Naked Singularity Big Read Wrapup: The River and the Waterfall

Now that the Naked Singularity Big Read is concluded, we’re running short responses to the book by Big Read participants. Here’s Richard Hutzler writing about his experiences with the combination of a very plot-driven book that also felt extremely dense at times.

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

Some books read like a river carrying you slowly downstream—so slowly you can’t even be sure at times you’re moving. It’s deep and it’s wide, and all sorts of interesting things are going on around and below and above you . . . then suddenly, you reach the mouth of the river, the book is over, and the accumulated weight of all you’ve read immerses you in an ocean of reaction. Other books read like a waterfall . . . you jump in and find yourself immediately in the rapids, and next thing you know you’ve been thrown off a cliff into the great unknown. I experienced A Naked Singularity as a swift rapids and a great, smart, hilarious, terrifying, but ultimately baffling waterfall.

Oftentimes the quickest reads are so-called genre novels: crime thrillers, detective procedurals, horror novels. The slow river novels are usually the “great baggy monsters.” But every once in a while one of those monsters reads like a thriller—perhaps even aspires to the genre of thriller. It seems to take flight the moment you pass a certain threshold, suck you in, and then spit you out the other end. While it may begin slowly, somewhere between page 10 and 50 you achieve liftoff. The pages fly by so quickly you hardly have time to get your bearings. The novel you’re reading becomes an addition, like a drug—or a lover.

A Naked Singularity pretty much hooked me from page 11, when Darril Thornton appears, followed in rapid progression by Ah Chut, the great Ben Glenn, Glenda Deeble, Robert Coomer, Terrens Lake, and Rory Ludd. Sergio de la Pava has a wonderfully loopy, but very true, way with dialogue, the way Don DeLillo, David Mamet, and Richard Price do. It feels so natural to the ear, on the tongue, but the more closely you look at it, the more you come to realize the artistry behind it. And like Roberto Bolano and Javier Marias, de la Pava demonstrates a truly tremendous facility with the monologue (I realize they are very different writers, ultimately, but the monologues in all three seem to work—almost out of proportion to anything else). The book is filled with set piece monologues from Casi (and of the course the entire book is in his first-person voice), but also from a number of the secondary characters, most particularly Dane, that were smart, entertaining as hell, and sounded like they could be spoken to you by a real human being in a bar (or an Italian restaurant).

As the book sped forward, even the narration took on the qualities of these set-piece monologues. The rolling, thundering, looping digressions on the careers of Wilfred Benitez and other great boxers of the 70’s and 80’s—loosely analogous to the chapters on cetology in Melville’s Moby-Dick—never felt like digressions at all. Because of the captivating, utterly hypnotic, natural-sounding cadences of Casi’s narrative voice, these stories not only did not slow the momentum of the thriller-plot in the book (the heist narrative), nor the intertwined legal narratives (Raul Soldera, Galen Kingg, Casi’s own bizarre and surreal “trials”), nor the funhouse mirror side-stories of Alyona, Angus and Louis, but, rather, the boxing stories seemed to further propel the story(ies) onward.

The forward propulsion of the book hurtled me through it so quickly, however, that once the heist was completed, I found myself begin to lose a little steam. The bizarre confrontations with “Detective Assado” (and the way he seems to just disappear from the narrative after Casi figures him out), the increasingly surreal—indeed ridiculous—kangaroo courts that Casi faces with Cymbeline (with “Quackmire” as his representation—this is becoming a bit too neo-Pynchon now with the names) and then his own colleagues (“C.O.C.K”—shades of DFW, also), and the entire blackout narrative (and “absolute zero”) . . . all of these began to baffle me a bit, and then, frankly, to irritate me. I found myself becoming impatient. Perhaps it was because I was missing too much, having read so quickly (and joyously!) through the book up to that point. On the other hand, the wild digressions and discussions and debates earlier in the novel, as weird/silly/surreal as they sometimes were (Magilla Gorilla vs. Grape Ape; the great disquisition on coffee; many of Dane’s arguments about things; 1-800-BAD-BABY; Mayor Toad and the Video Vigilantes; physics and genetics; the all-advertising channel; etc. etc. etc.!), never bothered me—I swallowed them whole, and enjoyed them going down. And on yet another hand (or maybe the same other hand), I found myself starting to question all sorts of things once we reached those ridiculous kangaroo courts. And so when I arrived at the final page, as much as I enjoyed the parallels between Ballena the Whale and the obvious referent, as much I was fascinated by the naked singularity idea and the portentousness we’re left with, I felt let down.

