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Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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Naked Singularity Big Read: About that Title

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

Hello everybody and welcome to our summer Big Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava.

Let’s get started by talking a little about the title: a naked singularity. Singularities (not to be confused with the naked variety) are fairly common things, as astronomical phenomena go. Essentially, a singularity is the part of the black hole where gravitation becomes infinitely strong as the hole becomes infinite dense. That means is a certain part of the black hole can’t be seen, because the gravitation of the singularity is so strong that even light can’t escape. If the light can’t reach us, we can’t see it. The area that we can’t see is known as the event horizon.

A naked singularity is different for an important reason. Instead of it being invisible to us, we can see it. That is, light can escape the event horizon, something that should not be possible. As you may have already guessed, the existence of a naked singularity would violate certain cherished laws of physics. The Wikipedia entry has a useful description.

So by titling his novel A Naked Singularity, De La Pava is sending us some pretty strong signals: we’re going to see things we normally shouldn’t see. The principles of the reality on which we/the protagonist live are going to come down. There will be danger. We are going to be messing with some profound stuff.

Also, we should note for now that black holes cause some serious problems with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy. This is a concept we’ll be returning to later in the book.

Enough about the title, let’s talk about the dialogue. We’re going to be seeing that De La Pava is a fiend when it comes to dialogue, perhaps befitting a novel whose protagonist and narrator is a lawyer. The first 40 pages are a great indication of just what he can do. Notice also that in these first 40 pages, as De La Pava introduces us to various arrested individuals that Casi will be representing, he’s beginning to put together the moral structure of the novel. It is, obviously, sympathetic to people who have committed crimes, but it is also a very practical, worldly morality. This morality is something the book will be coming back to again and again.

Some questions:

1. What do you make of the self-congratulatory remarks the judge makes on page 42, starting with “He had his chance, I said get him . . .”? I found them over the top in the very best satirical tradition.

2. What do you make of the question “How can you represent someone you know is guilty”?, which the cab driver makes on page 45, and which we’ll be hearing again and again throughout this novel. I’m thinking about this in terms of guilt and innocence, the nascent sense of reality and morality De La Pava is building, the slippery notions of right and wrong.

3. And for the postmodernists among us, who is this book the most reminding you of so far? The book reminds me most of A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis. What books would you bring in as relevant at this point?

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

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8 comments to Naked Singularity Big Read: About that Title

  • About the title, it made me expect something more sci-fi-y. The only thing heading in the direction of breaching reality is the neighbour’s Honeymooners project, but I can’t tell at this point whether that’s a thing that’s going to developed in a major way or if it’s just a quirky little thing. (Now that you’ve made me think about, I’m leaning toward major.) I did note, however, that the word singularity was used in the text (p 93): “This is why people love crime, the singularity of will involved.” So, I took the title to be using “singularity” in this more popular sense; I’m expecting the remarkable strength, focus, drive it takes to commit a crime to be laid bare.

    I haven’t read Gaddis, so I can’t comment on that, but the experience of reading chapter 1 reminded me of how I felt reading part IV of 2666 — bleak and relentless crime after crime after crime. Obviously, the crimes of A Naked Singularity aren’t of the same severity (as in 2666, and aren’t as graphic), but the very depressing feeling was similar for me — glad the book doesn’t go on in that vein. Yes, it’s sympathetic to the criminals, but it’s desensitizing, too (that’s the practice Casi’s talking about when he responds to the cab driver), both to the criminals’ plight and to where the law might go wrong.

    As for knowing someone’s guilty… I don’t think right/wrong is “slippery” so much as it’s different depending which prism you choose to look at it through.

  • Marcus

    I really enjoyed the first section. I’ve found that one thing that can make or break these mega novels is their ability to imply that there are real stakes at hand, and that it’s not just a massive game or a form of intellectual masturbation by the author. But this kind of parade of voices, that are not mediated at all by any kind of narrative voice, brought the human element of it all straight to the forefront.

