when your stomach hurts, if it hurts enough, then sound is just sound and it doesn't arrange into beauty or meaning. What you want then is for the pain to stop. For it to not follow you wherever you go and for it to not reduce everything to need and fear.

Turns out opposable digits help do this. They eventually hold tools and it is tools that will ultimately tame the world.

Excerpted from PERSONAE by Sergio De La Pava. Copyright © 2011 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.

Table of Contents

I. Our Heroine and Her Work II. 1st of 3 Excerpts of Dr. Helen Tame’s Introduction to Her Article: Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence III. In Which Painstakingly Restored Aphorisms Are Aired after Dormant Decades IV. An Octogenarian Beginner Begins after Wondering if Beginner’s Luck Even Applies V. 2nd of 3 Excerpts of Dr. Helen Tame’s Introduction to Her Article: Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence VI. Players at Play on the Stage that Is the World VII. Another Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding VIII. Final Excerpt of Dr. Helen Tame’s Introduction to Her Article: Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence IX. What’s Left to Echo X. How Some Things Can Function as Postscript without Intent

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