Going back over the book in the ensuing days, here are some things I’ve noticed. I won’t say I didn’t notice them the first time through, because I did, but I seem to remember myself simply excusing them as weird Casi-isms that Toomberg just decided to let pass. But how old is Casi at any given point in the book? We’re told that Casi is 24 and Dane is 29 early on. We experience (I think) Casi’s 24th birthday party. The entire Benitez thread begins as a result of Casi’s musings upon others throughout history who had achieved tremendous things by that age, and as a result of his own feelings of inadequacy or failure (despite his perfect record as a legal defender to that point). Here’s what I mean:

Page 350—Toomberg and Casi are discussing Hurtado and Jalen Kingg . . . Casi says “You really think I would abandon you the way that Ledo bastard abandoned us? After everything we’ve been through together? Don’t ever forget that promise I made to you decades ago in the sweaty jungles of Vietnam as you lay dying from VC lead in your gut. Remember it?” Toomberg: “No, but as I recall you placed it there in a friendly fire mishap.” Casi: “I don’t think that’s accurate but truthfully that whole period was a drug-induced haze for me so you may be right. Anyway the reason I was calling you yesterday was my cousin.”

Okay—I type this and it seems it should be obvious that this is just “talk.” But is it? Toomberg doesn’t do one of his double-take, what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about things as he does elsewhere in the book. And then there’s also this, later:

Page 454—Toomberg and Casi are discussing the Jalen Kingg case again and the fact that his previous attorneys never looked into Kingg’s obviously fraught physical and mental history, as well as the fact that Kingg doesn’t protest his own innocence. Casi says “I’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century and I can count on one hand the number of clients who didn’t proclaim their innocence if the case was even semi-serious.” Again, Toomberg doesn’t laugh, look at him funny, or comment at all on the comment, but just continues the actual narrative thread of the conversation.

Only two examples out of 678 pages, I know, but still. Are we really meant to just dash past them and consider them Casi “talk-talk”? And when one throws in Casi’s disquisition to Toomberg on time functioning not as a continuum, as being non-linear, and also the reference in another section of the book to David Lewis’ Plurality of Worlds, and all of the discussions of physics and apparent actualizations of theories that have yet to be “proven” (from the seeming actualization of Ralph Kramden (was it really just an actor?) to the bizarre cold, the blackouts (one minor, one MAJOR), to the ascension of absolute zero, to rain in sub-freezing weather, to the coming of the naked singularity itself at the end of the book), one has to wonder.

And so then I began to wonder where the narrative “turned.” Or was it whacked from the beginning? I can’t say that I’ve found one single place which seems to present any solid evidence. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is the bizarre sequence where Casi seems to get locked into the courtroom after the terrible confrontations with Cymbeline during the Hurtado trial (and by the way, what an amazing section that is—those court transcriptions held me enthralled, practically breathless, despite my increasing sense of the loss of my suspension of disbelief at her utterly bizarre decisions), and then seems to find some strange, sub-basement exit from the courthouse (which is of course used at the end of the book when he’s trying to run from The Whale).

