An Interview with Sergio De La Pava

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

At nearly 700 pages, A Naked Singularity is a big book, but the physical mass and heft pale in comparison to the enormity of its story and the impact it will have on readers and the literary establishment. Much like an image of a face that some passing scoundrel has augmented with a mustache, the foundation of the novel veraciously depicts the struggles of an individual against the machinations of an unjust system, then on top of this central theme are doodled philosophical musings, a gripping heist, the pleasures and challenges of family, a boxing history lesson and some amazing flourishes of surreal genius. This novel will elicit much literary comparison from reviewers, but stylistically De La Pava is incomparable. It makes much more sense to compare relative groupings in the modern literary canon. In such consideration De La Pava certainly deserves to be dwelling alongside other inimitable novelists like Lethem, Wallace, Murakami, Delillo, Gaddis and Pynchon. If you want to be ahead of the curve in discussions of brilliant voices in modern literature, pick up this book and experience something remarkable.

Upon finishing the novel I was incredibly curious about the mind that shaped this amazing story, and was delighted to have the opportunity to pose some questions to Mr. De La Pava. What follows is a peek into the mind of an exceptionally gifted writer.

The author bio on A Naked Singularity reads simply: “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn”. How can that be? Isn’t that an oxymoron?  What other “fundamental” elements of writing do you reject?

What else do I reject?  What do you got?  I hope I reject anything that’s more about inflating some nonsensical writerly persona than, you know, writing urgently.  Although it may already be too late because I sometimes think that if I’d had the proper integrity, I would’ve stuck the damn thing in a nondescript box and slid it under my bed.  After all, what distinguishes, really, the publication of a novel from a child pleading look at me?  Because the binding of a book always feels like an intolerable invasion of my privacy yet here I sit.  Also, I wasn’t taking a shot at my beloved County of Kings.  If I’m going to down a piece of geography I’ll pick one with no redeeming value, like Boston.

This novel has enjoyed something of a hushed literary cult status since you self-published it four years ago. Although being published by University of Chicago Press surely does nothing but add to your literary street cred, there is likely to be wailing and gnashing of teeth from some in the lit-hip set that a diamond in the rough has been cut, polished and offered to the masses. They will see it as a blemish on something pure and organic. How would you respond to that sentiment?

Last thing ANS can be accused of is being overly polished although, I assure you, that was intentional.  Still, I understand the sentiment and maybe even share it because, damn, there was a palpable purity to the whole thing; scribbling away in a darkened room for the forty or so people who would ever read it, I miss that.  Also there’s my principal defense to any sellout accusation: the words are the same, and they’re even arranged in the same order.  

In an interview with 21C Magazine you mention that the initial plan for the book was to achieve “lucrative and global domination”. It has now been a few years, have those initial desires changed at all or are you currently rubbing your hands together and chortling with maniacal glee?

I favor stroking an all-white cat on my lap over what you describe.  But, yeah, that plan was flawed and empty, relying so heavily as it did on fickle others and innumerable other variables I couldn’t control. Think of what being reduced to self-publishing means.  One of the things it means is years of experts telling you your novel doesn’t crack the top 40,000 or so that year.  That seemed inaccurate to me, so after a while I developed a pronounced apathetic indifference to the whole thing, including to allegedly aesthetic reactions to the work.  Well, the setting changes but a lot of my apathy remains.  So whereas before I longed to dominate, I now mostly long for just good days at the keyboard.

In the same interview you describe the “nonhuman precepts” of the law as being “often strikingly beautiful and represent some of mankind’s greatest achievements”. Before reading A Naked Singularity I would have been somewhat incredulous at this declaration, but having read the story I certainly agree with you. Was this a sentiment that you were deliberately trying to illustrate or did you just paint the picture faithfully and let the natural beauty of the system shine through?

There’s a lot more nuance to the thing than a simplistic statement like the system is corrupt man would seem to allow, so if that came through in this excessively faithful picture, that’s good.  Because I doubt the person saying the above functions in an arena with animating concepts that rival the presumption of innocence or the burden of proof or the many others I could point to, brilliant almost counterintuitive entities remarkable in their respect for human dignity.  Now despite that, it’s also indisputable that this country’s rate of incarceration, particularly of its most vulnerable communities, is an obscenity that cries out for immediate remedy. So somewhere, somehow, a malfunction is occurring.  I guess I just long for a radical overhaul in how society views the ends of that system, one that would more accurately promote the underlying spirit of its rules.

