Refracted In All Its Minutiae: An Interview With Sergio De La Pava

Darran Anderson speaks to the author of the initially-self-published (and now PEN award-winning) novel A Naked Singularity about the book's philosophical, literary and political origins and whether there's a hope for us after all

Critics are a wretched lot, worthy of pity were they were not so eminently punchable. One of their, or rather our, minor sins is the inability to discuss books, albums or artwork on their own terms, without resorting to the territorial and the obsessive-compulsive. Culture is an echo-chamber with influences and connections abounding but it takes a critic to apportion it into often-ludicrous genres and squeeze disparate works in together as comfortably as cats in a sack. In an earlier age, the critic may have found gainful employment mapping boundaries through deserts and across mountain ranges, while others went off to explore the blank spaces on the map where there be dragons.

A public-defender by day, Sergio de la Pava is the author of the acclaimed novels Personae and A Naked Singularity, the latter of which has recently been awarded the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award. Due to its length, scope and multiple layers, the book has been compared by critics to the work of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. While there are much worse people to be linked to, the comparisons do De la Pava a disservice. Filled with unique shifting perspectives, these are books, voices and worlds from somewhere very different altogether.

Hailed by The Sunday Times as "The Wire written by Voltaire", A Naked Singularity is an ambitious, maximalist sprawl of a novel, held together and propelled by its believability and De la Pava’s sense of animation. It is "the sort of book that Dostoevsky himself might have written" Dissent Magazine insist, "had he come of age in early twenty-first-century New York rather than mid-nineteenth century St. Petersburg." Manifestly not an either-or book, it is both comic and tragic, mundane and surreal, superficial and morbidly profound, messy and rambling one minute and acutely-sharp the next, all so interwoven and layered as to be impossible to easily dissect. It is life in short; reflected, or rather refracted, in all its minutiae, complexity and contradiction. People idly talk shit and people’s lives hang in the balance according to words chosen by another and the eternal question is whether any of it means anything, bar the significance we edit from it.

To use a ridiculous analogy, De la Pava’s follow-up, Personae, is as layered vertically as A Naked Singularity is horizontally, being equally complex but more condensed. Where the first book barrels forward in a multitude of currents, reading Personae is like digging deeper and deeper into a mystery. It begins with the discovery of a murder victim and his manuscripts with the book diverging into his writing and a thesis by the detective who has found the body. Again, the significance and threads (even who the characters are) are there for us to find or invent in the snatches of stories, plays and fragments that follow. As with A Naked Singularity, there is a cloying temptation to call this writing experimental. If that is the case then life, with it’s chaos of dead-ends, retrospective wisdom and curious tangents, is experimental.

You started writing A Naked Singularity when you were 27 and finished when you were 34. It must take a great deal of discipline, and some would say a degree of madness, to sustain the focus to do that. Did you find you’d changed by the end from the person who’d started the book? And how do you view it now that a similar length of time has passed? Do you feel a distance from it at all?

Madness, yes, but I don’t think discipline. Writing fiction is difficult and in many ways the opposite of fun and I’m quite certain it’s not good for you either. But I associate discipline with an activity like exercise, something you don’t want to do at the outset so that in a sense you have to override your initial reluctance in order to engage in it.

For me, I’m never reluctant to write. On the contrary, if feels like a pleasant release whenever I can write, or more accurately, whenever I can physically transcribe what’s probably already happening in my head but on a very base level. The problem is that the pleasantness dissipates almost instantly and frustration begins to mount. The self-censoring starts, the dissatisfaction, the need to manufacture a highly receptive state that may not want to appear – that’s why it begins to feel like a special form of madness.

The primary change that occurred in me is that, through mere repetition, I became better able to create that state of extreme receptivity, let’s call it. Now I feel the kind of distance from it that you might feel from a vivid dream you once had. Meaning I can slip into it pretty well but those neurons have already fired and I can recognize it as mere dream.

One of the things I love about the novel is the sometimes-bleak humour and how the very trivial is not just juxtaposed alongside the profound but is interwoven into it, as it is in real life. Life doesn’t happen in spite of digressions, it is digressions. When you’re writing a book as vast as A Naked Singularity, do you ever have to restrain yourself from including everything? Did you set out a structure from the beginning to prevent it expanding too much or collapsing in on itself? Was there an engine hidden inside and did it begin, at any stage, to write itself?

Right, so if ANS is full of digressions what are they digressing from. If you answer “from the story” then I think you and I just have a vastly different conception of what a long story that would feel genuine simply is. Because if your life is a form of story then surely it’s digressive as hell, to its very core.

The restraint comes from the fact that we don’t go to novels to see a perfect mimicry of life. After all, if you find quotidian life so compellingly instructive you can simply stand still and have it rush at you in blissful unrelenting waves. No, we want the novel to perform an artful distillation for us; we don’t want to see every play, just the highlight reel.

So if I’m charged with that curatorial activity, including everything would be a form of abdication and precisely the kind that results in bad art. Same for letting the thing write itself, which is just another way of saying that aesthetic standards have been abandoned. I’m old fashioned, man. If the ship goes down, I’m sinking with it.

I’m interested in your philosophy background and how your earliest memories were of philosophical problems. Can you remember which ones? And how has philosophy come to influence your writing? I understand for example you’ve a great interest in Cartesian thinking and you specialised in modal realism and the plurality of worlds; did these have an effect on the sense of perspectives or layers of consciousness in your novels? I’m thinking not just of creating individual characters but the books within books, worlds within worlds, in Personae that recall Borges, Wittgenstein, Descartes, Plato.

