sergio de la pava, “personae”

Sergio De La Pava
(Amante Press/Xlibris, 2011)

Certain things immediately remind the reader of Sergio De La Pava’s second published novel of his first book: again, it’s published by Xlibris; the covers are even more garish than A Naked Singularity; again, those covers are entirely devoid of blurbs. I don’t know that there’s necessarily any reason for those three things as there might have been with De La Pava’s first book, as that attracted much more attention and praise than one would expect from a self-published book. Now these details more clearly signify the author’s choice to stay outside the mainstream, a decision that seems entirely reasonable when the stream is as murky as it currently is. What De La Pava’s doing with Personae, however, is decidedly different from A Naked Singularity. Sticking to the externals, this is a notably smaller book: 216 pages, and flipping through one notices that the middle hundred are taken up by a play. De La Pava isn’t repeating himself here, for better or worse.

A Naked Singularity was the narrative of a heist grown gigantic, told in a single voice; while there are elements of the police procedural to this book, De La Pava’s up to something very different in Personae. The book is made up of ten chapters, told by a number of different voices in various registers. The frame story, such as it is, is told in the first, the seventh, and notes at the beginning of the third and ninth chapters. The majority of the book is made up of various sorts of documents found in or commenting on the frame story. It’s a considerably more skeletal arrangement than was the case with A Naked Singularity: the characters are harder to grasp, and the plot is more elliptical. The arrangement of the various pieces of the book is left to the reader.

There’s a lot going on in this book. We start, as noted, with the bare outlines of a detective story: a man is dead in a room; he is a very old man, 111, but Helen Tame, the sometime protagonist of this book and the narrator of the first chapter, thinks that he was murdered. Antonio Arce, as the old man turns out to be named, is also a writer: in his apartment is found a box containing a notebook, a short story written in the margins of TV Guide (“The Ocean”), a play (Personae), and what might be called a novella (Energeias: or Why Today the Sun May Not Rise in the East, Set in the West), which tells two stories in alternating sections of numbered paragraphs. These are included in the book, as are a pair of obituaries and three excerpts from an essay written by Helen Tame – who was, before she became a detective, a musician and a musicologist – on Bach, Glenn Gould, and “aconspiratorial silence.” Along the way there’s also a pretty good pastiche of David Markson’s aphoristic novels as well as a critique of the Rabassa translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there’s an enormous play in the middle that reminds me of what I remember of Sartre’s No Exit, which isn’t very much.

Personae isn’t the easiest book to read, simply because De La Pava isn’t trying to make an easy book. The reader, for example, is trusted to know the relevance of Aristotle’s energeia to the paired narratives that close the book. The elephant in the room is the play in the middle of the book, which shares its title with the book (“Writer displayed zero reticence about using others’ titles as will be apparent to the discerning reader upon further development”). It’s hard for me to know what to do with this. I feel certain that there were references in the play that passed me by while seeming to point at something (some of the names of the characters, for example, seem to refer to Virginia Woolf, Wittgenstein, and the house of Atreus). Five characters wandering the stage for one hundred pages argue philosophically before their violent deaths; but it’s hard to know what the reader is meant to take away from this, in no small part because it seems to have little play on the rest of the book. It’s possible there are connections; however, it’s also hard to be convinced that a third reading of the play would be worthwhile. The play’s importance to the novel might be guessed from the fact that an excerpt is used in the place of a blurb on the back cover; does it matter than the section of a speech excerpted on the back cover changes gender? It could be a simple typographic mistake, a “she” becoming a “he”; in the play, a he becomes a she, but this might simply be coincidence. But it’s hard to imagine that most readers of this book will dig deeply.

De La Pava has a gift for voice; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to carry over here. It’s frustrating that the play doesn’t work because much of the rest of Personae is entertaining, not least the game of playing spot-the-references. A Naked Singularity made me think of A Frolic of His Own, and there’s still the feeling of Gaddis here – Personae the play feels a bit like the insertion of Once at Antietam, Gaddis’s failed play, into Frolic, while the sections on Gould and Bach feel a bit like the tortured narrative of the life of Mozart that threads through a section of J R, a book also called to mind with a quick aside on player pianos. I also found myself thinking of Felipe Alfau’s Chromos, another story of elderly immigrants (from Spain, not Colombia) trying to make sense of New York by telling stories. And there’s not a little of David Foster Wallace in De La Pava’s voice; usually I count this against writers, but De La Pava seems to have some of the same mix of virtuosity and empathy that makes Wallace work.

