A Naked Singularity

By Sergio De La Pava

“Buzz” is a dirty word in reviewing circles, being a close cousin to “hype” and often having the same air about it of ad copy generated by publicity departments. It’s the kind of word that should put you immediately on guard: Just where is this buzz coming from? Who is doing the buzzing?

That said, sometimes buzz can be a good thing. Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity is a case in point: self-published in 2008, it received lavish praise from a handful of reviewers, many of them on the Internet. (That the Internet can itself be a vast echo chamber of buzz is evidenced by the fact that two separate blurbs appearing in the introductory material dub it, in exactly the same words, as “one of the best and most original novels of the decade.”) Now published by the University of Chicago Press, a wider public is being invited to see if it lives up to its billing.

The hero of the tale is Casi, a young public defender living in Brooklyn. Some choice allusions to Dante make it clear that New York City’s courts of criminal justice constitute a hell of mindless, inhuman bureaucracy, with Casi being one of the few sane people left in an insane place. Outside of the grind of his grueling day-and-night job, however, Casi is part of a happy, extended Colombian-American family and lives with a lovable assortment of overeducated and underemployed bohos. All of this gives De La Paza a full comic palette to work with, and he puts it to brilliant use.

While it’s a long book, it’s a fast read. This is because the people in it talk so much, with whole chapters going by without a word appearing outside of quotation marks. Everyone is talking all the time, even when it’s clear no one is listening. They can’t stop themselves, seeing silence as a kind of death. When Casi doesn’t get a set of earphones for an in-flight movie he supplies his own made-up dialogue to go with what’s on screen. And during a winter power outage, with the heat in their building off, he and his housemate chat just to stay warm:

“Bottom line is I’m going to keep talking because if I’m talking then I’m not dying. No dead man has ever talked so cogito ergo someone who is talking, in this case me, cannot die, at least not insofar as they are talking per se ad infinitum. Understand?”

You may gather from this that what is being said is not always terribly profound. In fact, most of it is trivial and merely clever, full of talking points that seem culled from undergrad philosophy courses and lectures on quantum physics for non-physicists. And these are the highlights. One can’t help but think of the dialogue from a Tarantino movie when characters start arguing over the politics of McDonaldland and what colour can caffeine-free Pepsi comes in.

Still, it’s this manic loquaciousness, the urge these people have to just go on and on, that gives the novel its juice. And the dialogue, more often than not, is really very funny. As verbose as everyone is, they also all share a great sense of comic timing. In addition, Casi himself is something quite surprising to find in a novel these days: a young urban professional who loves books and wants nothing more than to retire to a private library where he will get a chance to read until his eyes fail and his head overflows. Such a character seems not quite of this world, and in fact much of the book, though apparently set in 2002, does have a retro feel to it. The Internet and cellphones, for example, are scarcely mentioned while Television (always capitalized) is a god. This may be one of the best novels of the decade, but the decade in question feels more like the 1980s than the present.

As with any big, satirical novel like this there is much that is thrown at the wall and only some of it sticks. Even recipes and trial transcripts get tossed into the mix. Breaking things down, the best of the subplots concerns one of Casi’s co-workers who has an obsession with perfection that leads him to plot the perfect crime. Also amusing is a housemate’s plan to bring Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners to life through endless repeated viewings of the classic show. Less interesting is Casi’s fixation on chronicling the career of the boxer Wilfred Benitez. It’s hard to see what the point of this is, or if it was even meant to have any. Finally, something that doesn’t work at all is the attempt to save a mentally disabled death-row inmate from execution. Unfortunately, this also seems intended as the novel’s moral center.

A Naked Singularity is, in other words, a great American novel: large, ambitious, and full of talk. It’s far from perfect, and typical of a number of trends – not all of them good – in contemporary fiction, but we can be thankful that this time the buzz did its work.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 22, 2012.

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