Tuesday 7 December 2010

'without remorse or restraint'

A Naked Singularity
by Sergio De La Pava

A 700-page self-published novel. I can't think of anything I'm less likely to read apart from maybe anything by Dan Brown. Or Jeffrey Archer. Or Mills and Boon. Actually scratch those, why on earth would I bother to buy a novel that couldn't get a single publisher to take it on, and a long one at that? Because some reviews are tempting, and I'm up for a challenge, and something about it lit a fuse within me. A review that alludes to Pynchon, Gaddis, Melville, Dostoevsky and Rabelais might just as easily send you running for cover as rushing to see what's within the covers but it does at least give an indication of the ambition and scope of this leviathan. This book certainly won't be to all tastes but if you like any of the writers above and might be goaded into action by a book that says, 'Go on, I dare you' then I dare you too.

A Naked Singularity is one of those books so large, so ambitious and so bonkers that it makes the task of writing a review almost impossible. You either write something as bloated as the book itself in an attempt to include all of its maddening variety or you end up paralysed and providing little more than a pithy summary and some hyperbole. Let's see if we can find a compromise but I make no promises. The book does at least have a single, central character. Casi ('kind of like Lassie but not really') is a public defender in New York. We never learn more than his first name but learn its interesting origin from his mother at a gathering of his Colombian family.

'I almost died during the delivery Dios mio. The next day they asked me if I had a name yet. I said casi because we were getting close to deciding, I kept waiting for them to ask me again but that's the name they put down.'

In a fabulous opening we are thrown into his daily existence as a lawyer representing those that far from being presumed innocent are usually regarded as guilty, that fact having very little to do with whether they can be got off or not. In fact Casi is quick to correct one client who thinks his lawyer needs to believe in his innocence.

"You're wrong I don't, I just don't. It's not going to make me work harder on your case like in some stupid movie and it's certainly not going to make it any more likely that you walk. In fact, if you really are innocent then it's probably going to hurt you and your case more than anything because, for one thing, I would probably be so distracted by the novelty of the situation I'd be rendered ineffective..."

It is a great opening for two reasons the first of those being De La Pava's ease with the technicalities of law enforcement, legal process and the underbelly of New York. There's jargon flying about all over the place, a feeling familiar to anyone who has watched The Wire, something that I find pleasingly intoxicating and it isn't long before you feel you're starting to get a handle on how it all works. With so many crimes and misdemeanours Casi's perspective is that the police have 'the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing' this decision often based on 'the relevant officers' need for overtime'. So we quickly meet his caseload and this is where the second strength immediately comes into play. The snappy dialogue of these early interviews is brilliant, idiomatic and well-observed. In fact it's in stark contrast to most of the dialogue in the book which can be florid, digressive, erudite, verbose, sometimes all at once - oh, and I mean that in a positive sense. Casi has warned us early on after all that he 'can wander a bit whilst storytelling' but some friends and colleagues also have a tendency to hold forth (with, for example, the 'mind numbing, intentionally yawn-inducing detail meant to replicate the utter inanity of such societal questions' as one character puts it later)

One in particular is a fellow lawyer called Dane who drives what you might call the plot. Dane has theories about many things but one of his obsessions is the pursuit of perfection. How on earth can we achieve perfection in such an imperfect world? Following on from his interest in perfect numbers (those numbers that are the sum of their divisors, excluding the number itself e.g. 6 (1+2+3=6) and 28 (1+2+4+7+14=28)) Dane determined to offer the perfect defence to one of his clients (number 6 on his caseload naturally). What is a perfect defence? Not just an acquittal but the most rigorous preparation for trial ever mustered so that acquittal is guaranteed. His research extended from an in depth knowledge of the case and even the possible judges, with a little manoeuvre to make sure that they would be assigned the one most favourable to their case, to a similar familiarity with his client. It may surprise you to know that the pursuit of perfection means a crash course in crack smoking so as to be able to empathise and understand one's client all the more effectively. That kind of commitment combined with another of Dane's obsessions, the human desire to leave a legacy, leads him to propose something equally shocking to Casi when their discussions lead them around to the allure of the heist.

