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Naked Singularity Big Read: Possibilities and Potentials

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

In my mind, the chunk of this week’s read that deals with Casi’s experiences in the Alabama penitentiary [469 - 485] demonstrates conclusively at least one or both of the following: Casi’s detachment from reality; the polemical mode of De La Pava’s writing.

We’ve already discussed the former quite a bit; as to the latter, in A Naked Singularity I’ve found De La Pava to be a writer who presents extreme cases, juxtaposing them with one another. Unlike a David Foster Wallace, who would actually detail his metaphorical creations to an impressive degree of complexity, De La Pava only gives us the outlines of his philosophy. So, for instance, the comparison between the prison guard Casi meets in Alabama and Kingg is rather stark: on the one hand you have a man who jokes about the electric chair and talks about how he doesn’t mind pulling the lever; on the other hand you have a mentally retarded man-boy who is going to be executed without fully realizing what is happening to him.

This juxtaposition could certainly be accused of heavy-handedness. What I think saves De La Pava is that this is quite clearly the mode he has been working in throughout A Naked Singularity. This has always been an exaggerated, vaguely cartoonish book, and it has only become more so as the plot has worn forward.

I also think this works because De La Pava is not presenting this juxtaposition on its own; to the contrary, this is but one of many, many philosophical contrasts De La Pava has presented in the book, and they all join together in complex ways to request that a reader consider the big questions that are animating this book: What is morality and how does it relate to law? What exactly is our view of reality, and how is this view conditioned by our perceptions and our ability to augment our perceptions with technological devices like TV? What is perfection, and what is its relationship to our world (if any)?

One interesting way the Kingg section of this week’s reading links up with the rest of A Naked Singularity is in the case of the murdering 7-year-olds, which we haven’t spoken about much so far. This is a current in the text that De La Pava established very early on: a baby goes missing, the media has a frenzy with it, and it eventually comes out (via vigilantes with video cameras) that the murderers were a pair of children. As you can see, this subplot combines a number of tropes from the book.

I’d like to ask, do you see any valid comparisons here to Kingg’s case? And what do you make of the increasingly surreal way the murdering children plot has been deployed throughout A Naked Singularity?

At the close of this chapter De La Pava perhaps makes a knowing wink to David Foster Wallace’s views on the insufficiency of irony, as laid out in his essay “E Unibus Pluram“:

But someone at the airline must have screwed up because when the movie came on I saw with dread that it was the same flick from the earlier flight, the Story of Jackie and Trevor. Except that now, fully awake and armed with audio, I saw that the movie was entitled Terms of Bereavement and it was actually a comedy. But not a good comedy where witty people trip and wear funny outfits either, rather one that relied principally on the smug knowingness of its audience. A comedy in name only, neither divine nor vulgar. A comedy in error, full of irony and self-reference and signifying an empty nil. [485, italics mine]

We might consider this alongside the rest of A Naked Singularity. It is certainly a very ironic book, but it’s a very different kind of irony that the brand De La Pava is decrying here.

Further on, talking about Benitez, I found this interesting:

He was what any human should ultimately aspire to. He was beautiful and ugly simultaneously. [492]

Later on, Casi’s digression about Hume and causation [499] reminded me of TV. If we only learn causation, as Hume suggests, by watching the world around us, then what happens to causation when we can watch things happen in a completely constructed (and therefore false) reality, i.e. TV?

This section concludes with Dane and Casi embarking on their scheme. Dane makes a statement on page 511 about the different sets of reality that might flow forward from the moment when he and Casi decide whether or not they are going to go in and attempt to complete their plan.

Remember that because right now it is certainly at least possible that you and I will go get that money, that means at least two of our counterparts will in fact get it. Don’t we need to be those two? Of course we do, it absolutely must be us. I don’t care what it entails. You have total power and control here. [511]

Finally, in this section’s closing pages we are introduced to Ballena, aka The Whale, one of De La Pava’s creepiest, more freakish creations. He is guarding the money that Dane and Casi want to seize, and he seems barely human and maybe barely possible to kill. Dane and Casi’s scheme will let him loose in the world. It will be interesting to see what happens. That’s for next week.

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

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9 comments to Naked Singularity Big Read: Possibilities and Potentials

  • Marcus

    Hello,

    Been loving all your write-ups so far and the comments as well. I just wanted to add something about the ending of this section, which (along with the DFW parallels that you draw) is also a carefully phrased nod to Faulkner’s The Sound & The Fury. The title of this novel by the mustachioed suavissimo of southern gothic comes from Macbeth. The passage out of Shakespeare reads:

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Notice De La Pava’s careful echoing: “full of irony and self-reference and signifying an empty nil”. We can easily connect the dots as to how this passage might be useful to De La Pava: the tale told by an idiot in the shape of Jalen Kingg, which is also central to Faulkner’s reading of the passage. But also how life “frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more”. These references not only imply a mode by which we should be thinking about these issues, they also suggest that De La Pava wants us to associate him with a certain literary tradition, and in this way I think it makes a lot of sense to think of Ballena as his Moby Dick. In other words as an unstoppable force with which one cannot reason.

  • Gilly

    Ballena is quite terrifying. He seems like a force of evil unleashed when Casi “falls” (and almost falls literally). I think De La Pava handles the crime really well – the first time I read it I had to put it aside till morning, it was just too tense. As soon as Casi starts to take part in the crime he crosses a line and acts like a criminal (the face-off over the parking space) (was he pushed into it by his mother’s possible cancer? – well, there have been plenty of reasons along the way supplied by Dane and by Casi himself as to why he should succumb to the temptation of money) There’s a kind of playing with the reader going on here, I think, supplying all the elements of a good crime novel, hooking you in, but at the same time revealing how artificial these elements are.

    The thread of the 7 year olds I see as adding to the background of an unendurable society, where such crimes are part of the entertainment that Television offers. There are several episodes where Casi does not want to watch but watches despite himself, and then cannot get rid of the images. How much more impressionable are children who grow up watching these things. Can they really be held responsible for the crime, and can Jalen, if he is like an eight-year old in mentality? Again I think there is a genuine, non-ironic sense of outrage here.

    Casi seems to return frequently to Benitez as a symbol of how he could be – “as good at what he did as anyone in the world.”

  • The crime scene is well handled–there’s tension there despite the amount of time De La Pava takes in spooling it out. Aside from whatever commentary may be intended by the author in not having the Perfect Crime transpire smoothly, it seemed to me much earlier that the planning itself was far from perfect. Dane’s description of his perfect legal representation was thorough, ridiculously so, but the caper is sloppy even before things go wrong. Or so it seemed to me.

  • Neil Griffin

    This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m reading DFW’s story “The Suffering Channel” and just came across his idea about All Ads All The Time Channel (AAATC). In The Millions interview, De La Pava says that he has never read DFW’s fiction, and we have no reason to not believe him–especially since this isn’t one of the better known DFW works– so it’s quite interesting that they both have this idea of a channel that cuts out the middleman–the content–and just plays ads all the time.

    Re: the crime scene: masterfully handled and executed. This was a helluva set piece.

  • Yes, the crime scene was tense, but starting with the parking space incident, I couldn’t help but read the thing as (an often slapstick) comedy. Everything goes wrong! this was set up to be the perfect crime, and Dane was going to take care of all the details, but it’s obvious there are holes in the planning, and there’s no way they could plan for all possible contingencies. Not sure why I heard that humorous tone in my head, but I thought this scene was hilarious. I mean, swords! Ballena comes off as more cartoonish than freakish.

  • Eric

    Ballena scares me.

    Especially later.

  • Gilly

    That’s the essence of the caper, isn’t it, that the heist should be interrupted by unforeseen scary but hilarious setbacks for which our heroes have to improvise solutions, usually making the viewer/reader complicit in the violence? We want them to win therefore we don’t mind who meets what gory end along the way; in fact the more gory, the more entertaining.

    I went through the Benitez episodes and other boxing references again. Toomberg on seeing the boxing stuff in Casi’s apartment admits surprise that “human beings are still willing to admit they derive pleasure from seeing others hit and harm each other” And later Casi makes a reference to a match as attempted murder. So although mostly Casi’s daydreams about Benitez seem to inspire him to be as great, to fight to win, to rise from failure and to think positive thoughts, by the end of the book I was seeing this thread as an integrated part of the major theme of human desire to watch and be thrilled by acts of violence, and how what is crime in the courtroom is entertainment on Television.

  • Eric

    Neil, ANS got its first online reviews after being circulated among members of an Infinite Jest reading group, so I’m pretty sure De La Pava is being coy there. As for the “Suffering Channel,” who’s to say … amazing story though, I’d put it in the top four or five things he wrote.

  • Brandon

    Been really busy the past couple of weeks, but I just finished the book, and I’m very impressed. The heist scene was well-tensioned, Casi is one of the few characters I’ve read recently where I find myself actually “caring” for the character, I wanted it all to work out well for him.

    The Benitez sections are also fantastic. It takes some serious skill to condense the amount of boxing info/history into narratives as De La Pava demonstrates with these.

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