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.


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