Naked Singularity Big Read: Boxing and the Disintegration of Reality

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

Throughout the last 50 or so pages of this week’s section we see the re-introduction of the Puerto Rican boxer Wilfred Benitez, who was very quickly introduced to A Naked Singularity during week 2’s reading.

Benitez’s boxing career will come to loom larger and larger throughout the remainder of this book, becoming a third narrative strand in juxtaposition to the two main ones: Casi’s scheme with Dane and his defense of the death row convict Jalen Kingg with his colleague Toombin. Just as the Dane and Toombin narratives are becoming ever more surreal and deconstructed, the Benitez narrative becomes the one that feels the most solid and reliable. It is also the only “true” one, in the sense of being the factual retelling of the career of a man who actually existed. It’s also interesting that an activity like boxing comes to represent the concrete in this book: a very physical, dangerous, and even deadly sport. Few things could better represent the immediacy of reality than a fist colliding with one’s face.

The Benitez narrative fails to intersect with the other two in any meaningful way, other than the weak connection that Casi is a boxing fan and is recalling Benitez’s career for some reason. However, there are definite thematic resonances, though De La Pava keeps their precise nature ambiguous. I’m curious how you all see the Benitez narrative as integrating into the rest of the book. Is it successful? Is it meaningful? Is it a distraction? Well-told?

This is also where Casi’s narrative begins to seriously break down: for instance, the strange, short chapter covering pages 406-408, where it’s not entirely clear that Casi is talking to Conley till a few paragraphs in. And then Casi’s still-stranger attempt at a confession, which ends in a surreal pitch for a fictitious HBO show called Clerical Confessions, loosely playing off of Cab Confessions. (Again resonances with “Before the Law.”)

It was right about here that I begun to seriously question whether or not any of these things are actually happening. I think there’s a very valid reading of this book that involves Casi mostly departing with reality right around where he and Dane begin to cook up their heist. In this reading, I think you can consider what happens in the book as having a metaphorical relationship with Casi’s actually reality, but not a direct one. At the very least, many of the incidents that occur throughout the remainder of A Naked Singularity seem to involve versions of the truth to a greater degree than actual truth.

This week’s section concludes with Casi having three interesting conversations in his now-frigid apartment: one a romantic encounter with Traci, one a conversation with Toom over the Kingg case, and one a conversation with Dane over their scheme. This reminded me very much of Don DeLillo’s second novel Great Jones Street, which involves a Bob Dylan-esque rock star holed up in a nondescript New York apartment while all manner of people transit in and out to talk to him in various capacities. The conversations have the same mix of absurdity and reality, plus a sense of dislocation inspired by the fact of hiding out in an apartment, as well as a similar comic touch and use of dialog to push multiple plotlines forward concurrently.

What did you make of Casi’s bizarre confession [409-420], particularly the parts where he wonders aloud if having forgotten transgressions makes one less culpable for them? What does this say about the scheme he will eventually be embarking on with Dane, and whether or not it will be a part of him 10 or 20 years down the line?

What did you make of Conley’s claim that the years 24 to 47 represent middle age, as well as his thoughts on the middle being generally forgotten? What relevance do you see between this and the prior question?

And I’m looking for a good reading of the quote I posted in my prior post on A Naked Singularity. I’ll reproduce it here:

Outside, in the cold, was all the reality you could bear. I still had to go to Cymbeline to hear Soldera’s fate. Dane said he was going home to think so we parted ways somewhat abruptly. I looked up at the sky without real cause. It was true that the temperatures had unmistakably belonged to winter for quite some time but now the sky was finally reflecting true winter as well. And not early festive winter or dwindling late-stage winter either. This was exact midpoint winter, in appearance and fact, topped by a perfectly white firmament. Perfectly and uniformly White in a way that made me think Star Trek et alii had it all wrong when they portrayed the vast outer reaches of space as occasionally interrupted black. It wasn’t black out there, it was white, and this was being revealed to me all at once without intervening gradations. You could climb high as you might and look all around but all you would see is missing color. Absence in every direction. Isotropic and sad White, nothing else and nothing more. And how could I have failed to notice until just then such an achromatic expanse? Such a vapid emptiness that precluded all matter and meaning. But those days it was true that a great many critical things were hidden from my view by their very prevalence.

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I think in the passage you quote the strong allusions to Moby-Dick begin in earnest. I thought immediately of the “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter, and would be stunned if this was not going through Pava’s mind when writing this.

What’s interesting about the middle / middle-age, is that it is also the primary moment of action. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that in the classical sense the present tense is in-between the past & future. So much philosophical talk to be had about the present, from Husserl on down, etc., but the main deviation here is less that the present is inaccessible but that it is forgotten (or perhaps that it never really was, in the sense of being a discrete moment distinguishable from that which came before or after).