"But then you need the will Casi. The will to execute it the one chance you get. This is where the adrenaline comes from and this is the universal attraction. This is why people love crime, the singularity of the will involved. And don't tell me people don't love crime to the point of near obsession. Just look at the newspapers, the visual news, and all other forms of popular entertainment, crime is their favourite process. The only question is whether crime is inherently a perversion, meaning error is necessarily built into it, or whether some degree of perfection can be achieved in that area."
"Meaning the commission of a truly perfect crime."
"Guess anything's possible Dane."
"And everything."
"So get cracking on it, could be your legacy."
Casi will live to regret giving Dane any encouragement in that direction, but I don't want to spoil anything by saying any more about the plan to commit the perfect crime itself. What is just as important as the thriller-like plan is what it means to each man. Casi's relationship to the plan is 'dysfunctional', for all his involvement in its formation he has his eye firmly on a hasty exit and yet something keeps him involved, something to do with the visceral connection this gives him to underbelly he is used to representing and the ability to impose his moral imperative at the same time (If reality is sometimes so intense and bizarre that it feels like bad, unpersuasive fiction, then this was fiction so powerful it outrealized reality.). Dane needs Casi for the plan's fruition, he knows instinctively that two heads are better than one and that Casi's own natural tendencies towards caution and disbelief will be the perfect partner to his own total conviction.

"You're as capable of perfection as I am. Join me in this and learn what it means to truly exhaust a potentiality."

I couldn't help but be reminded of the verbal sparring and jockeying of Tyler Durden and the Narrator in Fight Club. This mismatched pair have a lot to offer each other and the extraordinary conversations between the two of them and the thrust of the plot itself might be enough for some writers but De La Pava has much more in his sights. The novel is like a compendium. We have already encountered themes like justice, perfection and legacy; dialogue that ranges from the pithy to the polemic; characters that manage to attach themselves to your reading consciousness whether they are granted several chapters or a single paragraph. But there are also thought experiments in which another tenant in Casi's building aims to watch a TV series in its entirety, without commercial interruption, from start to finish, in order to prove his hypothesis that it will make the main character contained within as real or manifest as anyone else in his life. There is a satirical look at our reality obsessed Television (that word always significantly capitalised) and the public bands armed with cameras, known as the Video Vigilantes, who provide news outlets with footage of the gruesome crime-de-jour (a child abduction and murder that will have UK readers thinking of Jamie Bulger), and even the sanctity of the church confessional is in danger of being invaded by video cameras and our leering gaze for a new TV series ('It's not TV, it's HBO' - shouts the priest as comfort).

Significant sections of the novel are given over to the history of boxing involving one fighter in particular: Wilfred Benitez. I have no real interest in boxing but there was something fascinating about such a comprehensive examination of one man's career, particularly someone I had never heard of and yet who to this day holds the record as the youngest World Champion (he was just 17 when he won the light welterweight title in 1976). Benitez was famed for his defensive skills, seeming to hold an almost telepathic ability to evade blows, leading one opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard, to comment, 'It was though I was looking into the mirror...I mean no one can make me miss punches like that.' Like the best sports writing it makes you want to watch footage of it immediately, possible with ease thanks to YouTube, and that in turn makes you realise how good the prose description is, the detail of movement it contains like watching slow-motion footage with expert commentary. What is the purpose of these boxing sections amidst the plot of a crime thriller? That theme of legacy is one connection, a boxer's career defined by three numbers, the most vital of statistics, that measure wins, draws and losses (with KO's in brackets), that are often all that's left behind by those like Benitez who find themselves close to penniless at the end of their career and even their own memories destroyed by the degenerative brain disease that is the true legacy of those punishing blows in the ring. Boxing also picks up on the decisive moment, the need to face one's fear and not run away. There comes that moment in a fight when you get hit, hard, and then there's a decision to make. Do you go into a defensive shell, lose on points, sure, but 'avoid embarrassment and avoid needless pain'? Or do you step into the danger area and fight, make sure that if the other guy wants victory he will have to wrest it from you? That same choice is faced by Casi and Dane as they stand on the cusp of action in a moment typical of this novel's audacity. Invoking the theodicy of Leibniz and the modal realism of David Lewis, Dane uses his belief in all possible worlds to argue for what he sees as their only course of action.

"And I have nothing but contempt for these people, if you can call them that, who will turn around at this point," he said. "And when I think that one of them looks just like me and has the audacity to go around calling himself Dane it makes me want to draw blood from the anger. Remember that because right now it is certainly at least possible that you and I will go get that money, that means at least two of our counterparts will in fact get it. Don't we need to be those two? Of course we do, it absolutely must be us. I don't care what it entails. You have total power and control here. You just have to decide who you want to be and that's who'll you become."

Melville was mentioned earlier and there are many comparisons to be made with Moby-Dick, comparisons invited by De La Pava by his naming the novel's giant, almost non-human nemesis Baleena (balena being Spanish for whale). Melville's masterpiece received a mixed and often baffled response on its publication but now stands as one of the cornerstones of American literature. It's not possible to know what fate has in store for this leviathan, although we can say that in at least one possible world it is a bestseller, but De La Pava is well aware of what is at stake. After working tirelessly on an appeal document Casi is brought face to face with another possibility.

