Message in a Bottle
A Preview Instead of a Review

Around here we generally write about books we’ve already read, but to avoid staleness, I’m going to switch things around today. Instead of talking about something I know is good, I’m pausing at the moment of peak expectation to talk about a novel I hope is great.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava tells the story of Casi, a public defender in New York who’s never lost a case, but more than that, it’s a “huge, ambitious novel … told in a distinct, frequently hilarious voice, with a striking human empathy at its center. Its panoramic reach takes readers through crime and courts, immigrant families and urban blight, media savagery and media satire, scatology and boxing, and even a breathless heist worthy of any crime novel.” Or so the flap copy says. In this case I’m inclined to believe the publisher’s spin, partly because the book is also getting endorsements from critics I respect. For example, Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History, lends his support: 

"Sergio De La Pava brings linguistic energy and grim hilarity to this furious novel about the dysfunctional criminal-justice system. His novel evokes such maximalist masterpieces of the 1970s as Robert Coover’s Public Burning and William Gaddis’s J R—he has Coover’s rage and Gaddis’s ear—yet also grapples with current issues hot off the AP wire. Socially engaged, formally inventive, and intellectually challenging, A Naked Singularity is a remarkable performance.”

Maybe that kind of recommendation doesn’t sell everyone, but it pushes the right buttons for me. This by itself would be enough to make me want to read it. It’s the story behind the story, though, that pushes the needle into the range of actual excitement.

A Naked Singularity has just been released in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, yes, but it was originally self-published back in 2008. De La Pava queried 88 agents, all of whom passed on his complex but entertaining novel, before opting to go it alone, trusting that his voice would eventually be heard by the right audience. By 2010, his book had reached a handful of lit bloggers and independent booksellers who agreed that this debut work could duke it out with any other famous veteran heavyweight, and they started spreading the word about it. A tiny but fervent cult developed, and that’s when I trundled over to my neighborhood Espresso Book Machine and had a copy manufactured for myself.

I’m not sure why I didn’t read it right then, but I know it had something to do with not being able to easily share the book, or the idea of the book, with others. When you’re in the business of selling stories, I think you tend to gravitate toward the ones that are part of a public conversation. If customers ask what you’re reading and the answer is completely unrecognizable, they’re not confident that you’ll be able to understand their own tastes and opinions—they have a hard time judging your judgment, so to speak. My awkwardly-printed copy (the text on the spine is misaligned and wraps halfway onto the front cover) has been waiting patiently for my interest to ripen, and harvest day is finally at hand.

To celebrate the new, wider release of the novel, one of the web journals that first championed it is hosting a group read, and I’m joining in. I’m a few days behind, but planning to catch up fast if A Naked Singularity is anywhere near as good as advertised. Even if it proves to be not quite all that, it’s pleasant to savor the moment of anticipation before plunging in—it feels like the first day of summer for a schoolkid, or looking at the pile of shiny presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

—James

Torn from Yesterday’s Headlines

As a part of the relentless, fast-paced, modern media landscape, Message in a Bottle is always hungry for content. Stay fresh! Stay current! That’s our motto. So what’s in the news right now? Well, there’s that proposal to build a new multipurpose sports stadium in Seattle. Must be something bookish we can tie into that. I know—fans will love Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley. The NBA is back in session and appears to be recovering from its alienating lockout, which forced many US stars to find temporary work by playing abroad. Partly because of their experiences, and even more so because of the influx of exciting talent from other shores (think Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, and Ricky Rubio), Americans are becoming more aware of basketball as a global phenomenon. And let’s not forget about Linsanity—Jeremy Lin's outstanding performance and ethnic heritage have helped shine a light on the feverish world of the Chinese professional leagues. What better time to release (and talk about) a book on this very subject? It's a travelogue, a fun fish-out-of-water tale, and also an informative take on the big business of entertainment.

Readers of a less jockish persuasion may want to seek out Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball, the story of his attempt to spend his own money restoring a historic, municipally-owned minor league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The only thing that stood in his way was a competing plan, thrice rejected by local voters, that involved tearing down the landmark and replacing it with a new facility to the tune of 18.5 million dollars in taxpayer funding. Logic would dictate that this be a very short book: “The good guys win. The end.” Of course, things in the real world never play out that easily. Foul Ball is partly a sports book, but even more it’s an exceptionally sharp look at civic politics. It’s must reading, really, for anyone interested in how government and the private sector interact behind closed doors.

That casts a pretty wide net, but maybe we need something with even broader appeal to capture the massive audience we’re seeking. What’s a trendy issue that touches everyone? Aha—the economy. Even Clint Eastwood's interested in that. Depending on who's making a speech, we're either still in darkest crisis or beginning to see the light. Regardless, we all know that a huge mess was made and we're in the cleanup phase. There are plenty of non-fiction accounts to explain how we got into this situation, but sometimes facts aren't enough to make us feel what the ride was like. That's where storytelling comes in, and that's why it's the perfect time for a paperback release of Williams Gaddis's National Book Award-winning novel J R.

It may look a little intimidating from the outside because of its size, and its lack of chapter breaks may ratchet up the anxiety, but brush those fears aside. It’s a masterfully arranged chaos of conversation that never fails to amuse and illuminate, and it’s by far the best fictional portrayal of the American financial system. The theme is clear from the first word of dialogue (“Money”) and throughout the novel every character, whether banker or bohemian, is subjected to the whims of the market. The whirlpool of plot is set in motion by the title character, an eleven-year-old boy who proves that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing, taking a worthless share of penny stock and his book-learned business sense and parlaying them into a vast, speculative paper empire that will inevitably crash down on everyone around him. J R's aims are serious, but its tone is not—it's pure satire with the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers, and it actually makes the idea of mortgage bubbles and corporate bailouts funny. Anyone who reads it will find daily reports from the Wall Street Journal to be more absurd and yet more intelligible than ever. Be assured, there's not a more topical book to be found than this one.

Did I mention that it was first published in 1975? J R launches his projects from a payphone instead of sending text messages, but otherwise you might not notice. It speaks just as clearly and truthfully as it did thirty-seven years ago, and it’s highly likely that generations to come will say the same. Books have a shelf life longer than almost any other form of art or entertainment, and the greatest ones stay fresh endlessly. Instead of responding to a continually changing environment, they create their own and settle down in it. Every now and then the rat race circles around again to bring them into view and we wonder how they got so far ahead of us. They remind us that sometimes it’s better to let the moment catch up than it is to chase it. That’s why Message in a Bottle likes to bring you the news, but also the olds.

—James