Just Like the Cliché
Sergio De La Pava
A Naked Singularity: A Novel
University of Chicago Press, 2012
A Naked Singularity almost never saw the light of day. In 2008, unable to find a commercial or independent publisher for his long and digressive debut novel, Sergio De La Pava published the book himself through the vanity press Xlibris. In April this year, The University of Chicago Press published all 696-pages of it. In this way, De La Pava’s book shares a similar, if less tragic, path to publication with John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces. After Toole died by suicide in 1969, at the age of 31, his mother found the manuscript to his novel. Over the following years she tried to persuade a number of different publishers to take the book on. Eventually, in 1980, the Louisiana State University Press published it. The next year it won the Pulitzer Prize. Toole’s novel is a classic, and one of the funniest things I have ever read. I am not so sure about A Naked Singularity.
The singularities that the title refers to are better know as black holes. Singularities are invisible because no light can escape the massive force of their gravity. Naked singularities are visible because light can escape beyond the event horizon: the margin of their darkness. A naked singularity, then, is an inexplicable theoretical event where the laws of physics begin to deteriorate. The fractals, chaos theory, and entropy that De La Pava’s title alludes to put the ambitions of his book firmly into the territory of the big names of postmodern American fiction. But the readability and the broad satiric edge of this author’s prose mean that A Naked Singularity has just as much in common with the bathos and hilarity of Toole’s novel as it does with the satire and ambition of Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest.
De La Pava’s book follows the progress of a brilliant young lawyer called Casi. Only 24 and blessed with prodigious talent Casi is undefeated in court but his life is unraveling. Egged on by his sociopathic colleague Dane, he gets embroiled in a scheme to hold up a multimillion-dollar drug deal being organized by one of his clients. Like A Confederacy of Dunces, this book is picaresque, ridiculous, and highly entertaining. Almost too entertaining. In fact one of the main problems that De La Pava presents his readers with is how to negotiate the dissonance between the rarified literary ambitions that his novel displays and its accessibility. David Foster Wallace’s influence is obvious. Both authors have similar interests in philosophy and share the same preoccupations with scientific theory and lexical obscurity but the stylistic level of De La Pava’s writing never gets anywhere near the astringent brilliance of Wallace’s prose. Part of what defines De La Pava’s style is its readability. You don’t need an English degree to enjoy this kind of literary entertainment. If you do happen to have that English degree, you might want to look away at times. Sentences like, ‘It was then that the I’d-decided-centenarian showed an alacrity I had not previously thought possible.’ And, ‘I liked about cabs mainly the abdication of responsibility so I always left it up to the driver to decide how to get somewhere.’ Sentences that Wallace would not be caught dead near are not commonplace in De La Pava’s writing but they are there.
Perhaps the difference between these writers can be explained by television. In his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’, Wallace describes the alienating role that television plays in the lives of Americans. In it, he admits that he finds television so distracting that he no longer owns one. By contrast, Sergio De La Pava is the emphatic owner of a television. It crackles off the page. “Television” is always capitalized in A Naked Singularity and a character even conducts an experiment in which he attempts to watch The Honeymooners on repeat for so long that he starts to think that its lead character, Ralph Kramden, is real. Television is a constant in this novel but the influence of popular culture, particularly 1990s culture, is most legible in De La Pava’s dialogue. Channeling Tarantino, Casi gets sucked into a debate about different kinds of cola with one of his clients. At the end of a disastrous blind date with an attractive but uninterested doctor, the young lawyer steals a move straight out of the Seinfeld character George Costanza’s playbook and walks his date home only in order to obtain her medical opinion on his earaches.
The reason why so many moments in A Naked Singularity feel so culturally recognizable is due to the ubiquitous presence of cliché. This is not a matter of bad or careless writing on De La Pava’s part. Rather, the entire novel is organized around varying registers of platitude. Using derivative plots and language as an organizing principle gives the novel an uncanny atmosphere. There is almost nothing in this book that we haven’t seen or read somewhere before. The only thing that is new to us is De La Pava’s writing, and particularly his dialogue. This juxtaposition fosters an uneasy ambience for the reader. The strangely comforting effects of an incessant pop cultural déjà vu bring into question the literary value of the writing. Any reading of this novel is corroded by the suspicion, a suspicion that is only exacerbated by its publication history, that it might just be bad. With his use of cliché, De La Pava mercilessly plays on this uncertainty.
On a structural level, the plot slides from one rote scenario to another. The book begins with a number of interviews between Casi and his clients. Thanks to countless television programs and films about lawyers and the police, the imaginative groundwork that the writer normally has to provide is already taken care of. The reader does not need the scene setting for them; everything is as seen on TV. As such, the novel bounces around a number of familiar scenarios: the office that Casi works in; the innumerable court scenes; Casi visiting an inmate on death row; and Casi going to see a priest. Readers have seen these situations, with different characters, time and again. The same goes for the impossibly tiny New York apartment that Casi lives in, and the heist he takes part in. At one point he describes buying a battery for his car: “When I crossed the threshold of the garage a soft bell sounded and a guy slid out from under a car just like the cliché.” It is relentless. Because a reader is more than likely be familiar with each setting of his novel, more slack can be taken up by De La Pava’s dialogue but even the dialogue is preoccupied with cliché.
Beneath a thick varnish of irony, maxims, sayings, homilies, and commonplaces pepper the language of this novel and they almost always give the narrator pause. De La Pava’s favourite trick in A Naked Singularity is literalizing clichés. In Casi’s prodigious legal mind, turns of phrase are all broken down into their literal and legalistic base units. “Kicked his ass” is described as “a curious expession that rarely if ever involves an actual ass being actually kicked but which does seem to accurately reflect what it must feel like.” Similarly, “fat chance” comes in for examination, as does “state of the art”, “shithead”, and “fall in love”, among countless others. There is even a four-page dissection of the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes”.
The way that Casi deconstructs cliché through literalization is a counterpoint to the way that De La Pava deconstructs clichéd scenes from film and television by translating them into a certain literary setting. The constant mocking of derivative expression and the literary and cultural spoilage that this draws attention to raises the suspicion that A Naked Singularity might be satirizing the very literary genre that reviewers have assumed it is trying to be a part of. As De La Pava parodies the cable television staples of dirty cops, drug deals gone bad, and quick talking lawyers, he highlights the stiffening tropes of the long American postmodernist novel. A preoccupation with theoretical physics and philosophy, as well as a hagiographic reverence for sporting figures are all hallmarks of certain ambitious American novels and their writers. De La Pava’s pulpy style forces his readers into an awkward and uncertain position. A Naked Singularity could be a defiantly entertaining attempt at a long, important, postmodernist novel, or it could be a ruthless send up of the pretensions and airs of those novels and their readers. You never can tell.
Angus Brown is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.