I’ve enjoyed the boxing sections as pure entertainment. I’m waiting to see how it ties into the themes of the novel. It’s possible that it does already and I’m just missing it.

After the section you quoted about the whiteness of the winter sky, the whiteness of emptiness (or eternity) or if you will, I noticed that images of whiteness/endlessness began popping up here and there…It not only put me in mind of Melville and the whiteness of the whale, as noted above by Brad, but somehow also keeps reminding me of Wallace Stevens’ great poem, “The Snow Man,” wherein “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; / / And have been cold a long time / To behold…” etc. (which, by the way, is echoed throughout the book with Casi’s noting of how bitterly cold it is). The poem goes on to perform a sort of reverse-pathetic fallacy, whereby one does not hear “any misery” in the sound of the leaves blown by the wind. Finally, the poem ends with the image of “the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.” I tend to swing back and forth between seeing this a deeply despairing poem and one that is ultimately affirming, almost zen-like. I find myself wondering if Casi is not slipping toward (or trying to move toward) beholding nothing that is NOT there, and THE NOTHING that is. (Cf., of course, also Casi’s great disquisitions on life and death and the existence or non-existence of God, and the meditations upon what does (or does not) happen after death.

I saw the Wilfrid Benitez story as part of the theme on young people which runs through the book, baby Tula, the seven year old murderers, Casi’s precocious nephew and silent niece, and Jalen Kingg awaiting execution. One of the most moving moments I thought was Casi’s interpretation of the rainbow candy – it’s pathetic and heart breaking. And Benitez’ story is another immigrant path: he becomes a boxer; Casi becomes a defence council.

Casi is leaving youth behind and entering middle age

I love the exuberant brilliance of Dane’s scene when he introduces the idea of swords. And Casi admits he knows how to use them – what a narrative hook! One of my favourite lines – “Nature should stop worrying about vacuums which nobody gives a rat’s ass about and abhor hyenas emboldened by packs.”

What does Traci draw on the window? Do we ever find out?

The scene with the priest does have overtones of Before the Law and the conversation with the priest in that.

(Apologies for such brief comments – life has rather caught up with me this week.)

I love that link with The Snow Man. The coldness is such an important background to the book. I thought the white sky passage was amazing but I wouldn’t dare try and interpret it. A lot of my reaction to the book is visceral and emotional. Sometimes it seems almost protean, it changes and slides around, evading attempts to get a grip on it. Far greater than my mind can encompass really.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the boxing bits as much as I did. I figured Benitez was a metaphorical stand-in for Casi — immigrant, prodigy of a sort, young up-and-comer who never prepared. I don’t understand boxing as a sport — so aggressive and macho — so I was puzzled why De La Pava would choose to feature it, but the fact that’s it’s individual and how careers are determined by wins and losses, and wins and losses are determined by “decision” make for an interesting parallel with Casi’s career. Also, for reasons I don’t understand boxing is known as “the sweet science,” as if there’s no subjectivity in its decisions, as if it could achieve some quantifiable perfection…

Chapter 16 was amazing! Is there any indication thoughout as to whether Toomberg is a good lawyer? “Intellectual discourse and investigation is admittedly great fun but only truly meaningful when conducted in the service of others (p400)” — he seems well intentioned but maybe also lazy, sloppy. I also wonder what Traci drew on the window. And the swordplay! the nature channel! This is one middle that won’t be forgotten.

As always, a pleasure to visit this board. A few belated and hopefully not too scattered thoughts:

1. This has probably been mentioned somewhere here, but Garth Hallberg has a profile of De La Pava over at The Millions. Worthwhile piece, but one observation seemed especially relevant to reading the novel:

“Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds.”

And at this point we have the Dane/crime track, the Toomberg/death penalty track, and the Benitez track in the novel — they all involve Casi of course but there’s a minimal amount of overlap. Interesting that Casi vetoes Dane’s plan to come to Alabama; he has highly logical reasons for doing this, of course, but is there also an unwillingness to mingle these discrete parallel realities?

2. That last line of the passage Scott quotes seems emphatic. Before that Casi is speaking of whiteness as absence, but I think the last line gestures toward the underlying multivalent physics of whiteness: i.e., “White is a color, the perception of which is evoked by light that stimulates all three types of color sensitive cone cells in the human eye” (to quote Wikipedia). This hints at a Melvillean understanding of whiteness — as abundance, as a blizzard of meaning.

3. Just generally interesting to learn that Baudrillard has a book called “The Perfect Crime” in which the perfect crime is the replacement of the real by its simulation.