I began this post thinking it would focus mainly on my experience of the novel as a page-turner that turned into a kind of mush for me. I haven’t focused so much on the page-turner aspect, because as the book has been sloshing around inside of me for the past week, and as I’ve found myself thumbing its pages over and over again, re-reading some sections with tremendous pleasure, but also hunting for clues to the questions the ending provoked, I find myself doubting just about everything now. The book is much deeper, much wider, much more expansive and explosive than I thought in the hours after reading the last page with such irritation. It seems almost infinite in my memory now. At the same time, I’m still supremely irked by my lack of ability to explain to myself what I’m supposed to take from it all. What does it mean? I hate that kind of reductiveness (Moby-Dick is probably my favorite novel of all time, and each time I read it again it only echoes more profoundly for me, and in numerous, countless directions) when approaching any work of art, yet at the same time, I’m not sure what things inside of me are being sounded by this one.

Perhaps I’ll just have to re-read the entire book, but more slowly, and hunt deeper, though I’d love to hear what others think.

Finally, though, I guess what I’m saying is this: I really, truly loved this book for a good portion of its length. Then I didn’t love it at all when I reached the final page. Now I’m intrigued by it. But I’m not sure if I’m intrigued enough to devote the time to re-reading it closely and carefully, to thumbing back and forth between pages trying to connect dots. When I read Moby-Dick, or 2666, or Absalom, Absalom!, or V., I don’t have to hunt and hunt and hunt in order to have their infinite multiplicities of meaning and music resonate in my head, my heart, my soul—those books thrum through me as if I were a tuning fork. This one? I feel it plucking at something, but the sound coming out is not exactly harmonious.

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

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Richard, nice post, nicely tuned ambivalence. I felt the same sense of deflation toward the end; it’s hard to articulate that sense of let-down in a novel which explicitly concerns itself with the surreal and entropic elements of our culture. Easy enough to picture that bearded grad-school guy saying, “It’s about entropy, man, don’t you get it?”

What I hear you saying is that the conceptual elements of the novel don’t quite justify the ways it goes off the rails toward the end — we could point to that children’s verse story, the ludicrous trial, the forced wrap-up of the Mary plotline, the murder of Assado. It may be about entropy, man, but you can’t blame your writing on the gravitational collapse of the universe.

My feeling on it right now is that De La Pava is really a moralist at heart, concerned with the old Dostoyevskian themes of morality, guilt, justice, and suffering. It’s certainly interesting watching him address these themes as they play out in the funhouse mirror of media-obsessed America, but by the end, he’s played one too many tricks and has ended up neutralizing his own strengths.

Ballena worked well for me as a surrealist touch, whereas the Orchard (and the SERPENT), C.O.C.K., and Mary’s “if you don’t have anything nice to say …” didn’t. So it may be a matter of tonal registers, serious vs impish/jokey and how that balance plays out as the novel progresses.

Another way to say this is that I’m very moved by the fact that Jalen Kingg thought Skittles were homemade rainbow candy, yet was sentenced to die, and I want that to have happened in a reality that matters.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply to the post. I’m going to come back later tonight (after teaching until 10 pm) and may have more to say; but for now, I wanted to at least express that your last paragraph, your last sentence above, is brilliant, and elucidates perfectly what I was trying to get at in my post: “…and I want that to have happened in a reality that matters.” Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better.

Ha, Eric, you seem to have me pegged. I am in fact bearded and wrote a response dealing primarily with entropy. I do not, however, claim to “get” the novel in any significant way and in my response, I’m primarily asking what it is about entropy that authors seem so attracted to. “Entropy” seems to be one of the major themes of the second half of 20th C. American lit, but its used in such diverse ways that it’s difficult to get a strong foothold on.

I seem to have enjoyed the book a lot more than you two appear to have. For me, the absurdity of C.O.C.K., The Orchard, and other “surreal” bits didn’t weaken or lessen the humanist aspects of the novel. I see a strong resemblance to “V.” and “Infinite Jest” in this respect: it’s zany and unusual and farcical, but its also deeply touching. I don’t really think he’s played one too many tricks, but maybe I just have a higher tolerance for tricks.

