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.