Review – De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity”

They made a movie of this book, and I’m told it was bad

Sergio De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity” (2008) (read aloud by Luis Moreno) – It’s like “Infinite Jest,” but good! This was recommended me by a friend early on in grad school. I’ve had her copy for most of a decade, as she tends to flit amongst the continents and isn’t anchored by physical belongings (plus this copy is donged up a little and would not sell at the used places). I tried reading it physically but wasn’t in the mood, then, when I started having a “contemporary lit fic” slot in my audiobook rotation, thought this would do the trick.

Sergio De La Pava originally self-published this, but then a publisher picked it up and it won some awards. Gotta say, it does feel a little older than it is, more 2000 than 2008, when it got picked up. A lot of stuff about how weird and off-putting television is, and pretty much none about how weird and off-putting the internet is, for instance. This is one feature, along with its length and discursiveness, that led me to compare it to “Infinite Jest” – Wallace had that weird Gen X fear of/fascination with TV, too. 

That said, the saving grace of “A Naked Singularity” versus “Infinite Jest” is that the former has incident and life, where the latter has pretentious noodling and the stink of death. I don’t use either of those descriptors lightly, for different reasons. I heard the word “pretentious” applied to me a lot, it won’t surprise you to know! And it didn’t help that the best response I could muster would be pointing to the fact that most of the people using it weren’t using the word properly. They couldn’t tell me what I was pretending to be. Well, they didn’t have to, because they meant “annoying” (can’t really disagree with them there, in retrospect) “in an intellectually-themed way.” In any event, that made me have a flinch reaction to the word, not so much because it was hurtful to me and more because it seemed just too easy and underthought. But “Infinite Jest” does pretend, and so did David Foster Wallace- pretend to be avant-garde, pretend to be humanist, pretend that there was anything “new” in whichever version, at least the third, of “new sincerity” it and he were trying. And it reeks of death not just because of the subject matter, but because it’s clear that Wallace’s answer, insofar as he fails in eluding question, is to batten down the hatches from the mean old world and cultivate a set of virtues that sound less New Sincerity and more Second Great Awakening… 

Anyway! There’s my review of “Infinite Jest,” if you’re wondering. I wouldn’t call “A Naked Singularity” an entirely successful novel, but again, has an emphasis on incident (a good idea if you can’t really summon up convincing internal space, which De La Pava sort of can and which Wallace could not) and is, for lack of a better term, lively. This is the story of a few days in the life of Casi, a young Colombian-American lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office (De La Pava is, or at least was, also a public defender). Casi’s a hot shot- takes on too much but always succeeds, has gotten all twelve of the cases he’s taken to trial to a not-guilty verdict (in keeping with judicial reality, the vast majority of his cases are plea deals sans trial). He lives in an apartment with Brooklyn with a variety of white, TV-obsessed Gen-Xer neighbors. He gets into philosophical discussions with them, with his family in New Jersey, and sometimes with other lawyers. These are generally less compelling than his efforts in the legal direction – we get some good sequences of Casi trying to hold back the tide of bullshit drug war prosecutions destroying lives – but they’re not the worst in the genre. 

The most consequential, for the plot anyway, philosophical discussions Casi gets into are with Dane, an older public defender. Dane plays the sort of devil/archon figure I’ve been increasingly thinking plays an important role in early twenty-first century literature. Dane foists a sort of perfectionist Nietzscheanism on Casi over Italian lunches. First telling a story of how he shit his pants during a trial, then telling a story of how he dedicated himself to a philosophically perfect defense only to blow it in the end, Dane slowly convinces Casi, over Casi’s own philosophical takes and good sense, to do a heist. How much Casi is convinced by Dane’s philosophy, and how much he’s inspired by some bad turns in his own life – losing his first case, coming up against some limitations in both legal, personal, and family life – is hard to tell, but Casi does tell Dane about a client who is moving a lot of money in the drug trade, and eventually agrees to take the score down. With swords.

This is a shaggy, lumbering work, sometimes agreeably and sometimes annoyingly so. The heist is a bit silly – swords! – but not badly done for all that. The sequences involving the criminal justice system are good, very human in an unsentimental but deeply felt way. The heist has some bad consequences, but not as bad a sudden cold snap that shuts down New York for a few days and gives the TV-obsessed neighbors some good scenes. The attempts at futurism – the rise of “video vigilantes,” jokes about media consolidation – are both somewhat prescient but still don’t quite land. He also intersperses a narrative of the great boxer Wilfredo Benitez, which is cool and all and kind of goes along with “Latino wiz kid knocked around by life” theme, but, you know… it’s kind of funny, the ways in which contemporary literature did, and did not, follow the path De La Pava laid out here, making this book feel both very current and like something of a time capsule simultaneously. ****

Review – De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity”

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