4. I’ve been thinking about Angus’s claim re: the Honeymooners (people become real to us by talking) as a way of looking at Dane. While Dane is not the only voluble character in this book, it seems notable that he’s really only present to us in his speaking (I can’t conjure an image of him though I’d welcome a correction). Casi’s conversations with Dane seem to take place “off to the side” of the novel in a way, often in that same Italian restaurant, which is one of many sort of cloistered spaces in the book, like Angus’s apartment, Casi’s office, etc.

5. And then the literal cloister, the confessional scene. One thing that HBO reference does is heighten the emphasis on the confessional as a performative space, where distinctively verbal sins are pardoned by verbal means. That is, both parties creating a verbal reality within the confessional, which is confined to that space. This seems to relate to the idea of forgotten sins — are they really sins if they’re not mentioned in the confessional? — and Casi’s argument about lying in that scene. De La Pava at his most interrogative here, and you have to be pretty ontologically uneasy going forward.

Really enjoyed the musings on Stevens’ “Snow Man” and Traci’s mysterious picture above.

That passage may be alluding to – very loosely, given that there are stars in every direction, why is the night sky dark?

But it may just be a bit of mood-setting like William Gibson’s “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Parallel realities/worlds is right! Wait until you get to the actual heist (if you haven’t already). There’s an entire conversation about Lewis’s multiple worlds…and then the novel REALLY starts to get bizarre/multivalent and increasingly intense…

Casi’s labyrinthine exit from the court building (which reminded someone of Kafka’s Trial), and there’s another similar exit sequence in part 3, made me think parallel reality a la Murakami, as though Casi might’ve stepped into another world through that door (possibly also when he crosses bridges).

Eric, re your point 4: Are you suggesting Dane doesn’t exist outside of Casi’s experience of him?

Isabella, great point about the labyrinthine exit. That struck me as an important passage, yet it slipped my mind as I wrote the post last night. Participating in a group discussion on a novel as big and complex as this is actually a pretty good experiment in modal realism!

I will say that Dane seems a little less “real” to me than the other characters, even someone like Toomberg. I think this is because he’s *so* wordy and grandiose — so I guess I’m against Angus here — Dane feels less real to me the more he talks. Because of the intimate but fierce way he argues with Casi, he often functions the way an inner voice does. Interesting of course that in Chapter 19 Toomberg doesn’t see Dane on the stairs.

That said, I’m not ready to claim that the Kingg death penalty plotline is the “real” one. The heist feels real to me at this point. Dane, I’m not sure. And the Kingg defense has its own bizarre elements such as that Orchard hotel. Feels like we’re in two discrete branching realities. One reality doesn’t feel capacious enough —

Along those lines, I find myself now wondering if the confrontation with the old, thin, shirtless homeless man on the steps of his apartment wasn’t the beginning of these seemingly diverging and divergent realities–but also parallel–realities. After that, we have the bizarre confrontation with Uncle Sam and the chimpanzee, the whole Ralph Kramden “experiment,” the utterly and increasingly bizarre courtroom scenes, which in retrospect seem so beyond the pale they’re difficult to believe in relation to actual legal proceedings, the Kingg plotline (which only gets more bizarre after his visits to Kingg and the whole surreal Orchard Hotel bit), the heist, and then, and then, and then…At any rate, what I’m saying is, when I finish the final page, I want to go back look this thing over again to see if I can better locate where things begin spinning off into sur- or multiple reality(ies)…As Scott points out, the more bizarre some of the narrative strands become, the more documentary-like the recounting of Wilfred Benitez’s boxing career becomes…

“Now I guess I can be incredibly unobservant at times. So it wasn’t until then…that I realised what a bizarre portrait Dane’s was. He seemed almost inhuman, not really subhuman or superhuman, more like metahuman. His build was paradigmatically average like the cardboard cutout in your doctor’s office. On it lay a skeletal face that seemed to disappear the longer you looked at it. From his skull straight ink-black hair and overseeing a sharp nose insane green-light eyes.” (p92) Dane disappears (poof! He was gone) and reappears in places he should not be able to get into. Toomberg doesn’t see him on the stairs. He replies to things Casi has not spoken out loud. He claims to have caused the great blackout. I am sure there are many other instances that illustrate his metahumanity. Inner voice or not I think Dane represents temptation, and while a lot of the writing is ironic I think the basic intention of the book is a quest for a kind of moral seriousness without irony.

Gilly, how could I have forgotten that description?!

Seriously, thanks (blushes).

I am still blushing for confusing Hurd and Hurtado!

[…] so bright you couldn’t believe it was real. Tonight we get nothing.” [538] This recalls asterism’s invocation of Olbers’ paradox, which basically states “If the universe is static and […]

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