First, a favor: Can you please abandon your perusal of this page for just a second or so?
In that interval, we would appreciate it if you could glance at your hand. Right or left. Doesn't matter.
Just a glance. We'll wait.
Thanks. You saw, we assume, all the usual things: Fingers. Nails. Wrists. Little, that is, to distinguish it from anybody else's hand. And yet it is, of course, unique. In small but essential particulars, it has never existed before in the history of the world and, once you have shuffled off this mortal coil, will never exist again.
Your hand may look like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill hand, but it is not. It is an astonishing anomaly. A stunning one-off.
And so it is with "A Naked Singularity."
It looks like a regular novel — albeit a long one — but it is not. Part of the reason for its distinctiveness is that author Sergio De La Pava is a recklessly inventive storyteller of uncommon vigor and originality. And another part is that "A Naked Singularity" arrives with an exotic, unlikely history attached to it, like a wet leaf stuck to the bottom of your shoe after an especially cleansing spring rain.
In other words, it's got a killer backstory.
A backstory that starts in Brooklyn but that makes a crucial, unlikely detour through Chicago, where "A Naked Singularity" recently was published — marking the first time in its distinguished history that the University of Chicago Press has brought out a book that was initially self-published.
But how did this big, rambling wodge of words, a novel that dozens of commercial publishers rejected without a backward glance, a book that wiggles with digressions and lurches with side trips and repeatedly begs the reader's indulgence with the wide-eyed earnestness of an overgrown Oliver Twist requesting an additional dollop of porridge, come to be championed by a venerable, dignified scholarly publisher like the U. of C. Press?
First, a definition: Just what is a naked singularity?
According to Scientific American, it is "a stellar collapse scenario in which an event horizon does not in fact form, so that the singularity remains exposed to our view." Writer Pankaj S. Joshi goes on to explain in his 2009 article that, when a star dies, it begins to buckle under its own weight, crushed by gravity. The result is a black hole. In the center of the black hole is a singularity. A singularity is a prison from which nothing ever escapes, guarded as it is by a thug-like entity called an event horizon. Word to the wise: Don't go messing with an event horizon.
However — and all progress in science, literary theory and intellectual history in general depends upon the other side of a "however" — some physicists speculate that with the suicides of certain stars, the thugs take a coffee break. Without an event horizon standing guard, things do escape. We can see what's going on in the core. What we would see is a naked singularity, and that, Joshi adds, "might offer a laboratory to explore the fabric of space time on its finest scales."
Which is why De La Pava's title makes perversely perfect sense.
"A Naked Singularity" is not about physics. It's about the American criminal justice system in a large and chaotic city, a place slowly crushed by hopelessness in the same way that an ancient star is gradually crushed by gravity. "The police," advises Casi, the book's very appealing narrator, "were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make an arrest, rather than police had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was the wrongdoing."
The novel is a densely packed and offhandedly poetic 678 pages. It offers along the way the story of Casi's days and nights as a public defender in Brooklyn and his encounters with frazzled colleagues, hapless felons, annoying blackouts (the overloaded-electrical-grid kind, not the event-horizon kind) and crummy apartments, in which long, tangled, amusingly overwrought philosophical conversations are forever breaking out.
"A Naked Singularity" is about a city that teeters on the edge of total collapse and complete disaster, but that has the capacity to right itself (whew!) at the last possible second. Moreover, De La Pava has spiced up his tale with frequent and very funny references to pop culture ("Taxi," "The Honeymooners," "Three's Company," "Star Trek") and also with playful references to the likes of Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The novel is a cross between "Moby-Dick" and "Police Academy." Between Descartes and Disneyland. Between Henry James and Henry Winkler.
Which perhaps may give you a bit of a clue as to why the novel was not instantly snapped up by publishers, forcing De La Pava to publish it himself in 2008 and then to sit back and wait for the world to discover it.
The world was too preoccupied to notice, but a small portion thereof — represented by Scott Bryan Wilson, Levi Stahl and Maggie Hivnor— was more alert.
Which, in the long run, may have been even better.
First, a clarification: Who are Wilson, Stahl and Hivnor?
Wilson is a New York-based literary critic. Stahl is a publicity director at the U. of C. Press. And Hivnor is editor of the press.
De La Pava's wife, Susanna, also a public defender, decided to act as her husband's literary agent after 88 other agents took one look at the book's unpromising heft and unconventional structure and said, "Thanks, but no thanks." She had read an essay by Wilson about his love for long, complicated books and, playing a hunch, sent "A Naked Singularity" his way.
"It's not like I'm approached about reading 700-page self-published novels every day, so I was intrigued," Wilson recalled. "As soon as I read the first page it was obvious that this wasn't your standard self-published dreck. De La Pava clearly had an ear, and the oddball cadences and meandering descriptions and allusions and weird digressions ... were not something I would expect from a vanity press book.
"One of the problems with self-published books," Wilson continued, "is that the great majority of them are boring, unreadable trash by people who not only aren't writers, they aren't even readers — the type of people who put 'Published Author' bumper stickers on their cars and who don't buy two books a year but expect everyone else to buy theirs.