    I don’t have anything to say on about your first topic but for #2 it seems like the novel is going for a guilty-as-state-of-mind approach. For example Glenda, the woman who was caught playing lookout for her husband outside the methadone clinic says:

    “what could they say if I did everything right from here on out? For real, if I did everything right up to and beyond that day [the day she gives birth] would I really be that different than those moms in their soccer vans? I’d be like them and my baby, at least, would have to look at me the right way, he wouldn’t know. To him I’m just mom.”

    It’s almost as if crime is a lifestyle choice. And once given the impetus to clean up your act by something as major as the birth of a child, you might find that world, which was once pretty accommodating to you, now kinda’ alien or even outright hostile.

    As for other writers all the talk of looping tapes and footage of death reminds me a lot of the sections in DeLillo’s Underworld about the tape of JFK’s assassination.

  • Brandon

    Agreed about the judges remarks: high satire, to the point of unreality. He so thoroughly negates all his own self-congratulatory statements (“I’m very proud of my humility,” etc.) that it seems too well constructed, too perfect to be a “real” statement, which is what I think is the mark of Satire: reality twisted and suspended just enough to get that critical distance away.

    Not sure what to say about question 2, except that I’ve seen several instances of the Law vs. “rightness” as separate, barely-overlapping entities: when the DA says “I’m not interested in doing the ‘right thing’ as you call it; I’m going to do things correctly [...]” (meaning by-the-book) and again when the judge says “If you don’t break the law, you don’t get arrested, its as simple as that,” with no mention whatsoever of actually striving to be a good person, implying to me a structure (or System) that is removed from “rightness” and stands independently from morals and ethics.

    “Frolic” is the only Gaddis novel I have not yet read, so I can’t comment on that one. That being said, I see flashes of “JR” in the passages of unattributed dialogue and near-zany satire, and the criminals’ stories (especially Glenda Deeble’s story of hardship) mostly relayed to us removed from context reminded me of “The Lost Scrapbook.” I almost see Alonya, Lou, and Traci as a 21st century “Whole Sick Crew,” but we’ll see how well those comparisons hold up in the long run. (I’m only at the beginning of chapter 3 now).

  • Eric

    First off, cheers to our host and everyone who’s commented so far. I’m enjoying both the discussion and the discussed. Just a few notes on the first two chapters.

    I like how that epigraph from Psalms (“they are all alike corrupt; there is not one that does good”) speaks to the epigraph within Chapter 1 (“Why should there not be a patient confidence in the justice of the people?”) … as if the Chapter 1 epigraph is posing a question answered a priori by the Psalm. I think this rhetorical inversion bodes really well for an inquiry into our justice system, and it’s borne out by La Pava’s handling of the murky bail hearing.

    Interesting how Casi emerges somewhat slowly as a character … more as a Virgil-like guide at first, using the second person to strong effect in those opening pages. That’s a deft authorial move where La Pava joins the digression on Miranda rights with the caveat about digression itself — almost reading the reader her rights before she’s admitted into the system/novel. I’m a sucker for these moves but I found it seductive. Later, and this gets back to Marcus’s comment, other voices are allowed into the narrative with Casi removed to the role of listener/questioner. (This is a role he plays even in the second chapter, tonally much different, where he cedes center stage to Louis and Angus.) He’s an enigmatic but likable protagonist at this point, largely because of his humility–his ability to listen, delve, record–and intelligence: the two qualities the for which the judge praises himself in the p 42 speech. So while I agree that the judge’s speech is satirical, it isn’t merely satirical in that it reflects back on Casi.

