Naked Singularity Big Read: Commerce and Television

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

So, in the first 40 pages we talked about the title A Naked Singularity and the strangeness that it possibly indicated, the moral system De La Pava might be establishing in the court and lawyer scenes that constitute the book’s first 40 pages, and some comparison books.

After finishing his epically long night at court, Casi heads home, and we meet some of his neighbors. This is the section where I first caught a real whiff of David Foster Wallace, whom De La Pava has acknowledged as a major influence. This is pretty clear in the televisual experiment Casi’s neighbor is conducting. He’s going to watch The Honeymooners on repeat for days on end in an effort to convince himself that they are real people, by the logic that we can believe that entities that we meet on the Internet, over the phone, etc are just as real as we are. I also noted some DFW in the madcap energy between Casi and his neighbors, and in the way advertising was discussed.

Here are some things that I caught on to:

On page 47, Casi is out in the cold in front of his apartment doing some soul searching. Among other things, he thinks, “This—extreme nonconsumerism—is something that has come to be associated with illegality has it not?” If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time we encounter this sort of thought: the morality and responsibilities of a society predicated on money. This is something that will be coming up more and more throughout the book. At this point I’d like to ask to what point this is true. Is this something that the United States currently treats as illegal in any meaningful sense? What are the implications of that?

Re: television (or Television, as De La Pava always has it), on page 51 the following exchange caught my eye:

“Have you heard of a Television that turns on automatically when your favorite shows are on?”
“I don’t understand, why would you turn it off?”

Later on, on page 55, the statement “Being on Television is fast becoming the natural state” reminded me very much of David Foster Wallace’s major essay, “E Unibus Pluram.”

We also start to get some of De La Pava’s political critique in this section. On page 80, referring to law enforcement and the court system, Casi’s colleague Henry notes that “Our government controls one out of every two such young men [black men ages 18 to 35] in that area.” I found that interesting in juxtaposition to the conversation Casi and one of his young black clients, Malkum, have on pages 82-3, about how he has lost his right to vote by becoming a felon. One of the things that De La Pava is arguing here is that the current state of drug law makes it far too easy to become a felon; when you add it all up, he more or less makes the case that the current state of the War on Drugs is more about controlling a population of young man and disenfranchising a class of people than about protecting and serving the citizenry.

We might also reflect on all this in relationship to the War on Terror, which many have identified as the successor to the War on Drugs.

So some questions:

1. What do you think of the Honeymooners thing? For my own part, I found other thought experiments in the book (and other books) far more compelling; in that sense, it doesn’t like up to Wallace. Although I don’t think we’re meant to take it in isolation. I see it more as the introduction of a certain kind of philosophy that will be elaborated and made more complex as the book moves forward.

2. How are you feeling about Casi as a character? When we talk about postmodern literature, we’re often talking about ideas and technology and society and philosophy, but I think A Naked Singularity is a very character-driven novel. It is, in large part, the story of Casi’s coming of age, and we should evaluate it as such, in addition to as a novel of ideas.

3. What’s the association with Casi’s professional world of law, crime, and punishment, and his personal world of television experiments and fractured reality? There’s definitely a link here, and these two worlds come together more and more as the novel progresses, but this is something that De la Pava leaves (purposely) ill-defined, and I think it’s something we should think about more and more as we read on.

4. I don’t want to be the only one asking questions here: pose your own in the comments thread. I’ll respond to as many as I can, and I hope others will as well.

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

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For me, too, Angus’s Honeymooners monologue is one of the weaker parts of the book to this point. Why the Honeymooners, for starters? An unlikely pick for the twentysomething slacker/agorophobe Angus. And it seems farfetched that Angus, who has been reared by television and is savvy enough to take all his courses online, could seriously believe in the project he’s describing there.

It seems like a passage you’d want to have a conversation about, if you were an editor at U of Chicago press; but from what I understand this version of the novel isn’t much changed from the self-published version. If anyone has further information on the editing process it would be interesting to know.

