Sergio de la Pava (A Naked Singularity)

The response to Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity included numerous references to the book as "postmodern," "innovative," or "absurdist," terms that by now are mostly used to indicate that the work at hand is not a conventional work of realism. Often postmodernist and realist seem to be the only two categories available in which to put new works of fiction--the former to designate anything that runs counter to the broadest currents of mainstream "literary fiction," the latter to identify the fundamental aesthetic orientation of mainstream fiction. A Naked Singularity is clearly enough not mainstream, from its length (de la Pava seems more interested in putting everything in than in exercising editorial restraint) to its long stretches of dialogue without expository supplement, its gradual shift from a kind of expose of the American judicial system to a crime novel complete with "caper," all enveloped in a quasi-science fiction atmosphere that may just be the eerie reflection of the protagonist's psychological breakdown. But do these qualities alone warrant calling the novel "postmodern"? Moreover, does calling it postmodern further make it "innovative"?

There's no doubt that A Naked Singularity takes real risks if its intended audience is indeed typical readers of literary fiction. That de la Pava chose to self-publish his novel after it was rejected by every agent to whom he sent it suggests, of course, he does not consider this to be his likely audience. The reader of A Naked Singularity needs to be willing to become immediately immersed in the daily business of a big-city American court at its most random and chaotic, in the company of the novel's protagonist, Casi, a public defender attempting to negotiate his own way through an environment that ultimately we understand has taken its toll on him, despite the fact that he has apparently been successful enough at his job he has yet to lose a case that has gone to trial. (He spends most of his time attempting to prevent his clients from going to trial in the first place through plea bargaining.) There is little indication in the novel's first 100 pages that anything like a conventional plot of the kind we might expect from a novel with a legal setting is going to develop, although Casi's account of the courtroom scenes and his interaction with his clients is quite compelling on its own.

This early part of the novel doesn't avoid realism but, if anything, could be described as hyperrealism. The depiction of the hellish atmosphere and moral degradation of the New York lower courts is uncompromising and unrelenting as we follow Casi through his daily activities. If the ultimate goal of realism is to represent life as lived as faithfully as possible, A Naked Singularity surely accomplishes the task, giving Casi's encounters with his colleagues and his clients its scrupulous attention. Such an approach can seem postmodern only when "realism" is reduced to conventional storytelling: "plot," after all, is an artificial imposition on the artistic treatment of reality in fiction, since rarely do we experience our lives as "story," complete with its exposition, rising action, and narrative climax. Historically, realism has been a mode most supportive of character and setting, and certainly A Naked Singularity provides plenty of both.

Eventually it provides plenty of plot as well, but by the time we get to the heist, meticulously planned by Casi and a colleague, and its ultimately violent outcome, we have also been introduced to several other narrative strands, including Casi's interactions with his family and his volunteer work on a death penalty case from Texas, as well as the interpolated stories Casi tells about various boxers of the 1980s, especially Wilfrid Benitez, with whom Casi seems to have a strong connection. This digressiveness would appear to be another feature of the novel that might lead readers and reviewers to call it postmodern, but finally all of these strands work together to provide a coherent character portrait of the protagonist. Because the novel is further unified by Casi's first-person narration, the digressions are less a symptom of postmodern fragmentation than an alternative method of characterization that arguably renders his increasingly erratic behavior and deteriorating state of mind with more fidelity than a more linear, conventional form of "psychological realism" would.

The postmodern writers with whom de la Pava has been most frequently compared are Wallace, Pynchon, and Gaddis, and of the three it seems to me that A Naked Singularity has most in common with the latter, particularly A Frolic of His Own with its similar legal setting, but the reliance on dialogue in Gaddis's fiction provides the closest parallel to de la Pava's approach in his novel, although he does not pursue the strategy as radically as Gaddis does. Moreover, although Gaddis is frequently classified as a postmodernist, his work is much less explicitly metafictional or absurdist, much less an attempt to create a distorted or artificial world separate from reality than to be truer to reality by getting it all in, the sheer babble and noise of American culture as reflected by the perpetual talk of his characters. A Naked Singularity certainly could be identified as a novel of "excess" (a designation coined by Tom Le Clair), and it shares with Gaddis as well as Pynchon and Wallace a willingness to violate the boundaries of what would ordinarily be considered "well-made fiction," creating in the process an impression of excess that is actually very carefully calibrated in its effects. The work of all of these writers puts the reader in the same position as the characters in their novels, who often find themselves in the middle of a seemingly overwhelming "system" they are attempting to comprehend.

If A Naked Singularity bears comparison to the meganovels of Pynchon, Gaddis, and Wallace, it is hard to say that it advances beyond the achievements of these earlier works, either formally or thematically. To suggest that this novel probably should not be considered innovative is not to undervalue its own achievement. At a time when ambition in American fiction is most often expressed in the "social novel," in hybrid genre forms such as the post-apocalyptic narrative and tepid forms of magical realism, or simply in securing a contract with a mainstream publisher, it is refreshing that a writer is willing to be more formally adventurous, in a mode less assimilable to prevailing expectations of "literary fiction"—so much so that no agent or publisher was willing to take a chance on this book. The most foolish miscalculation on the part of those who concluded this novel was not worth publication is in the assumption that readers would not find it engaging because of its unorthodox structure, but in fact once we have oriented ourselves to its method, the novel is quite entertaining (if at times disturbing in its portrayal of the dysfunction of out "system of justice"). In the novel's expository passages, Casi's voice attracts our interest, and de la Pava's control of language in general should be apparent to any serious reader.

Ultimately there can be no fixed category of "innovative" fiction. Sergio de la Pava is admirably following up on the innovations of Gaddis and Pynchon, exploring possibilities suggested by their example, but the invocation of a term like "postmodern" as a convenient way to identify a book like A Naked Singularity works more to obscure our perception of what's truly innovative in new works of fiction than to assist it. No familiar terms will seem adequate to describe the introduction of the really new.


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