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Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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Naked Singularity Big Read: De La Pava and Entropy

Now that the Naked Singularity Big Read is concluded, we’re running short responses to the book by Big Read participants. Here’s Brandon Walter discussing how De La Pava works the idea of entropy, pioneered by postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis.

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

A number of authors familiar to readers of this website, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, J.G. Ballard, Roberto Bolano, Don DeLillo, and most recently, Sergio De La Pava, have all used the ideas of entropy and chaos as central themes to their work. In 1956, Isaac Asimov engaged the idea in a short story dramatizing the human colonization of the universe in a narrative that spanned thousands of future generations and detailed the eventual total-loss of energy (or “heat-death”) dictated by the second law of thermodynamics. Four years later, a then unknown author by the name of Thomas Pynchon published a short story titled “Entropy,” engaging with the concept on a decidedly more human scale: the degeneration of a party, the death of a small bird, and the heat-loss of an apartment.

So what makes entropy so appealing as a theme for a certain type of writer? Here’s a quick answer, by no means comprehensive: “he found in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in his own world.” The “he” in that quote is Castillo referring to himself in the third person in Pynchon’s short story “Entropy,” but it may as well be Pynchon himself, or any other writer or artist who has applied the concepts of entropy to explore our environment (both natural and man-made environments), our place in it, as well as our ability to comprehend it.

Gaddis used entropy in JR as a reflection of the tenacity of the stock market: chaotic, disordered, and unpredictable. Similarly, De La Pava uses entropy in A Naked Singularity in at least a few different ways: as a satire of the U.S. court system, as a model of the unpredictability in complex events (the drug/money heist); he even refers to it a few times in the traditional sense: that of heat (energy) transfer from a warm body to a colder one.

First I’d like to talk about the court system and how De La Pava displays its behavior. Even from Casi’s point of view, events are largely unpredictable, truth is much more of an unknowable entity than we’d like to admit, and disorder eventually makes its overwhelming presence felt. At one point, Casi notices “teens and their families [are] behaving like heated molecules inside his ridiculously tiny courtroom.” The court system arguably undergoes a significant transformation throughout the novel; at the beginning it appears at least semi-ordered: antagonistic to Casi, to be sure, but at least it seems somewhat predictable and Casi can make the appropriate utterances to get semi-predictable results. He knows for the most part what to expect from certain judges and can make appropriate defenses for his clients. During the last courtroom scene however, where Casi himself is on trial, it seems almost entirely devoid of order. Casi has a “teenager represent [him] at an insane hearing with a giant gavel. And before with the attacking chimps and giant hot dogs! And don’t forget the not so minor detail of what is occurring outside at this very moment.” (Which, “what’s occurring outside” is nothing less than the betrayal of the physical properties of water: rain at six degrees Fahrenheit, another sign that order has abandoned them, our physical laws mean less than they once did).

Outside the courtroom, the heist is a perfect example of how chaos and entropy reign in an open environment, as opposed to the controlled environment of Dane’s nearly perfect representation of a client. Dane considers the heist to be an act restorative to order. He believes that “the money is already [his]” and therefore, he’s simply putting the money back in its rightful place: he’s expending energy to resist entropy and the diffusion of order. But to resist entropy you can’t just blindly expend energy, it must be done judiciously and against innumerable variables: Dane took three tries to lasso the roof on #406, Casi nervously loses his ski mask and one of the gold rope-hooks, the money is not where they expect it to be, DeLeon is in attendance and can recognize both Casi and Dane (jeopardizing the whole operation), and Ballena turns out to be a Serious Problem: almost inhuman, massive, frightening, and threatening to undo all the “work” that Casi and Dane have done.