On the other hand, the passage does form part of a more compelling network of ideas about TV. You have the mayor promoting surveillance cameras as law enforcement. You have the security camera footage of the store owner’s death described as if it were network TV. And there’s that “bad baby” abduction story, the media sensation, popping up in the background.

So the novel feels concerned and anxious about how it can possibly represent the justice system — which has been so thoroughly rendered by TV that it has become corrupted by its own representation. Judges act like TV judges, lawyers like TV lawyers. (This bears out my own experience when “Judge Judy” was bizarrely playing in St Louis’s jury selection room.) And I think this gets back to Hobbes and Locke, whom De La Pava references in the first courtroom scene.

How can you subscribe to any sort of empiricism or belief in humans as a “blank slate” when experience itself is already so mediated and saturated by entertainment? The “bad baby” is a Hobbesian creature then, not in the sense that he’s evil but that he’s born into media, defined as a celebrity by TV before he’s had any chance to gather coherent perceptions or react to his situation as a human being.

Wow, great point about the Bad Baby. I’d hardly though critically about the Bad Baby at all yet. I feel like a lot of the book seems overwhelming right now: we’re introduced to all of Casi’s defendants, co-workers, neighbors, and family within the first 100 pgs or so, but I think things like the Bad Baby and The Honeymooners experiment are going to be book-length studies which will become much more developed as we go along.

Re: The Honeymooners, I think it’s maybe not as bad/odd of a choice as Eric makes it seem. I’m relatively young, and don’t really know much about Television from the 50s, but isn’t The Honeymooners sort of the archetypal “sitcom”? I have never even seen an episode, but I feel like I know it already because of its huge influence on modern TV. References to The Honeymooners abound. I had to do a little research on Wikipedia about “TH”, and found the following nugget of info:

“Steven Sheehan explains the popularity of The Honeymooners as the embodiment of working-class masculinity in the character of Ralph Kramden, and postwar ideals in American society regarding work, housing, consumerism, and consumer satisfaction. The series demonstrated visually the burdens of material obligations and participation in consumer culture […].”

So that’s not to say other newer TV shows don’t do these same things better, or with more verisimilitude, or in higher-definition, which would maybe make the character-as-real-person thing easier. Just maybe that using “The Honeymooners” demonstrates Angus’ knowledge/reverence of mass-media/consumer-culture history. Or that Angus sees “TH” as the highest attainment or strongest distillation of the postwar American ideals of consumerism, etc., making Ralph-as-real-person easier to conjure up; or conversely sees “TH” as a challenge, due to its age and black-and-whiteness. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud at this point.

One thing I want to comment on though is the sophomoric nature of this experiment. I agree with you, Scott, in that as a thought-experiment at this stage it seems kind of weak, but I kind of want to give De La Pava a pass on that as I think its maybe intentionally not incredibly mentally straining. Right away when introducing these characters De La Pava takes a dig at higher education by calling them all “good customers of Columbia University” and saying how Alyona is “purchasing a doctorate in philosophy.” I think this is particularly important, and De La Pava is alerting us to this importance by stating this right up front: you don’t need to have a brain or even apply it to get a degree, it’s just another thing you buy, another commodity, and what level of deep thinking can you expect to harvest from a bunch of kids buying philosophy degrees? Are we supposed to be in awe of these kids’ intelligence? I don’t think we’re supposed to be blown away by the sheer genius of their ideas. And Casi obviously displays a similar distaste for such navel-gazing, and I think he’s clearly the smartest guy in the room. Again, just thinking out loud, but I’m super curious to see how this develops.

Re: Q3 above, I do feel that Casi already seems more well developed as a character than Slothrop, or Wyatt Gwyon, or Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil, assuming that he’ll continually become more defined as the narrative goes on.

I really get a lot of enjoyment out of his voice, which is sprinkled with “likes” and “whatevers,” and he (De La Pava) uses them in fun ways. A couple examples that spring to mind are “Sister Whatever” during the quick school hangman flashback, and this passage: “I asked him if he planned to launch a Lockean defense whereby he could not be held responsible for something he didn’t remember as such act was not properly attributable to his personal identity at which point he gave me the blankest of stares in response then started saying increasingly odd things in rapid succession until I realized that he not only sort of knew what I was talking about, which was weird enough, but that he was undeniably insane and my ill-advised Locke reference was like the thing coming after the final straw to tip him over the Axis-II-Cluster-A edge, as it were, so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that.”

