Sergio De La Pava’s Narrative Mutations

By Blake Butler

I love long novels for how they destroy time. I mean, when I am reading a book that takes a solid block of time to get through, it becomes somewhere the world isn’t. The space of the book appends to me and provides something like sleep, letting life go on as if somewhere underneath me. I usually don’t get this feeling from shorter books, or from films or TV, and when I do, it’s clear from the beginning that the span of time will end sooner, which makes the work seem somehow more like a costume than a containment. I want to be forced to press against the space the book contains, to carry it around and see it there on the seat beside me, waiting like a person who doesn’t talk unless I ask.

Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, clocking in at just under 700 pages, seemed to appear out of nowhere near the end of 2012. It gained attention quickly for being initially self-published by the author and then picked up by University of Chicago Press. Now De La Pava is being hailed on the back cover as “the great hidden talent of contemporary North American fiction.” It’s refreshing that the book was pushed out without care for who or for why; it is certainly something, at last, done in faith. The jacket also likens the novel to Gaddis, Coover, and Pynchon—common comparisons for books of such length. Personally, I kind of have to puke any time I see a fat tome with “it’s like Wallace” stuck to it, as has happened with more than a few books I ended up returning to the store. De La Pava’s, though, if not stylistically as common in my mind to the postmodern monoliths of the 60s and 70s, is truly an engrossing beast comprised of many refreshing moves. 

At its most basic, A Naked Singularity is the story of a young public defender in Manhattan by the name of Casi, son of Colombian immigrants. We are immersed immediately in his daily proceedings, conversing with clients accused of all manner of petty to major crime. De La Pava, a public defender in his own life, moves fluidly and without frills between an impressive range of voices, establishing Casi at the center of a wide array of personalities, dialects, and worldviews, among which he struggles to stay sane. In this way, the novel indeed shares something with Gaddis’s J R, where conversational language works as a vehicle to lead us forward into a larger philosophical scaffolding, but the effect in going forward here is quite a bit more straightforward, closer to DeLillo than the weirder beasts. Our attention, guided by De La Pava’s impressively steady narrative hand, remains continually pulled forward by an underriding tension that seems at once assuredly symphonic and capable of leading almost anywhere from page to page.

It should be obvious the rules of a long novel are much different than those of average length. A short novel is like an eye that opens and closes in several hours, it is forced to operate as if being watched, whereas the massive novel, almost as a matter of question, should contain some sort of sprawl. The sprawl is what’s exciting. The weird manner of landscapes fused together almost in a state of languish: long novels are rarely trying to get us somewhere particular. They are more an understanding of art’s function as continuum—the objects jangle in the bag and are given more room to expand and contrast against later developments in the same fabric. Long novels that try to accomplish the same dramatic goals as shorter works become horrifying failures for this reason, in that we’re just being subjected to more and more of a story with a predetermined end, like an episode of some shit sitcom that lasts four hours. Certainly where De La Pava comes into his own most is in the careful lattice of the plot’s continuation with various manners of approach. Court testimony demonstrating Casi’s increasing frustration with the legal system appends strange surrealistic stretches of sudden dream, bizarre conversations about the nature of entertainment with weirdo neighbors, fact-based reconstructions of a young undefeated boxer’s career, rising crime-genre-style action metered out in crisp, cinematic prose, all the while weaving fragments into a kind of machine that I found truly difficult to break way from. Even when I fully felt I understood the arc, which often turns me off a book, I found the pieces frequently appearing in my mind, shaping a story that seemed to challenge the bounds of the function of the realistic novel, while also maintaining an engrossing pace.

As important as the ensemble is the fact that De La Pava is not afraid of the fragment. The novel begins with an interruption; the first line is “—noise background,” and he continuously ends and begins scenes on the precipice of action. Where narrative most often fails, I believe, is when it is contained as a reflection. You’d think by now, in this culture, we’d be more comfortable with fluidly jumping from context to context, the way we do in other facets of our lives every day. Though it is also equally problematic when the fragment forever overrides the whole, for me, pleasure glides back and forth between the two. And De La Pava is nothing if not in control of his direction, piloted mainly by an array of voices. Throughout the book sentences run together, as does logic, as does life. As Casi becomes more and more embattled in the various threads of his clients’ legal battles, he disrupts equal ground in his own life, eventually causing a blending of the two into a climax fitting of Scorsese, without the bullshit feel of a movie made on paper. The result is a book as fun to read as it is seemingly determined to slip form, a book that instead of questioning itself to death forces its protagonist into continual collision with the world, weaving around within the consciousness of operating an identity that doesn’t wholly fit the way you feel.

It’s a weird time in American art. I suppose it always is, but it seems that now, perhaps more than ever, even the most supposedly forward-thinking works seem aimed at catering to internet-brain consumerism, trying to find meaning there beyond the thing itself. Short, digestible bursts of texts containing self-immersed expression are being touted as the future, when I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather get away from. The one thing Coover, Gaddis, and all of those mentioned above share is a bold, assured arc of intent, a vision more than a recitation, and if it’s anything, A Naked Singularity is alive and serves as an excellent example for how narrative can at once mutate and enfold.

Previously - The Disorienting Novels of Kobo Abe

@blakebutler

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