This brings us to one of my favorite characters: Ballena, a terrifying figure able to literally rip the heads off humans. Angus describes Ballena like this: “I wouldn’t say big. I think the word doesn’t exist yet for what it is.” Hyperbole, to be sure, but maybe De La Pava is making a point here. What can we take away from Angus’s physics lesson regarding properties of large entities? “First of all it’s hard to explain but I was afraid to look at it directly. Second of all it was as if it was in shadows the whole time, only shadows itself was creating if that makes any sense. Anyway it zipped through here, turned the beds over, then just like that is was gone.” Leading from this description, it’s not too far of a stretch to see Ballena as some form of representation of a singularity: light cannot escape from it, it creates disorder/distortion, and it is incredibly massive.

The novel’s ending seems to resist easy interpretation. Some sort of cosmic event (presumably a naked singularity), arrives at this particular point in space-time when Ballena confronts Casi on the street. To try to understand this, I again look back to the physics lessons proffered by Angus: “My theory is that certain things that used to have no mass now suddenly do and they’re multiplying. Either that or the mysterious invisible force that had previously served to combat gravity and drive universal expansion has now abandoned us or otherwise failed.” What used to have no mass and now suddenly does is up to interpretation. Emotions? Fear? Why does the invisible force that had previously served to combat gravity abandon us when Ballena confronts Casi? “Why the collapse? Too much matter, dude, causing too great a pull.”

A Naked Singularity is filled with things that have no mass, but exhibit a similarly strong pull on me: Casi is a genuine and relatable character, the disorder and madness encountered in the book is the same that you and I are forced to confront daily, and we’re forced to acknowledge that everything we hold familiar could collapse at any moment. I haven’t enjoyed a book as much as this since I read JR last year. I’ll be reading this one again in the future, and until then, I’m going to keep in mind Conley’s optimism about the future: “the universe is going to keep on expanding forever and expansion is just another word for progress.”

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

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4 comments to Naked Singularity Big Read: De La Pava and Entropy

  • Thanks for the great discussion. As Pynchon pointed out (in his intro to Slow Learner, I think), writers who use entropy as a metaphor often don’t have much more than a hazy grasp of the concept as it’s used in science.

    In what is probably an unintentional (or maybe intentional?) illustration of entropy and the impossibility of achieving perfection, De La Pava mistakenly attributes the second law of thermodynamics (and more specifically the statistical interpretation of the entropy) to Boyle, a 17th century physicist who lived almost two centuries before the concept of entropy was introduced (p. 306-307).

    De La Pava should have referred to Boltzmann, the 19th-20th century physicist who introduced the statistical interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics. Of course, scientific or historical accuracy is not essential to the metaphor.

  • Brandon

    Great catch on Boyle, Mike.

    Pynchon says in his intro to “Slow Learner” that he himself had a very poor grasp on entropy, and the more he reads about it now, the less he understands (which seems to be true for me as well). I don’t recall if he makes a blanket statement for all authors who use entropy as a metaphor, but I’ll look for that when I get home.

    He also mentions that writers who start with concepts and then tries to create characters as representatives for these concepts will create poor fiction and the characters will “die on the page…”

  • Brandon

    Also, because boxing and crime (and the article mentions “Hitman” Hearns):

    http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120718/METRO/207180346/Bloody-nose-leads-boxer-s-arrest

  • Richard

    Brandon–a very fascinating and illuminating discussion of entropy, and I love your interpretation of Ballena as a kind of singularity himself.

    I’m in the middle of JR right now (I loved loved LOVED The Recognitions, and am truly enjoying JR), so I will be keen to watch Gaddis unpack his take on entropy in the markets, etc. And for anyone reading this blog who has not read JR yet: I’ll just say that its reputation as a supremely difficult book is, to me, a bunch of baloney. Once you get a couple pages in, the rhythm of the thing really takes over. I’m seeing it a last symphony, actually–with different tempos and crescendos and decrescendos, etc.–so while that rhythm changes dramatically from character to character and scene to scene (and sometimes right in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence), you still “know” how to read it as it develops and unfolds.

    Back to ANS: despite my dissatisfaction with the last portion of the novel, I am truly enjoying these write-ups and the ensuing discussions, and it is heightening the book for me in a really positive way. I may well HAVE to go back and read it again…though part of me is thinking I may wait to do that until the very dead of winter…

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