In 2013 University of Chicago published De la Pava’s follow-up, the fragmentary and experimental Personae, much of which is made up of the imaginative writings of a character who has died alone, aged 111, in his Manhattan flat. Last year publisher Christopher MacLehose (who introduced the English-speaking world to Stieg Larsson) also brought out a British edition of A Naked Singularity following a tip from a retired editor who read about it on Twitter – and not before several well-known London publishing houses had turned it down. Then, this February, A Naked Singularity made the shortlist of the Folio prize, the newly launched £40,000 literary award for English-language fiction (the eventual winner was George Saunders, for his short stories, but the judges singled out De la Pava for praise; also shortlisted was Eimear McBride, another first-time writer who struggled for years to find a publisher, and who has since won the £30,000 Baileys prize).
The son of Colombian immigrants to the US, De la Pava grew up in New Jersey speaking Spanish (a Spanish translation of A Naked Singularity is shortly to appear). His father drove a cab, among other jobs, his mother worked in offices. They sent him to a Catholic high school from where he went to a state university and law school.
He is full of gratitude to MacLehose (“an outsize figure literally and figuratively – that’s an individual who has devoted his life to literature”). But success has not removed the taste of failure, and De la Pava is not alone in feeling unnerved. The Folio prize judges called his novel a “messy masterpiece”– it is not only full of insight into judicial processes, but philosophy, science (the naked singularity of the title comes from particle physics), acerbic commentary on mass media, the life of Puerto Rican boxer Wilfred Benitez, Latino family life – still a rarity in English-language fiction – and pages of absorbing dialogue. His fictional world is a big, funny, information-packed place, yet initially no one wanted to know.
And here’s a little treat for the De La Pava fans:
But for a long time De la Pava didn’t see it as his role to try to communicate this perspective beyond the circle of his colleagues. More recently, inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, he has chosen to speak out. His next novel, which he aims to finish this year, is about prisons. Writing A Naked Singularity, the tension between his artistic and social aims was “terrifying and thrilling. How didactic can you get while still hopefully having it function as a work of art? I think I was keenly aware of that tension the whole time. It’s there on every page.”