Personae doesn’t really work, though it has some very nice pieces. It’s hard for me to disentangle the problems with this book from the problems with publishing; and that’s because the book is in large part about the problem of authorship and the place of the writer in the world. A passage from chapter 3, a short story called “The Ocean” (written by the dead Antonio Arce in the margins of a TV Guide with Dynasty on the cover) might serve as an example:

Sand, he knows, is essentially finely-degraded rock. Degraded by Life plus Time and if that formula can work this on that imagine it on the less sturdy. To build on sand is to deny all that in a deluded way. To build properly and for posterity use concrete. Concrete as in The Pantheon with its eighteen hundred years and counting. No less a personage than Brunelleschi saw that and largely followed suit to create art like Il Duomo that centuries later allows people like our professor to center their lives not on emulating him but on discussing exegetically what he produced. (p. 33)

The narration starts from the perspective of a professor floating in the ocean, though the “our” suggests that we’re moving outside of Professor Tenrod. What’s interesting here is how clearly the text is written from the perspective of a writer: it’s better to follow the example of Brunelleschi did than to talk about what he did, and the professor is found lacking. It could be a stretch, but this comes across as a credo for the book, or the reader’s imagined figure of De La Pava, in something of the spirit of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” This seems to be what De La Pava’s doing: in Chapter III, for example, he recapitulates Markson’s style; and a page after the quoted passage, there will be unreadable messages written on a beach (Wittgenstein’s Mistress); there’s also mention made of a “Writer” throughout.

After the play, Helen Tame explains that the dead Antonio Arce, subject of their case, can only be understood when he is treated as a writer:

A writer is someone who writes, Tame had patiently explained to Furillo when he objected that no agent, no prizes, no editor, no book deal meant to writer. Similarly, see if you can follow, an artist creates art. (p. 148)

It’s hard not to see the author himself in this definition. Arce’s writing is found in a cakebox; unpublished during his life, it has a transformative value to Helen Tame, the other protagonist of the book. Later in the same chapter, sitting in his apartment she considers his work:

Is the artist cursed, blessed, blessed to be cursed, or cursed to be blessed? Just plain cursed Antonio came to believe. How else to characterize an activity that in no apparent way benefited its creator but rather functioned more like a just-shy-of-mortal injury every time it was engaged in? There was simply no way to tell, and yes that included speaking to the actual writer, whether Energeias was unfinished or not and it was that uncertainty that had confounded Helen and initially tainted the rest of her enquiry. (pp. 153–5)

De La Pava’s wrestling with big concerns here, concerns that play out in the final section of the book, Energeias, which tells two parallel stories that seem to be retellings of different portions of the earlier life of Antonio Arce. Writing kills writers in this book; but it is necessary for its own sake.

This is maybe my problem with this book as a reader: De La Pava is writing for his own sake, outside of any system of publishing, and certainly he has no requirement to please me. But I wonder if an editor might be useful: not only to sprinkle the book with commas, but to argue with the writer for the sake of the reader. An editor as smart as De La Pava could make an excellent book from this one. But while writers will happily exists free of the world of publishing, I don’t know that editors will. De La Pava’s a very good writer, and one more people should be reading; but the total faith in the power of the author than self-publishing allows might be working to his detriment.

sergio de la pava, “a naked singularity”

Sergio De La Pava
A Naked Singularity
(Amante Press/Xlibris, 2008)

Scott Bryan Wilson told me that I should pick this book up (he’s reviewed the book here), so I did, though it did sit on the shelf for a while. That it’s published by Xlibris rings warning bells, of course, especially a large (almost 700 pages) book, which makes one wonder about the editing without opening it. But one can’t in good conscience accuse the big houses of over-editing these days. And one has to like a book which has a promotional website with an “about the author” section that simply says “Sergio De La Pava is the author of A Naked Singularity.”

The book is narrated by one Casi (Spanish: “almost”; Italian: “cases,” not in the legal sense, but both are applicable here), last name left blank, a 24-year-old public defender in New York. Casi is something of a wunderkind, having maintained a perfect record; over the course of the book, he loses his first case and is brought low by the injustice of the world. The year is 2002; he lives in Brooklyn Heights with a set of college students who seem like they might be a television-mad version of the brothers Karamazov. His family is Colombian; a cousin has been put away for selling hot dogs without a license. The city is obsessed with a pair of seven-year-olds who have murdered an infant; there’s a blackout. A mentally impaired prisoner, failed by the legal system in every possible way, is on death row in Alabama. And there’s a heist, which doesn’t go according to plan: crime is imperfect. Through it all is interpolated a recent history of boxing, having as its center the career of Wilfred Benitez.

