Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Naked Singularity

A little over a month ago I started reading Sergio De La Pava’s long, self-published underground hit A Naked Singularity, and as the long lull since then might indicate I didn’t find it quite the unstoppable read everyone else has. I’m sad to say this given the enthusiasm the novel has generated, which finally I couldn’t resist, especially given some of the comparisons. The novel sounded like just my kind of thing.

And it starts off well: the first chapter, I do admit, is a great, frantic introduction to Casi’s world as a New York City public defender that reveals disenchantment with everyone involved. The remainder of the first part of the novel, while not always quite as stellar, also offers a lot to keep you reading. The story follows Casi as he gets involved with a pro bono death row appeal, works through his everyday caseload, and talks more and more with another lawyer from outside the office, Dane, who tries to embroil him in a scheme to make off with millions of dollars. The vast majority of Part I is told through recounted dialogue: conversations with Dane, conversations between lawyers, debates in court, free form discussions with neighbors—these are only a few of what is something of an encyclopedia of conversational styles. With this much conversation, De La Pava is playing on a ground that is often better covered not in fiction but in film and television, but the sheer enthusiasm of the various speakers in the novel allows it to compete well.

At the end of the first part of the novel, I was thinking that the novel was slightly overhyped but still pretty good and certainly better than most fiction that gets published. My guess at that point would have been that publishers passed on it because of the extensive dialogue, despite this being its best feature.

Then I hit Part II, and my interest slowly started ceding to boredom. I said after reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas earlier this summer that I thought I was getting tired of my inadvertent series of encounters with novels that quote or allude to Nietzsche extensively, so perhaps the way things went from here can be chalked up to the fact that I once again found myself reading a character droning on about becoming superior to all and everyone. By the end of Part I, although I had enjoyed even these conversations, I was getting a strong hint of Dostoevsky, and in fact the rest of the novel becomes pretty much a revision of Crime and Punishment with some flavorings from postmodern fiction. Hey, that even sounds interesting to me now as a possible reading experience, but in practice I just found the novel increasingly dull as the second section went on, so that by the time I got to the third I just wanted it to be over.

This boredom made what might otherwise be minor complaints seem like glaring problems. For example, through Parts II and III there are a series of disruptions where the narrator gradually tells the story of boxer Wilfred Benítez. While they are monologues, these sections, due to the narrator’s hyper-investment in minutiae, work like much of the dialogue in Part I. I’m fine with (and even a fan of) narrative interruptions and interludes, but in this case the interruptions of the narrative felt forced to me: the transitions tend to be something to the effect that the narrator just starts thinking of Benítez, or, from his future perspective, draws a comparison between a moment in his past and the Benítez story (and lucky us it unfolds in timely linear fashion). My problem, in other words, is that De La Pava does too much to make these segments feel relevant to the narrative, and as result they come across as a little more artificial and precious than presumably intended.

By the third section I was pretty much KO’d by irritation that the novel was still in progress. The Pynchon-esque surrealism of much of this part should have been my favorite bit, but after everything else it felt unconvincing as a portrait of psychological decay. Instead, I found myself thinking it reflected more a state of punchiness on the part of the author, every event a product of staying up too late writing and thinking, “wow, here’s something really great and crazy!” without waking up the next morning and revising to make the crazy work. The nadir of all this occurs in what is a sort of mock trial at Casi’s place of work, a scene that is every bit as unconvincingly manic as the opening chapter is convincing.

So that’s what I’ve been up to (when I could bring myself to it) the past month, sad to say. An unfortunate waste of the last half of summer reading. I did finally just break down and pause to read a short novella last week before I trudged through the last hundred pages, so I hope to have a post on that and a couple of others relatively soon, before things get busy again for the fall.

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