"I hate to say it but you may have poured your very soul, as you obviously did, into the creation of this work and it may never be read by anyone, it may never so much as influence a single person's actions. I just came to that realization, how awful."

It's tempting to say it would be a crime if that turned out to be the case, but the awfulness of the pun aside it's already inaccurate. More positive responses from readers and reviewers are certain to follow and if there is a publisher (and editor) with enough balls out there then there's no reason why this world shouldn't be the best of all those possible for De La Pava.

Oh, and I haven't yet explained what a naked singularity is. Here goes: The gravitational force around a black hole is so strong that light emitted from beyond that singularity's 'event horizon' cannot reach the observer. This means that the singularity cannot be directly observed. A naked singularity is a (so far) theoretical singularity with no event horizon and therefore observable from the outside. I'm not going to tell you how that fits into all of the above and you'll have to read until the very last page if you want to find out. Go on, I dare you.


John Self 7 December 2010 at 15:07  

I read your tweets about this book with interest, Will, and I have to admit in my responses I am fighting a pretty solid instinct (actually not an instinct, as it's based on evidence) that self-published books are not much good for anything as a rule.

Your words suggest otherwise but in my opinion the quotes don't. First thing that springs to mind is that the book, judging by the extracts chosen, has clearly never been near an editor, or at least not one who knows how to use commas. (Of course it hasn't been near an editor, as it's self-published; but it doesn't even look as though he's paid one of those publishing professionals to advise or edit, nor, at a pinch, even given it to a literate friend and listened to their advice.)

The dialogue quoted all seems somehow to strike a false register: cliched (the wise-guy lawyer), clumsy ("to replicate the utter inanity of such societal questions"), portentous ("join me and learn what it truly means to exhaust a potentiality"), explicatory, B-movie-esque (most of the rest of it)... Frankly, the extracts sound very similar to the sort of self-published books I used to help take the piss out of on internet forums. 700 pages of it sounds like a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

See? I said I was fighting negative instincts... Of course it's always possible to find oneself caught up in the run of a good story and sod the technicalities of the prose. And you might justifiably ask if I would be so pre-emptively critical if the book was published 'properly' - and the answer is that I probably wouldn't, but the book if published properly wouldn't be the same book - I can't imagine much of that dialogue remaining in that form - and this all probably goes to explain why it wasn't published properly (I'm guessing that self-publishing wasn't the author's first choice).

Saying all that, I'm equally sure that there are very many books which are published by mainstream houses which are no better, and worse.

William Rycroft 7 December 2010 at 16:18  

Thanks for the comment, John, the lengthiest you've left here for a while - that's 700 page self-published-novel-reviews for you! I'd completely go along with your conviction about self-published books and also the observation that this book requires a really good editor to go through it. I'll stop short of saying that it needs a hefty edit because I think that could potentially harm the book's charm. Its bloated, baroque language and construction are kind of the point.

The problem of critiquing extracts is that in isolation they can look pretty hokey. I'm guessing it would be just as easy to take an extract of Pynchon and come to similar conclusions. Much of the suspect dialogue comes from the same character, the far from realistic Dane, whose pronouncements share the inflated importance of Ignatius C Reilly. In context and with ear attuned they feel far less clumsy, although there are certainly moments that could do with a polish.

The book does need a good editor but it is also an editor's nightmare, I have no idea where you would even start (perhaps the basic grammar you mentioned) but I do think that part of the reason this didn't get picked up is that it scared a fair few people off. I have no idea how he went about getting a publisher but I do know that I was contacted within a few hours of posting the review by Susanna De La Pava with an email to thank me for reading and reviewing so I assume there was plenty of diligence.

Is it a masterpiece? A flawed one perhaps. Does it need an editor? Hell yes. Does it deserve better than the stigma of self-publication? I think so.

Lee Monks,  26 July 2012 at 21:22  

Well, University of Chicago press have put it out, and it was a nice surprise to see you on the blurb, Will...

William Rycroft 26 July 2012 at 21:33  

I knew that UCP had published it (and that it's doing so well it's now in its third printing) but I didn't know I was on the blurb. Was this on the book itself?

Lee Monks,  26 July 2012 at 21:49  

I have it here: you're inside the opening page, last quote. I can photograph it and mail it by all means.

William Rycroft 26 July 2012 at 22:24  

That'd be great Lee. There's an email me button on the top left of the page. Many thanks in advance.

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