A Naked Singularity

  • Sergio De La Pava
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 678 pp.

This crazy and erratic fat novel focuses on Everything, from the perspective of a precocious young public defender in the NYC court system.

Reviewed by Barry Wightman

Crack open this fat novel with the zingy black-and-white moiré cover, retro-psychedelia in all its head-trip glory, and you are faced with an ominous epigraph, two verses from Psalms:

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely that seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt: there is none that does good, no, not one.

Psalm 14: 2, 3

Uh oh. Not one?

I don’t remember that from Sunday School. Perhaps my mind was wandering that day.

But, really? Is that in Psalms?

Sure enough, it is. Maybe it wasn’t one of the Psalmist’s greatest hits — maybe he was having a bad day, things were running down. Pessimism reigned some dark day in ancient Israel.

And so it is with this ambitiously lunatic, hilarious, encyclopedic, maddening but entertaining novel of Everything, the tale of a precocious 24-year-old public defender named Casi in the New York City court system. It’s pessimistic. Or maybe it’s optimistically pessimistic. Or pessimistically optimistic. As De La Pava writes, late in the novel:

“We’re going to be all right,” he said. “No,” I said. “But we’re going to live.”

A Naked Singularity, Sergio De La Pava’s first novel, fizzes like an overstuffed Roman candle launched over New York City’s downtown criminal court. It explodes. And for those with a taste for fiction that is the antithesis of economical writing — writing that speaks a lush language of the cosmic heart that frequently veers off-road from its central goofy two-public-defenders-pull-off-the-perfect-caper-ripping-off-high-end-drug-dealers plot into long dialogues about justice, cosmology, physics, mathematics, spirituality, entropy, boxing (I could go on, and De La Pava does go on) — it’s worth it.


On the other hand, your mileage may vary.

A novel teaches its reader the rules of the road — how to read it. Some books are no-brainers, straightforward, with easy-to-follow instructions. A Naked Singularity, however, requires that the reader sit up straight and pay attention. For example, the novel begins:

“—noise background, My getting out or what?! Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil and, oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue.”

Say what?

We read on.

After perceiving that we are indeed in the NYC court system, surrounded by the lowlife cast of a Richard Price police procedural, some pages later we circle back and the above reappears and begins to make sense:

“—noise background, My getting out or what?! My money’s on what, followed by a pause long enough to be uncomfortable. Oh c’mon I didn’t do nothing man! This is bullshit you got to get me up out of here on the double yo, she’s lying on me! Easy, hold on, let’s start at the top. Here’s my card. My name’s Casi, I’m going to be your attorney.”

Think a big-hearted, high-IQ Seinfeld and Kramer meet Elmore Leonard and Herman Melville. With Cal Tech physics wizard Dr. Richard Feynman down the hall, rooming with Ahab. And a wacky neighbor named David Foster Wallace. And Television. With a capital T.

Reader advisory: You must traverse long pages of mostly unattributed (funny, pitch-perfect) dialogue without quotation marks. You will find yourself backtracking, you just will. Even when quotes mysteriously appear on Page 40 with more frequent attribution, the reader will struggle a bit. Why this editorial decision? No idea.

More advisory: The reader also needs to know that he or she will face instances of crazy ecstatic long sentences, such as Casi’s nightmare — an anatomy/surgery/medschool/‌physics class, peering into the human brain. Here’s a mere snippet:

“…So while normally at this point we begin to suggest the toxic, break down the healthy, and foster disorder, here an entropic chaos is already spreading virtually unchecked seeking its own heat death and this despite the fact that our own procedures are completely adiabatic and therefore blameless So why tamper? To tamper would be to excuse in a sense Closing I’ve seen enough After all, there are rules We’re not savages.”

Forget the punctuation thing. I don’t care. This is it. Key word: entropic, entropy — a central theme of the novel.

Thomas Pynchon, long thought to have an almost proprietary literary handle on this slippery concept, entropy — that of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a running down of the universe, dissipation, heat loss, chaos, wrote that entropy can be thought of as “that human one-way time we’re all stuck with locally here, and which terminates, it is said, in death.” Thermodynamical gloom. And Casi, our quick-witted hero who is convinced by his fellow attorney, alter ego and maybe evil twin, Dane, to conceive and execute the perfect crime (think The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, swords, masks, a Melvillian, er, whale and a vast sum of dirty money) begins to dissipate, disappear. Not unlike Slothrop, Pynchon’s schlemiel hero of Gravity’s Rainbow.

During a climactic NYC power blackout in which all is dark and cold, Angus, Casi’s bizarrely erudite neighbor down the hall, ruminates about the end of the universe and a naked singularity:

“A point of infinite density. A point where concepts such as space and time have no meaning, where the laws of science break down and the future lacks even the slightest predictability … Now fortunately until now singularities have only existed in black holes, locations that by definition prevented them from having any effect on our world since remember that no information can escape a black hole.” “Until now?” “…our universe is collapsing into a singularity … what theorists call a naked singularity. One not cloaked by the shadow of a surrounding black hole. One apparent and visible with effects we’re all feeling.”

Casi dreams again and De La Pava slips into a Ginsbergian howling passage, entropically spiraling into the complex moiré of the book’s cover and final endpaper:

“When I looked up from the floor I found I could see Everything. I saw the fundamentals of the universe; quarks and neutrinos in visible ubiquity, jittering and bouncing, off each other and onto me. I saw Time itself, the fourth dimension, naked and enormous in its full horror, neither flowing nor frozen, and beside it the relativistic Elsewhere, lifeless and defunct. I saw Music, not the notes or the sounds but what it verily was. I saw incomplete but beautiful Math, its integers and the rules the obeyed and I understood it all.”

So maybe the Psalmist was right — things were pretty rotten on that long ago B.C. day and the 14th Psalm is a Biblical entropical nightmare. Just like this novel. On the other hand, maybe he and Casi were sometimes able to perceive beauty, seen and unseen, and somehow manage to be optimistic. In a pessimistic sort of way.

Barry Wightman, the fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal of the arts in Montpelier, Vt., has written a novel, “Pepperland,” a revolutionary, insanely great, technology rock ’n roll-love story that will get out there one of these days. He’s a contributing essayist to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and also leads a rather vintage rock ’n roll band.

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