Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Naked Singularity: When Logic Fails, Readers Win

"Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities." That quote (from some old English guy you've never heard of) is a near-perfect description of the ostensible point Sergio De La Pava's massive, ambitious, by-turns-fun-and-infuriating novel A Naked Singularity.

Through nearly 700 pages, we follow an uber-logical 24-year-old Manhattan public defender named Casi. When Casi seemingly goes to the well of logic one too many times, and logic stops working, the rest of his world comes crashing down, as well. He starts to wonder, Descartes-style, who he really is.

If that sounds a little heady, it should. And that's not all: This is a novel that's short on plot and long on digressions, including on philosophy, legal intricacies, the human genome, little-know 1980s champion boxer Wilfred Benitez, advertising, The Honeymooners, and the moral decay of America. It cuts quite a swath, to say the least! But if you can abide the digressions, De La Pava is a witty and funny enough writer to keep you turning the pages, even if he pisses you off from time to time.

We first meet Casi arguing three cases in a night court session — and losing them all in spectacular fashion, a foreshadowing of what's to come in terms of the breakdown of Casi's logic vs. the world. One of the clients — an old Chinese man who'd been arrested for selling batteries without a license — despite all possible logic to the contrary, is made to stay in jail and is later beaten to within an inch of his life for no particular reason. This episode, and one that follows: Casi actually loses his first trial, begin to crack Casi's sense of the logical world.

And so, enter fellow public defender named Dane (an Ayn Rand-ian jerk, if there ever was one). Dane, who at one point spends a dozen pages describing his attempt at a "perfect" defense, tries to talk Casi into a caper to steal $20 million in drug money from an associate of one of their clients. With meticulous, logical planning, they believe they're assured of success. It'll be the "perfect crime." But will they pull it off?

De La Pava, mostly for marketing, has been compared to David Foster Wallace — and there are certainly a few similarities, in terms of the digressions, the difficulty, and of the playful, funny pop-culture-infused writing. Also, De La Pava is very interested in the exactitude/precision of language, and often has his characters purposefully misunderstanding each other for comic effect.

But here's another cool thing about A Naked Singularity: De La Pava self-published the book in 2008 (which is why you've probably never heard of it), but it gained enough of a readership that the University of Chicago press picked it up and published it "for real" earlier this year. So it sort of stands as a self-publishing success story to be encourage by (as opposed to say a supposedly sexy, but actually terrible, book with about different swatches of a white-black color).

For the most part, I loved this book — when I wasn't mad at it. There were times I had to force myself to pick it up again, but when I did, I'd look up to find I'd read 40 or 70 or even 100 pages in single sittings. It really can be that engrossing. So if this your thing — say, if you liked Infinite Jest or Adam Levin's The Instructions — I'd highly recommend this.


  1. Thanks for this! I'm always in search of the next brain-drainingly difficult book to read. This might fit the bill... and get me out of the comic book fueled ADD-style reading I've been doing lately...

    1. I love "brain-drainingly difficult" - well said, sir! Hope you enjoy it!