Also, good post, Richard. I’d sort of automatically assumed that Casi’s Vietnam reference was just a joke, but now you’ve got me questioning that…

I also was loving this book for most of it, until…? Until Casi’s chat with Angus, revealing Ralph to maybe be an actor. That was somehow literarily disappointing, that it should be explained away. But as I flip through the novel now, I’m thinking maybe that works better than I initially gave it credit for. It was SO anticlimactic, disappointing that Angus suddenly was mostly a regular guy and lost all enthusiasm for his projects and ideas, or transferred it to less meaningful things. But that’s life, eh? There’s all this energy and genius, and then it just wanes and dies — in Angus, in Benitez, in Dane, in Casi, in everyone involved in the Kingg situation. A kind of moral entropy, not as it dissipates from generation to generation, but how it dies a little bit every day in every individual. You care so much about truth and justice and perfection or whatever virtue when you’re 24 or when some issue is in the news, but the hot-button story dies, as does your interest, adn by the time you’re 40 you barely have energy to fix supper — you stop caring about justice, you just try to get by. I don’t know if it was intended, but one might be able to argue that the book’s structure mirrors that idea, trailing off into nothingness (or domesticity [what with Casi retreating to the family home, or how Benitez ended up], or aloneness, or…) and taking the reader along with it.

I do, however, absolutely love how the Kingg story (SO poignant, how Casi’s letters changed tone as he immersed himself in it) wrapped up — with a slap (he killed himself, and I actually cried to read that) and a joke (signed by the Principal Stockholder). I can’t help but think an editor might’ve helped the other story lines come off as well.

Hi everybody,
The Jalen Kingg story is certainly the most emotionally powerful portion of the book for me–it provides, I think, an emotional heart that actually represents the ambivalence I think de la Pava may be expressing about the law of this land. I believe him when he says in an interview that he loves the law, and would never want to give it up–but it seems to me that someone who loves something that much loves it not because s/he ignores or doesn’t accept the flaws and serious black holes in it, but because s/he is aware of them, struggles with them, and loves it even more. This is a section of the book where I really see de la Pava wrestling with some major issues–you can’t get much more intense than the death penalty–but somehow, in this plotline, I never, EVER felt like he was preaching to me or beating me over the head with either surreality, over-developed demonstrations of entropy, or wackiness. It’s the most well-integrated, most intensely expressed plotline in the book for me (despite–not because of, I don’t think, but despite–some of the weirdness around it, like The Orchard and SERPENT). And perhaps because of that, as Eric noted above it really made me want to feel that it existed in a “reality that mattered.”

Brandon: I look forward to your write-up on entropy a great deal. You have such a powerful point: why IS it that so many late 20th and early 21st century authors seem so obsessed by this idea? I suppose you could put forth an argument that we’re now really beginning to wallow in the “death of god” atmosphere that many claim began to arise after WWII–that feeling of lack of agency and meaning in the universe, that all is perhaps chaos. And as we as individual humans wind down toward death, toward total entropy, each day, despite our simultaneous apprehension (or at least suspicion) of our smallness in the universe, we still somehow feel that our own winding down is akin to the entire universe winding down. Anyway, I should probably save surmises like this for your post.

Isabella: I love your points about how every major character in the book is moving toward entropy…as I read your reply here I was actually moved (by your words, but retrospectively by the book, too) in considering this more thoughtfully. I agree with your initial reaction to the “explanation” (I put it in quotation marks, because I’m not 100% sure ANYTHING is explained–or meant to be read as explained–in this book anymore) of Kramden–that, too, along with the other things I mentioned above, felt like a true disappointment. At that point, why bother explaining it away (if that’s why he intended to do)? Why not leave it dangling, or ambiguous, or at least fully interpretable as a potential alternate (sur)reality, or representation of how fully Television has taken over everyone’s apprehension of “reality” nowadays?

