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:

Paul Ford Paul Ford

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

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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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:

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.