"But 'A Naked Singularity' was obviously the work of a serious, committed writer and reader who had a vision and no intention of sabotaging his work by trying to make it appeal to what he imagined editors, publishers or readers might want."
In late 2010, still reeling from his encounter with the novel, Wilson got in touch with his friend and fellow literary adventurer Stahl, and gave the latter his best hair-on-fire, lapel-grabbing, you-gotta-read-this speech about De La Pava's book.
"He was raving about it," recalled Stahl, who has worked at the U. of C. Press for 13 years after a career as a bookseller in Evanston. "I read it over Christmas 2010." He found himself enchanted by the "big brick of a book," which he summarized as "funny, with a big heart to it." Protagonist Casi "is a guy who cares about his job. And his job is getting justice for people."
And the novel's enormous size? "Reading it can feel like getting cornered at a party — but in a good way," Stahl said. "You get this buzz from hearing the person talk. You're in the grip of someone who loves words."
But loving a book is one thing; persuading an employer to risk money, time and institutional prestige on a mammoth work by an unknown public defender is quite another. The U. of C. Press publishes about 250 books annually, Stahl noted. Only one or two of those are reprints of books previously published — and until "A Naked Singularity" came along, none had been self-published. Many years, fiction isn't on the list at all.
"You could imagine a lot of scenarios where we fall on our face," Stahl said of the quest to stamp "Naked Singularity" with the exalted imprimatur of the largest scholarly publisher in North America. "We have bills to pay, like everybody. And we don't publish trash."
But Stahl had a feeling. And so his next stop was at the desk of Hivnor.
"I really like this guy," was Hivnor's version of events.
She was talking not about Stahl — whom presumably she likes as well — but about Casi in "A Naked Singularity."
As she read, "I wanted to hear more about what he thought about things and what he heard," she recalled. "His ears are picking up everything. It's a legal thriller, it's a heist novel, it's a book that exposes deep problems in our legal system."
Once she found that she agreed with Stahl's assessment — that here was a rare undiscovered gem, a book that deserved a larger audience than it had heretofore received — her office "went into overdrive," Hivnor remembered. "But there were still many moments when I thought it wasn't going to happen."
Standard procedure was to ship out copies of a manuscript being considered for publication to readers with expertise in the field. Stahl and Hivnor lined up literary critics who agreed to evaluate the behemoth known as "A Naked Singularity."
And then they sat back and waited, fingers crossed.
The raves poured in. Emboldened, Hivnor took the next step: She submitted the book to the Board of University Publications, a sort of quality-control group that must approve every book that the press publishes. The board, which consists of a dozen U. of C. faculty members, three administrators and U. of C. Press Director Garrett P. Kiely, meets once a month over lunch and reviews the 50 or so books that are on the docket at each session.
"They loved it," Hivnor reported. "They said, 'This is terrific.'"
Finally, a few questions: Who is De La Pava? How did he come to write a 678-page novel that, at first anyway, nobody wanted to publish? And how does he feel about the fact that his book was rescued — against all odds — by a major scholarly publisher?
"I remember quite vividly thinking, 'This is insane. This is nutty, this thing I'm producing. This isn't even a novel.' But I was having fun," De La Pava said of the six-year process of writing the book. "And I believed in the direction I was heading in."
The author is a 41-year-old public defender in Manhattan. "But I'm not a lawyer who wrote a novel. I'm a writer who happens to be a lawyer," he said, his voice sporting the slightly pugnacious edge of someone who's had to fight his way through stereotypes and the doubts of others.
Born and raised in New Jersey to parents who came to the United States from Colombia, he started thinking about being a writer when he was seven. "This is a lifelong obsession," he explained. "I hold the novel in very high regard." His favorites? "'Crime and Punishment,' 'Moby-Dick' — books in which everything is urgent, so life-and-death."
De La Pava, though, is no gloomy, perpetually frowning highbrow who looks upon the fallen world and sighs. He's more likely to laugh.
"I watch a ridiculous amount of television," he confessed. "I read Entertainment Weekly every week. I find pop culture mindlessly entertaining." And in his novel, "It came naturally to me to blend these things."
He met his wife at Brooklyn Law School. They have two children, aged 12 and 10. It was his wife, De La Pava said, who encouraged him to self-publish his book, trusting that literary scuttlebutt might help it catch fire.
Improbably, the strategy worked. Hence "A Naked Singularity" — which De La Pava described as a "maximalist, uncategorizable entity" — is ready for its close-up in a shiny new U. of C. Press edition. Early reviews have been enthusiastic.
And so the book, a book with a crazy jitterbug kick to it as well as a slow waltz of moral profundity, a book that's a cross between "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Family Feud," a book that looks daunting and severe until you plunge into it, whereupon you find yourself carried along by its slang-flecked conversations and its powerful narrative undertow, has finally arrived.
Does this mean the U. of C. Press is now eager to consider other self-published manuscripts?
"I've had to promise the editorial staff," Stahl said hastily, "that this is it."
Like a naked singularity itself, however, once is enough. Once is all it takes.
Julia Keller is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic.
"A Naked Singularity"
By Sergio De La Pava
University of Chicago, 678 pages, $18
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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