The work is meant to speak for itself; there’s something comforting about being back in this space, though the era of the anonymous author has all but vanished. A Naked Singularity, however, loses no time in making clear its antecedents. The book this most resembles is William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, similarly entangled in the legal system; that book’s celebrated first line (“Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law”) might serve as a theme for this one. De La Pava also shares Gaddis’s knack for unattributed dialogue. There’s an early invocation of the Pynchon of Mason & Dixon: “Now several acorns had successfully flown their sorties, cutting through the frigid air to form interrupted parabolas, when I began to conceive the inconceivable.” (p. 56) Like Gaddis’s and Pynchon’s books, this one is bursting at the seams: court transcripts, letters, and all manner of legal documents find there way in. There are cartoonish names, like in Pynchon, but the clownishness never fully escapes. The language is hyperactive and breathless and might bear the stamp of David Foster Wallace: the word “television,” for example, is always capitalized. But Wallace’s imprint might be found less in the language and more in the book’s deep sense of morality: De La Pava shares Wallace’s concern with how difficult it is to live in a flawed world. Bartleby is invoked, not surprisingly; Dostoevsky is never quite mentioned, though his presence floats through the book (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, as well as the aforementioned Brothers Karamazov).

It becomes clear to the reader that this isn’t an ordinary work on page 14, when Casi goes off on a two-page digression about the history of Miranda rights, culminating thusly:

The ACLU grabbed the case and 976 days later they were in front of the court that never gets overruled with John Flynn saying, and this is a direct quote (no it isn’t): “look dudes, and I refer to you thusly because this is way pre-O’Connor/Ginsberg, your Fifth Amendment deal is only protecting the rich and powerful: those who are brainy enough to know what their rights are or who have the dough to rent a lawyer.” The Warren Supremes actually agreed and, in the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy, held that before future police could torment some illiterate sap who nobody cares about into confessing his sins, real or imagined, they would have to inform him of certain rights not covered in your average eighth-grade Social Studies class. (p. 15)

The voice here is what’s astonishing: informed but colloquial, flippant but engaged (there’s a tenderness in “some illiterate sap who nobody cares about”). We can tell exactly what the speaker thinks about the justice of the law (“sins, real or imagined”); but his approach is also pragmatic: this is the America that he has to live in. The breathlessness drives the reader on: while the book is long, it’s never imposing. But most important is the quality of empathy: Casi cares about the illiterate saps in a believable way. This is a book deeply concerned with the preterite: those who don’t have the resources to get themselves represented by others. It’s refreshing to find a recent New York novel that doesn’t bother to mention Williamsburg or Park Slope; the Upper East Side or Upper West Side might be mentioned in passing, but the Village, the East Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, the neighborhoods of New York that are seen in movies and literary fiction are absent from this book. There’s plenty left over; but we don’t usually read this.

And this also stands out in that it’s a novel of work: Casi is a public defender, and spends most of his time at his job. The job isn’t lionized here: the protagonist is actively trying to be a good man, but he is decidedly not a hero by virtue of his work alone: the other occupants of his office are noticeably flawed, as he is. The criminal justice system is deeply flawed, as are the people that Casi is given to defend; but it is what there is, and Casi does the best that he can with them. But the job has an inexorable impact on him. This knowledge of one’s own imperfection in the face of the world expands to take over the book: Casi might be any bright young person coming to grips with the world: the heartbreaking career of Wilfred Benitez is made to serve as a sort of parable for the dissolution of dreams.

I’m also struck by how the book, comical as it often is, never has recourse to anything resembling magical realism, for my money one of Pynchon’s primary flaws. The world is often exaggerated in this book – as it well might be when described through a first-person narration – but the world described is always recognizably our own, with all of its horrific flaws. There’s a seriousness underlying this book’s comedy: the book draws its power from the outside world. The joking about the media circus around dead baby Tula that spans the book is funny because we know how sadly real this sort of thing could be.

One can’t help wondering about the author: has he actually worked as a public defender as the abundant legal detail – to say nothing of the clear feeling for the job that comes through – suggests? The effusive acknowledgments page thanks the NYCDS; and a cursory search of Google suggests that someone of the same name was working in legal aid in New York around the time the book is set. A more important question, though: how did the publishing industry fail this book? Someone should be paying Sergio De La Pava for the right to publish him; that work of this caliber is being published by a vanity press is depressing. The publishing industry prides itself on being a filter saving us from the mounds of garbage that are annually written; but honestly, this book could advantageously be pitted against almost any novel published in the past ten years by the big houses – especially the endless raft of New York novels. This is a book that deserves to be read more widely; in a better world, people would be reading this rather than Freedom.