The explanation of Mary’s silence made me laugh at first, but the more I thought about it, the more annoying that became, too. Again, I now wonder, why not just leave the silence as it was–inexplicable?

I realize that I probably sound like I’m speaking out of two sides of my mouth right now–I want answers (how the hell old is Casi? ONLY ever 24 in this book? did the heist even really happen? Is Dane ACTUALLY in the freaking Plaza Hotel? Is the Whale ACTUALLY in the courtroom at the end?), but I don’t want answers…

Alas…perhaps all this back and forth is a sign that there’s definitely SOMETHING about this book. It’s got at least a few of us spinning our wheels here debating, interpreting, re-interpreting, and at least talking about it. In that sense, I suppose we could call it a success–it made us react; we aren’t indifferent.

Isabella: your suggestion that a strong editor might have helped him shape and tease some of these things out in more satisfying ways (not necessarily simply “explaining” them, but maybe even heightening the ambiguities) is definitely ringing true in this here head.

At any rate, what a fun discussion to have today as yet another heat wave begins here back in NYC…

Brandon, just for the record, I’m bearded too. As my brother put it last night, my beard is “ponderous.”

My comment perhaps sounded more conservative than I meant it to. I like ambitious, mind-bending fiction, and had this been a straightforward legal procedural/thriller I wouldn’t have responded to it to the extent I did. Like Richard I was about riveted by about 2/3 of the novel.

Entropy isn’t an irrelevent concept to bring in, by any means. There’s a strong line of moral entropy in the novel, for example, the missing baby leading to the murdering kids to the planned execution of a mental child, the nadir. My problem with entropy as novelistic thought is that it’s so permissive: anything the novelist comes up with could be a symptom of this theme.

I don’t have any problem with the fantastic and realist rubbing elbows in one novel. It just seems to me — and again these are tentative thoughts — that De La Pava is not generally a convincing or deep fabulist, the way Kafka is a deep fabulist or even Murakami at his best. Those scenes just aren’t handled with the rigor and conviction and nuance that characterize the courthouse scenes or the Kingg plotline. There’s nothing in the thought experiments to approach the level the frozen music in JR or Eschaton in Infinite Jest. Ballena to me holds up, the Uncle Sam-chimp bridge holds up as an irreducibly weird image. But some of the other fabulist elements are marred by a broad, jokey satire suggesting that the idea of parallel/modal realities isn’t actually taken all that seriously in the novel.

Such a novel might explore alternate realities in which Casi and Dane got busted, or Kingg survived; I thought we were going there with Assado.

I think Isabella is right: this book might eventually be studied as a near-great early 21st century novel that was orphaned by venal and timorous publishers who might have saved it from itself. (But then again, maybe not.) After saying all that, I still enjoyed the book tremendously and will be thinking about it for a long time to come.

I just want to put his out there: I think that Dane is just a manifestation of Casi’s, along with Detective Assado and the Whale. I haven’t seen this argument made elsewhere and I know this thread is dead, but I just want to put this out there, somewhere.
Dane doesn’t interact with anybody but Casi the entire novel. Note his entrances and exits. On at least one occasion, he appears in Casi’s office without any of the rest of the firm acknowledging or mentioning him. He leaves Casi’s apartment leaves just as Toomberg arrives – nearly parroting Toomberg, that the he had to ask Casi’s secretary but that she didn’t have his apartment number on file. The single telling remark, though, is where Toom and Dane should have passed each other in the stairway, Casi asks “You’re saying, Toom, that you saw no one as you were coming up?” Toomberg replies, “No one, why?” – the question is immediately dropped.
I think that Dane represents a dark alter-ego of Casi’s, a part of himself that Casi generally keeps buried – one who sees the underpinnings of our world and is willing to go out and commit “the perfect crime” because he is free of Casi’s (and most of us sane individuals’) fears and doubts.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

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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