There is a very moving exploration of a golden era in boxing history that runs through the narrative. What do you think we can gain from knowing the sport and the stories of its combatants? Who would win Mayweather or Pacquiao?

Boxing, when functioning properly, is the best vehicle I know of for the mass representation of a particular human’s naked will; what we gain from that is the result of extrapolation, because we need previews of what happens when your flimsy trappings melt away and it’s just you against unfeeling constants.  And that’s a toss-up fight but I favor Pacquiao slightly because he’s such a difficult guy to prepare for and a huge part of Mayweather’s genius is impeccable preparation.

Where did the empanadas recipe come from? It seems as though it came from a grandma’s kitchen. Do you do much cooking? Where can one buy the little yellow Colombian potatoes?

I do minimal cooking and pair it with maximal eating.  Best empanadas I know of come from the kitchen of an eighteen-time great grandmother named Margarita Restrepo-Lopez.  To get those yellow potatoes you need a significant Colombian population, try Jackson Heights, NY or Hackensack, NJ.

There is a somewhat hallucinatory scene in the story that features the menacing duo of Uncle Sam and a chimp. Is there a specific reason you chose these two figures or was it just a vaguely unsettling pairing born of pure randomness?

Am I the only one who finds U.S. just a hair short of terrifying?  I don’t think he wants me at all, at best he’s being polite, more likely he’s being ironic and taking a dig.  The chimp?  I once read some blowhard declare that you should never include a chimp in fiction and it made such unassailable sense that my only possible response was obvious.

The apartment of Casi’s neighbors provides an excellent salon of sorts for discourse on various social and philosophical notions. Some of the most outrageous, yet brilliantly spot-on, are the discussions of television. Despite the satirical implications, these discussions illustrate a sound knowledge of TV culture on your part, and the same is expected of the reader in order to get the full effect. This sort of literary allusion to popular culture has become increasingly prevalent. What do you think about that trend and what do you think it portends for the future of literature?

Is it a trend?  You’d know far better than me.  I think there’s a sweet spot to that sort of thing; too much and you risk making the whole thing feel frivolous.  And I’m biased but I think Literature can well afford to ignore not only pop culture but also its own future.  As you intuit, I’ve sampled that culture extensively; King Lear has nothing to worry about.

Ralph Kramden plays a role in the story. Was he always in there? Did any other fictional characters vie for that role?

It was always Ralphie boy, he’s so great I suspect the whole novel was just an excuse to work with him.  There are many striking elements to that show.  For example, there’s a genuine intelligence in the air, not just in the performers and writers but also in what’s expected of the audience (a random sampling has Norton citing Charles Dickens and Ralph correcting Norton’s knowledge of the constitutional amendments, yes).  Also there’s a perfect recipe of pathos mixed with the grandeur of the struggle that I’m not sure any show has matched since, maybe Taxi.  Don’t get me started on sitcoms man, we don’t have the space.

Have you ever actually seen a naked singularity? Did it shriek and cover itself modestly? Seriously, though, in the minds of a lot readers the term singularity has almost come to be synonymous with technological singularity as opposed to the principle of astrophysics. How should prospective readers construe the singularity in your title?

One possibility is that readers will collaborate with the text and construe that particular aspect in a way that creates meaning for them.  Anything I say here may interfere with that yummy process, the yumminess of said process being precisely the kind of lure that drew me to this painful and wholly unremunerative activity in the first place.

Although the book was written years ago and the story takes place even earlier, many of the themes certainly dovetail with the current 99% zeitgeist. Many readers will likely identify with Casi’s travails and see this novel as something of an apotheosis of the struggle for some sort of fairness and morality in our times. How do you feel about that?

Let’s see, a mass nonviolent protest against the systemic facilitation of irresponsible money-grubbing by people gifted with every conceivable advantage who then choose to devote all their energy to making the numbers on their screen swell even more rather than meaningfully contributing to the society that enabled them to lead such privileged nonexistences in the first place, what took so long?  At any rate, any sign of a possible fissure in the mass hypnosis that allows people to ignore the unjust plight of large segments of the population is always welcome.

I need a book recommendation. I really loved A Naked Singularity, what else would you suggest that I read?

I’m afraid my recs will seem hopelessly conventional to you and your readers but, restricting myself to English-language novels and current obsessions, I’ll say: The Confidence Man; To the Lighthouse; Invisible Man; Pride and Prejudice; As I Lay Dying and, if your tastes inexplicably tend towards the living, Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin, where, if the execution isn’t at that level, the intent is certainly A-plus.

Jamil

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