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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Illustration by Nick Pitarra

Sergio De La Pava, author of the big, motley debut novel A Naked Singularity, has a great ear. You can almost see it, this giant ear about five times too big sticking out of his head, plucking voices out of the air. The book’s 44-page first chapter is a terrific yarn about the court system in Manhattan. Our hero, Casi, a 24-year-old public defender in New York City, describes one defendant after another, each a specific and sorrowful creature. Here’s a sample:

I lived in the park that's why I was always playing chess there. Anyway I noticed that this man, Mr. David Sanders, would come and observe on quite a few occasions and so we got to conversating.

You became friends.

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Now don't go jumping the gun that's the problem with you youngsters nowadays. We didn't become friends at all in fact we were in constant disputation.

About what?

Well the fact is I done come up with a new chess opening. And the truth is that this chess opening has confounded the grandmasters and dumbfounded the neophytes.

Great, so where's the problem?

Well the further fact is we had irreconcilable philosophical differences respecting just how good my opening was.

What's the opening?

You really want to know?

Sure.

And you won't tell anyone?

No.

You sure?

Yes. Even if I wanted to, the attorney-client privilege would prevent me. I would lose my license to thrill.

It's a queen's rook pawn opening.

Certainly unique but it seems like you would have a big problem with development.

You see that's exactly what he said! Whose side are you on anyway?

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A Naked Singularity
by Sergio De La Pava
University of Chicago Press

Aside from that “youngsters,” which juts out, that is a finely tuned bit of comic writing, and a great and rewarding portion of the book is in dialogues like this, documents of imperfect communication.

Casi is a sensitive, ironic creature; he is too much a talker but also very much a listener. He frequently complains of ear pain: "Every sound received," he tells us, "feels like a tiny dagger finding its mark." At one point he goes on a date with a doctor and asks for a solution. “Don't hear noise,” she tells him. But no luck: Casi hears a lot of noise.

There’s more: One of the people Casi defends has three ears. His name is, of course, Mr. Hurd, and in discussing Mr. Hurd, a fellow lawyer named Dane tells Casi a story about an African woman with sexy ears. That story-within-the-story ends, like most herein, with tragedy, and in postscript becomes a rant in violent favor of the baldest capitalism: "When I pray," says Dane, "I pray to Mammon—the god of avarice . . . His is true omnipotence while your god hears and ignores heartfelt pleas. The sooner you understand and accept that Casi, the better off you'll be.”

You might think, then, that this is a book about ears, or greed, but it's not, though we do get some resolution on Casi's ear on page 531. A Naked Singularity just contains ears and greed in roughly the same proportion as it contains everything else. If you made a bar graph of the main narrative strands, as below, ears wouldn't even make the cut:

How Casi Spends Time in A Naked Singularity displayed in a table

As the chart shows, this book is ambitious. It’s 678 octavo pages—about 13,000 tweets. It’s the sort of book you write if you're not sure anyone will ever let you write another one. The only biography we are given of the author is: “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” Given that most of the literary establishment lives in Brooklyn, that’s a carefully cultivated piece of outsiderdom, appropriate for someone who, as De La Pava did, self-published an enormous novel in 2008 and watched it slowly gather steam—you can, with some Googling, see the Internet collectively waking up and going what the hell is this I don’t even. The book was picked up, years later, by the University of Chicago Press, given a hectic op-art cover, and shined up for general release.

And here we are: Casi, as intellectual as they come, has never lost a trial. One thing leads to another, and he and his collaborator Dane, who is free of back story and functions as a sort of Mephistophelean goad, undertake to plan and execute the “perfect” crime. At first Casi resists, but Dane slowly and methodically draws him in.

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