December 8, 2009

Book review: "A Naked Singularity," by Sergio De La Pava

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A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava

A Naked Singularity
By Sergio De La Pava
Xlibris / ISBN: 978-1-43634-198-1

Uh-oh, I thought when first receiving the 700-page, print-on-demand A Naked Singularity from Sergio De La Pava -- another self-published stream-of-consciousness epic for me to slog my way through. And the reason I had that reaction of course was because of a growing realization I've been making since opening CCLaP two and a half years ago, a surprising realization given how much of a self-publishing advocate I've been over the decades -- that for the most part, the publishing industry is pretty much a self-regulating system, and that the vast majority of self-published epics out there exist in that form because they sincerely aren't good enough to warrant a publishing contract from an outside organization. I mean, obviously there are many exceptions to this rule; but after now reviewing hundreds of self-published titles for this site, I've been surprised by how rarely it's the oft-argued case that they are unknown little sleeper hits that have simply slipped most people's attention, that in fact eight times out of ten it seems that either word-of-mouth or a grassroots fan base or a forward-thinking industry executive will get a legitimately deserving book the kind of attention it warrants, at least to the extent of convincing a stranger to spend their own time and money publishing it.

So it's always such a welcome surprise, then, to come across an example of that other 20 percent, the one out of five self-published novels that really does deserve more attention; because A Naked Singularity is indeed one of them, a book that for sure has its problems but that really is going to be intensely loved by a certain crowd out there. And that's because De La Pava is a writer's writer, a lover of big words and complex phrases put together in clever ways; and so like fellow complex writer's writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Denis Johnson, there is a limited audience only for De La Pava's work but an extra passionate one, the kind of author destined to always linger at the bottom of the bestseller lists even while racking up major awards year after year. And in fact, just like so much of Johnson's work as well, A Naked Singularity is at its heart a simple crime noir, the kind of intelligent caper story that simply breeds such basic narrative needs as conflict and drama, in order to make it an intriguing tale to begin with.

It's essentially the story of a young Latino public defender in New York who we only know as Casi, an idealistic workaholic who lives in a trendy section of Brooklyn, and who always seems to surround himself with fascinating characters who all tell great, convoluted stories, from the grumpy older attorneys in his office to the pop-culture-obsessed slackers squatting in the apartment next to his, to his "Ugly Betty" style cutesy-eccentric extended family. As we watch Casi go through the motions of a typical work week, then (including a look at a dozen lowlifes he's randomly assigned to in open court, a pro-bono anti-death-penalty case in Alabama he's taken on, a snippy judge who he gets into an ongoing fight with, his neighbor's attempt to psychically raise a corporeal form of The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden through repeated drug-addled TV watchings of the show, and a lot more), Casi starts slowly learning from a co-worker the details of a plum situation that has randomly landed in their lap, info from a loose-lipped client on a major drug buy at a secret and hence unsecured location, in which nearly $20 million in cash will be on hand with barely any security. As Casi and his cooly sociopathic co-worker have more and more stoner-like hypothetical conversations concerning how exactly one would go about successfully ripping off said twenty million, the plan starts becoming more and more real in their heads; and about two-thirds of the way through they decide to actually try to pull it off, which in typical noir style goes disastrously wrong, the repercussions of which make up the surprise-filled last third of the manuscript.

But it's a mistake to judge A Naked Singularity only in terms of its noirish plot, no matter how inventive it sometimes is; because like so many other writers of this type, De La Pava uses this familiar framework as a way to hold together dozens of lengthy dialogues and digressions found throughout, to really explore both language and the pacing of speech in a way that will be much appreciated by his fellow fans of patient, well-crafted literature. And in this you can compare De La Pava not only to Pynchon and Johnson but to such other polarizing figures as David Mamet and Richard Price, in that all these authors tend to treasure and even fetishize the patterns and rhythms of the underclass, the accidental poetry that inherently comes with the slang-filled street talk of barely literate criminals and immigrant families. And much like Price, De La Pava gets away with this precisely by basing the plot itself on the exciting conventions of a crime noir, letting the story zip along on its own so that he can deliberately take long pauses within, in order to explore these dense and well-turned digressions that occur between the action-based set pieces.

Now, like I said, there are definitely problems with A Naked Singularity as well, starting with what you'd expect to be the biggest problem of a self-published stream-of-consciousness epic -- that it's in desperate need of an outside editor, someone who can go in and judiciously hack away at the sometimes novella-length side stories and get to a nice tight 400 pages by the end, basically the one thing right now stopping this book from having a chance of being a Price-style mainstream breakthrough hit of its own. But like I said, mostly I was surprisingly pleased by what I found here, given that overwritten self-published stream-of-consciousness epics more often than not make me want to claw out my own freaking eyes; and unlike 95 percent of basement-press books I review here, A Naked Singularity actually gets better and better as it continues, instead of starting strong and tapering off like so many others. It's not for everyone, but will definitely be a pleasing read for anyone into well-done crime projects, as well as those who like it when genre conceits are used to display an academic kind of superior writing style. The very definition of a hidden gem, it is just the thing for those who enjoy taking chances in the arts every so often.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about A Naked Singularity: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:52 PM, December 8, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |