Reviewed by Ross Barkan
Too many keystrokes have been wasted on the self-publishing phenomenon. In the internet age, anyone with a few bucks and the vainglorious dream of becoming the next Walt Whitman can publish a novel that few will ever read. Publishers are the gatekeepers of the literary world and they usually know what has potential and what is utter trash. These are facts, and they are not worth disputing any longer. Yet, as we know, publishers can be wrong. And in the case of A Naked Singularity, they collectively took a roundhouse punch to the jaw.
Sergio De La Pava self-published A Naked Singularity in 2008 after no publishing house accepted the nearly 700-page novel. Internet buzz lifted it from the mass grave that almost all self-published books are banished to. Slowly and steadily, it became relevant, and this month the University of Chicago Press reissued the novel, giving it the perch that it deserved all along. A Naked Singularity is a leviathan of a tale floating in a literary sea of guppies.
Its narrator, 24-year-old Casi, is a wunderkind of sorts, an overworked public defender who never, until a judicial mishap, loses a case. He represents the dregs of society, among them a three-eared drug addict and a violent chess obsessive. His conversations with his clients are among the many highlights of the novel, recalling Henry Miller’s dealings with Manhattan’s downtrodden and demented folk at the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company” in Tropic of Capricorn. Within quotation marks, De La Pava is an overlooked maestro, conjuring New York street slang and brain-numbing legalese with equal aplomb. Outside the squiggles, in Casi’s voice, he can falter a bit more, falling prey to adjective-itis—a few less descriptors in a sentence like “It was marrow-petrifying, prayer-inducingly cold,” would not have hurt.
As the son of Colombian immigrants, the wry and brilliant Casi wants to make good and bring bread home to the family. His meager salary supports a shoebox apartment for himself in a place not known for its shoeboxes, ritzy Brooklyn Heights. Entombed in Manhattan courts for the vast majority of his day, Casi sleeps little, eats little, and fights righteously for people who 99 percent of the city believes are unworthy of defense. De La Pava, like any talented writer, is hilarious and compassionate, eviscerating a corrupt judicial system that favors expediency and fosters incompetence. Pro bono, Casi takes on the case of a mentally-deficient murderer named Jalen Kingg, a man with the brain of an eight year-old on death row in Alabama. Casi almost decides against taking on the case when he finds out that Kingg actually believed Skittles were a home-made creation of his mother. He is incensed, “And Jalen believed her because it was his mom and she was all he had…And far away in goddamn L.A. or Madison Avenue is the prick who decided that Skittles would sell more quickly if they promised Jalens they would taste the fucking rainbow which is like a complete fucking impossibility and even if it wasn’t who said a rainbow would even taste good you know?” In this same world, there is a television station devoted entirely to commercials. Capitalism at its finest.
The other corollary of the novel is a drug heist hatched by Casi’s Social Darwinist co-worker, Dane. Obsessed with the pursuit of perfection, Dane convinces Casi to use the insider information they both have on a planned drug deal to steal the money before the drugs are exchanged. Dane is like the mutant offspring of Thomas Hobbes and Gordan Gekko, confident that the world will devour itself and he will be lounging in an air-conditioned skybox, observing it all. De La Pava weaves the tale of forgotten boxing champion Wilfred Benitez into gaps not filled by breathless philosophizing or cosmic ennui; Benitez, the world’s youngest boxing champion at 17, collapsed into obscurity after losing his last title at the age of 24. He is Casi’s historical mirror and his greatest fear. The former boxing wizard is still living today, unable to remember any of his fights, his brain atrophied.
Casi’s New York is a tad reminiscent of Jonathem Lethem’s Chronic City, though A Naked Singularity originally appeared a year before Chronic City’s publication. Unlike Chronic City, which too blatantly displayed the madcap influence of Thomas Pynchon, Casi’s New York is like Gotham City locked in a funhouse mirror. The title refers to the observable breakdown of all natural and physical laws, what is often confined to black holes—except here. This is not Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s bourgeois paradise. A comic bleakness pervades a Big Apple trapped in an unyielding cold spell, giving birth to chimpanzees loping across the Brooklyn Bridge and criminals who only speak in rhyme. As De La Pava told Publishers Weekly, it is wrongheaded to pigeonhole A Naked Singularity as another postmodern work in the mold of Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. A fat, digressive book does not magically become Gravity’s Rainbow 2.0. A Naked Singularity is sui generis.
Astute readers will notice dated aspects of A Naked Singularity, though these do not detract from its psychological impact. The word “Television” is capitalized throughout the novel to emphasize its omnipotence and dominance. A baby’s murder captivates New Yorkers who in turn devour every piece of television news coverage. Casi’s roommate Angus, a reality-deprived Columbia University undergraduate, incessantly watches The Honeymooners, not because he enjoys the show (though he does), but in order to conduct a psychological experiment—he wants to watch the show so much that its galumphing hero, bus driver Ralph Kramden, will become a part of Angus’s reality. Swap “Television” for “Internet” or “Smart Phone” and the point remains the same. Technology is our God, and we suffer if deprived of Its presence. We all have friends, and then we have the internet. Lord help Casi if he ever lives until 2004 and discovers Facebook.
University of Chicago Press