It’s the “which was weird enough” and the “so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that” that makes Casi seem like a character to me, instead of a stickman (or hangman).

I have a quick question: Has anyone made the empanadas recipe yet? I think I’m going to have to try this one out this weekend.

Longing to know if you tried the empanadas – and did you find the tiny yellow Colombian potatoes? I’m having trouble writing comments as there is just too much I want to say. I really like Casi’s character; I don’t believe his mother’s explanation for his name (almost…) I think he was named Caspar, hence his fondness for the friendly ghost. Or maybe Casio. I like his voice in particular, but I think the control of the different voices is very impressive. Only trouble is it makes me read even more slowly as I am sounding them all out in my head. They are frequently very, very funny.

I think you have to take an awful lot on trust in the early pages. Everything is there for a reason. I think it’s amazing that such a discursive and digressive book should have such a strong narrative drive. Even though this is my third reading I am still gripped by that forward movement. Dane has appeared like the prince of darkness and he becomes more sinister with every appearance. When I’m not laughing I’m gripped by a sense of impending doom (similar to Casi’s)

Did anyone else notice on p 197 the deliberate misprint after “It turns out when you read you don’t really take note of every single letter? Instaed it seems your mind fills in the details” (hahaha). I like the way de la Pava forces you to read so carefully, every word, every letter.

I thought from my former readings that the book started slightly differently, with the court scenes. I gave my Xlibris version to my daughter so can’t check it. Can anyone tell me how much the two versions differ?

Am really enjoying the questions and the comments.

I find The Honeymooners project entertaining, but I also wondered why that show was chosen. I’ve been going through the early bits to check if anything dates the novel’s setting. I have trouble believing 24-year-olds today would be like this, though it does sound a lot like when I was 24 (I’m now 40+-ish). Casi had a black and white TV set, his sister reminisces about the record player. The neighbour attends e-campus, but Alana has a 50-disc CD player (I don’t think many 20-somethings are buying those these days). I’m guessing the Honeymooners isn’t available on DVD yet. No evidence of cellphones, and I think they’d be indispensible for lawyers. That puts us at, what, mid-90s?

I grew up in England aeons ago and The Honeymooners didn’t mean anything to me. I had to Google it too. But I think it stands in for any sitcom or soap drama. I’m sure characters from Neighbours for example come to seem as real as friends, if not more so as they explain themselves so much more than real people do – though people are growing more like the people they see on television, and talk like them now too. (“We’ve got to talk” for example: no one ever said that when I was young!) There’s a great piece of insight in the book when Ramon is about to reveal all to the cops, and they become like TV cops in their excitement at making a big arrest. They’ve hankered after “Life as seen on TV” but have always fallen short. “Then again there were those moments. Moments when these two disparate world views seemed to inch towards each other with the promise of sweet confluence…”

The setting is an interesting point (really liked what you said about Beethoven, which your comment took me through to) It seemed to me to be not set in any particular real time, but if it were I suppose it would be the early to mid 1990s. The James Bulger case which baby Tula references (I guess) was in 1993.

There are exactly two mentions of cell phones in the novel: one on a sign prohibiting their use, and the second in a list of technologies that would make a time traveler from the past lose his/her “limited mind in about five hours.”

Its a bit telling that both mentions of cell phones are rather negative.

The James Bulger case which baby Tula references (I guess) was in 1993.

I thought the more direct reference was to the Annette Sorensen case from 1997, when a Danish woman left her infant in a stroller outside a New York restaurant during dinner and was arrested for negligence. The child was briefly placed in foster care, flabbergasting the mother, who said the practice was common where she came from.

I’m well behind the rest of the group in my reading, though, so perhaps baby Tula’s situation grows more Bulger-like later on. For her sake, I hope not.


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Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

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3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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