An Imperfect Debut Novel Obsessed With Perfection

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:15 AM

The Defense Never, Ever Rests

A wildly overstuffed debut about a Manhattan public defender, empanadas, girls in hats, and the perfect crime.

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120501_SBR_DeLaPava_c_GenevieveMcCarthy
Sergio De La Pava

Photo: Genevieve McCarthy

Casi is also, puzzlingly, accosted by a chimpanzee, accompanied by Uncle Sam, on the Brooklyn Bridge. These things happen. The chimp is not the only primate; Magilla Gorilla and Grape Ape are discussed, too. And there is an awful lot of discussion of Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners.

All this to what end? This book is, if it is any one thing, an explication on the quality of perfection, and more broadly, on the nature of talent. A goodly number of pages are given over to a deeply informed essay on the career of Puerto Rican boxer Wilfred Benítez; his career is an obsession for Casi. From Dane’s ramblings, from Casi’s lists, from Benítez’s life as a boxer, we learn that the proper application of talent is in the pursuit of perfection.

This is not a point made subtly—from the fight over the chess opening to the exhaustive planning of the perfect crime, the relationship between the great mind and the great work is explicit, and in case we missed it, Casi at one point produces a list of anecdotes of genius: Mozart at 3, Einstein at a parade, Pascal at 12, anecdotes of Nietzsche and Wagner. Furthermore we are given, somewhat out of the blue, a list of Casi’s favorite philosophers:

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1. Descartes
2. Kant
3. Wittgenstein
4. Kripke
5. Lewis
6. Hume

 The “Lewis” is presumably David Lewis, who holds that our world is one of many possible worlds—a nod back to the concepts from quantum physics that percolate through the novel and bubble up into the title. After offering us this set of great thinkers without annotation, Casi concludes: “A list with which I would now strenuously disagree but I am merely reporting what it was at the time.”

At which, enough. The reader begins to feel like a juror, and the defense never, ever rests. For example, as the perfect crime strand of the narrative reaches its climax, when it seems the intertextual play is at last wrapping up, a character named Ballena—Whale—hoves into view, subtle as the Pequod in a bathtub.

Throughout the novel there’s much to say about truth and excellence, but mostly men do the talking. There are women in this book—Casi’s sister is smart and fun—but they are more often shown as fascinating objects. Casi, we learn in one sticky bit of exposition, likes when women wear hats; a “black, bowler-type hat” is “highly scrumptious.” If you’ve ever heard young male lawyers talk about themselves for hours, you’ll understand why that outlook is a problem. And if you haven’t, I have a book for you.

Finally, in the sad tradition of big brilliant books forever, the whole thing ends ambiguously. As if to say: Reader, your work has just begun.

These caveats aside, even while the lives it describes are often bleak, the book is funny, consistently so—that ear again. The heist is discussed so exhaustively that when it finally transpires it’s thrilling. Casi’s defendants, all messes, are lovely and authentic. I could have done with a whole book about them, or rather I enjoyed the whole book about them I read in the middle of this much larger book about other things. A story of a death penalty case begins drenched in irony and grows ever more serious.

It’s a fine thing for an author to bring forth something so unapologetically maximalist. Indeed, after the 500th page, the discovery of yet another digression, or list, or poem, or fictional legal document, becomes if not a cause for celebration a source of amusement. As a reader I found myself doing a sort of DeNiro-esque head-tilt-squint. What, this freaking guy! Again with the court transcripts?

There is even a recipe  for empanadas. “Boil the potatoes in a small saucepan with cold salted water,” it begins. More than a page later it concludes with instructions for eating them: “Bite off the corner and add your condiment into the newly formed opening,” writes De La Pava. “Repeat this process until you can't.”

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Paul Ford is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the sole proprietor of Ftrain.com.

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