    Gaddis definitely comes to mind with the opening dialogic sentence fragment and the DA’s lisp, while chapter 2′s Honeymooners project seems indebted to that passage in Infinite Jest about M*A*S*H, but I’m sensing something else here, something La Pavan …

  • SirJack

    I can’t resist saying that I think this book is very overrated, and I can’t believe the comparisons the lit blog community has been making (Delillo, Pynchon, Wallace, et al.). The “Honeymooners” thing was painful to read. As with much of the dialogue, I didn’t find it amusing or worthwhile. I also think the writing style is pretty perfunctory.

    I suppose these are just matters of taste, and this just isn’t for me.

  • Neil Griffin

    I’ve been really enjoying it so far. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is little winks to authors that have perhaps influenced him. In the same line there is a character named Molloy and a character named Robert CooMer, for instance. Some of the prose might call attention to itself, but that’s part of the fun.

  • Chris

    As to (2), I think in part De La Pava is—after a heavily procedural chapter that pretty much dives right into showing the criminal justice system as it is, rather than as people outside it imagine it to be—just backing the perspective out a little, giving voice to someone who doesn’t understand the adversarial nature of the system. After all, I can imagine finding it hard to understand why justice might be best served by someone who did in fact commit a crime being allowed to go free, particularly if you don’t know that defense usually takes the form of plea bargains, not acquittals, and if you don’t know some of the dirtier details of law enforcement procedures or the unjust nature of some of the laws themselves. A more conventional author might have explored this abstraction before bringing us inside the system; I like that De La Pava inverts it—by the time we hear the question we’re prepared to be as scornful of it as Casi is. Also, in this light, Casi’s reply (“Practice”) might be read as more than a glib dismissal of the question (i.e., practice as mere repetition, building skill or tolerance)—rather as in fact a sly assertion of the procedural nature of his job (i.e., practice in the sense of “law practice”): he can do it because that’s what law practice is, because someone has to.

    As to (3), I find myself thinking that the scenes in Alyona’s apartment remind me a lot of The Broom of the System—in particular the bit where Lenore goes to visit her brother at Amherst and has to hang out in his dorm room while he and his roommates play a drinking game based on The Bob Newhart Show (in Naked Singularity of course it’s The Honeymooners)—but more generally the entire tone of BotS in which philosophical ideas are taken quasi-seriously but essentially as fodder for silliness and non sequiturs.

    I really like it when authors use the persistence of some unusual physical/environmental/atmospheric condition—here, the unusual cold—to set a mood. The comparison that immediately came to mind for me was the, if I’m remembering correctly, giant sun and impending nuclear or environmental disaster in London Fields, but I’m sure there are others.

  • Mark

    Re: 1) I thought the same, but can’t really find a structural reason for it. The closest I can get to is this—we’re aware that everything going on is farce from the moment we start the dialogue scenes. For him to not tip his hand at least once would be painful, I think. It also balances out the oddity of Glenn’s need to rhyme….

    Re: 2) When I first read of it I thought it as bookending, in some way, this early sense of how Casi thinks about Justice—as the narrative voice says when he explains the process on the second page, “and this before anything even remotely insane had happened when I still occasionally thought about things like…the process.” Specifically I think it ties up a theme that Casi raises to his first case, Darril—that he decidedly does *not* need to believe in his innocence in any sense whatsoever to take his case. (Side note—it’s also kind of interesting, if obvious, that Casi is the one who, in the beginning, continually brings up how real-life isn’t like television—how Miranda isn’t applied as you see it in ‘popular entertainment’, how Darril is appealing to some sense of resolution akin to a television serial, blah blah..)

    3) I’ve read some Gaddis—The Recognitions, Carpenter’s Gothic, and Agape Agape. The, err, whole ranting quality definitely stands out as a similarity. Someone above pointed out the way that De La Pava works in several references, and the two that caught my eye this time were one to Melville’s Bartleby, kind of obvious: “Ah Latka! Ah humanity!” (…as Casi leaves the precinct) and a strange seeming allusion to Pynchon’s M&D at the start of the second chapter (“Now several acorns had successfully flown their sorties, cutting through the frigid air to form interrupted parabolas…”)

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