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A Review of A Naked Singularity

A Naked Singularity
By Sergio De La Pava
XLibris, 2008

Any dedicated, open-minded reader should lose sleep over outfits like XLibris.

These organizations are the Internet era’s answer to so-called vanity presses: you pay them a lump sum, you send them the manuscript of your book, they package it and give it an ISBN and make it available through book-ordering giants like Ingram and Amazon.com, and then it sinks like a stone into the endless grey muck-pond filled with 2.1 million other such manuscripts. Your friends and family will order their copies, and you’ll at last be able to call yourself a published author, but the whole process is tainted in its three steps: you paid to have it done, and anybody can pay to have it done, because there’s no quality control involved.

But the loss of sleep should result from something much earlier in the whole process: first somebody had to write a manuscript. Those of you who’ve never tried this, those of you who might be laboring under the happy delusion that it’s easy (“oh, if I only had the spare time, I’d write a book!”), take a lesson from somebody who’s both written manuscripts himself and midwived them in others: it’s just about the hardest thing in the world to do well. It’s even hard to do poorly, which is why those talentless slobs riding The New York Times fiction bestseller list aren’t completely contemptible, although the reek of their output ought to quiet any talk of quality control.

No, we should all lose sleep over iUniverse and Xlibris and the like because the sheer number of ISBN’d manuscripts makes it dead certain we’re missing some great books. To one extent or another we all rely on the vast publicity-network attached to the world of book publishing. The editors at Open Letters, for instance, tirelessly pore over publisher websites and book catalogs for upcoming titles, in search of those that merit attention. But places like XLibris represent vast oceans of books that are never featured in The New York Times, that never receive even an extra dime of publicity money for mention in a catalog. By this point (and we are still in self-publishing’s infancy), it’s a statistical certainty that some of these books are masterpieces.

A Naked Singularity is a perfect example: it’s by first-time author Sergio De La Pava, it was published by XLibris in 2008 with no fanfare and no acclaim, and it’s a masterpiece.

The book’s plot is at once simple – a grubbily valorous lawyer in the New York public defender’s office, buffeted by conscience and tempted by the possibility of an illicit fortune, takes on the case of Alabama death row inmate Jalen Kingg and watches his entire life spin out of control – and bewilderingly complex, involving hundreds of outsized characters and thousands of digressions on topics ranging across the entirety of the 21st century intellectual spectrum, from baseball to pop culture to (as its title suggests) particle physics. In its sheer scope, its extended stretches of rhetorical razzle-dazzle, and the utterly deadpan way it grapples with all that’s darkest in human nature, A Naked Singularity propels the reader into a literary maelstrom worthy of Pynchon, and Gaddis. On one level, the book is an exhaustively detailed look at the banal iniquities of the American criminal justice system as seen by a small cast of insiders dealing every day with outrageously self-deceiving clients, as in this exchange, in which a hapless inmate is claiming that the devil literally made him do it (and which De La Pava punctuates – as he very often does – with a pitch-perfect punch line):

I mean it man! I need a lawyer who believes in my innocence. You have to believe that to do this case.

You’re wrong I don’t, I just don’t. It’s not going to make me work harder on your case like in some stupid movie and it’s certainly not going to make it more likely that you walk. In fact, if you really are innocent then it’s probably going to hurt you and your case more than anything because, for one thing, I would probably be so distracted by the novelty of the situation I’d be rendered ineffective and, for another, your innocence might mean your devilish theory is true in which case we’d be really screwed because from where I’m sitting the devil appears to be pretty effective, certainly more so than the average DA. So stop, I beg.

I want another lawyer.

But the fulcrum of criminal justice allows A Naked Singularity to explore the wide array of subjects that obsess its author; whaling gave Melville the same freedom in Moby-Dick, and in both books, characters converse in baroque homilies that are as far from the bulleted minimalism of most modern fiction as it’s possible to imagine. This is very much the Karamazov, not the Coen, brothers, as in a sharp and passionate debate on the nature of divine justice:

And don’t tell me about free will. I’m talking about babies born hideously disfigured solely for the purpose of experiencing extreme suffering prior to being extinguished for good. And don’t forget their parents, devoured from within by psychic Ichneumonidae as a result and don’t even get me started on that. Realize that this is clearly outside the scope of free will, since there is nothing any human being has conceivably done to cause the situation. This is a huge distinction so don’t forget it: I’m not asking how God could allow some dude to walk into McDonalds and spray the place with bullets, since I’m sure you’ll say God has to give that dude autonomy for morality and even life to have any meaning. Fine. Bullshit but fine. What about the kid born with two heads though? Explain why God so loved the world he gave it twins of the Siamese variety that an infernal boiling agony should suffer unto their parents the length and breadth of their interminable days.

The febrile over-abundance of A Naked Singularity is both its greatest, most unabashedly Rabelesian quality and its most unintentionally frustrating one, because it brings us back to XLibris and the question of lost sleep. If a book of this unsettling oddness and power can be found, virtually at random, on the lists of one such self-publish print-on-demand outfits, then who’s to say how many more there might be out there in the sprawling infinitude of computers and ISBNs? Who’s to say what we’re all missing because we can barely keep our chins above the cresting flood of words, words, words that threatens to engulf the post-book age?

I don’t know, and even reading as fast as I can, I may never know. But I didn’t miss A Naked Singularity, and neither should you.

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