I think I’ve always been prone to pretty radical skepticism with respect to the physical world; it feels odd to say it explicitly but to me it always felt like a far lower level of reality than say mental operations. What confounded me was that everyone else seemed to hold up this thing whose nature I was doubting as the paragon of unproblematic reality. So I didn’t formally specialize in Descartes or Lewis’s modal realism etc. but let’s just say that those things rang certain bells of recognition that maybe hadn’t been rung since I was a child by writers like Bradbury (a story in Martian Chronicles I’m too lazy to look up) or Rod Sterling. To see those intuitions being treated as serious modes and objects of intellectual discourse and investigation was thrilling in a way that caused me to fall in love with the damn thing, Philosophy, and it’s probably colored everything I’ve done since.

As writer I don’t draw the brightest line between what gets called reality and the supposed fiction that literature creates. For example, there’s no historical or other discovery that would cause me to assign a higher level of reality to Hamlet than he already has for me. Similarly, it would give me no pause whatsoever, nor would I ascribe it great meaning, if it were conclusively proven tomorrow that billions of humans are in fact worshipping a literary character created by the four gospels. The distinction just isn’t something I attach great importance to and you’re right that it is precisely these kinds of notions at play in both works but especially in Personae.

In essence, I think there’s more similarity than people think between someone creating a novel and what we do daily when we in effect create the world we appear to move through. There’s ample support for something like that in theoretical physics and modern philosophers’ work on the problem of consciousness but I suspect we’re getting too far afield.

A Naked Singularity is set just prior to the explosion of social networking yet it seems to cast a critical eye on the current zeitgeist; everyone is talking but no-one is listening, something it brilliantly reflects. There’s a scene in particular where a doctor tells the central character Casi, who’s suffering from ear-ache, to avoid noise, which is increasingly impossible today. Do you think there will be a backlash against the too-muchness of the modern Babel, with perhaps solitude and inwardness becoming radical activities? Or do you think resistance, at this stage, is futile?

To get to the signal we need to listen past more noise than ever. Problem with excessive noise is it makes it hard to think at the highest level and that kind of thought would seem a necessary precondition to vital work of all kind.

But there will always be those who prefer solitude and productive reflection. The question then becomes who will constitute the audience; meaning, in the literal sense of the word, who will hear.

That’s why the most interesting and vital part of any artistic culture is at the margins. Those producing and consuming there may feel like they’re shouting into the wind but thing about the wind is it can carry sound and it may one day reach a listener and even if it doesn’t the mere existence of a scream is a form of the resistance you speak of.

From your experience as a public defender, and from the perspective of a writer, you’ve spoken in depth about how the system of law in the United States is essentially broken, both in terms of numbers and the racial make-up of those imprisoned. It’s astonishing to find out that a quarter of the entire world’s prison population is held in the "land of the free"; a much-ignored dystopian aspect of American exceptionalism. I was struck by the comments of David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, who said recently to The Guardian, “I’m not entirely convinced [the War on Drugs] is not largely intended as a war on the poor… It may have begun a long time ago as a war on dangerous drugs but at some point it morphed where it became really about social control and at this point it’s about doing something with the 15% of my country that we don’t need any more for our economy, we’ve lost our manufacturing base and we don’t need a labouring class. And so there’s a lot of undereducated people who the economy has thrown away and who are living in an alternate America and for whom there’s no purpose; it’s an existential crisis for the poor. And, in a horrible way, I think they’ve solved it by targeting them.” How much do you think the prison situation in the States is a malaise that the country has inadvertently slipped into? Or is it a more deliberate development?

I think the situation is even more grim than what that quote reflects. I think of all human inventions the most toxic was the invention of race and it was its vile offspring, racism, that initially spurred this fucking repulsive machine. And even now, when overt racism has admittedly been reduced, it is a kind of low-level apathetic form of it that allows that machine to keep grinding away, because you can be sure if the people being swept up by it looked like goddamn Tom Cruise someone would’ve put a stop to it long ago.

You’ve said that boxing is your religion and it’s a presence in your writing. What do you think draws you to it? Is it an escape, a counterpoint to the more seemingly-intellectual activities of law and literature? Or is that a false dichotomy (you’ve flitted, after all, from Floyd Mayweather Jr. to Tolstoy, Arturo Gatti to Virginia Woolf in the same breath)?

Problem is that while that has definitely felt true at times it is also undoubtedly the case that I am wildly polytheistic in a way that I think the novels make clear. Also, yes, the dichotomy is false. Any assertion that two things are so different that there can be no relation between them is, I think, mistaken. The more I live and think and experience the more I feel the presence of a binding sameness even where you’d least expect it.

You’ve stated that amongst the direct influences on A Naked Singularity was Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’. There’s a story that after it was first performed they had to turn the composer around to witness the standing ovation because he was completely deaf and couldn’t hear it. It adds a certain tragic element to what was meant as an Ode to Joy as Schiller’s poem had defined it. A Naked Singularity would likewise seem to suggest that life isn’t strictly either a comedy or tragedy but a synthesis of both; a tragicomic farce perhaps. Events may be ultimately heart-breaking and humour may be gallows at times but we’ve no alternative but to laugh and strive impossibly for something in the face of an indifferent or even cynical universe. Would that be too pessimistic an assessment?

The laughing’s what we have to do initially; in that way we can receive the blow then gather our strength. Because it does seem hopelessly sad at times. But the “we’ve no alternative” is too pessimistic or, at a minimum, we have an obligation to think it so. Pessimism is not appropriate where agency is present. So while the universe will remain indifferent, the world within it is still our product and I, for one, am optimistic that we’ll someday, despite all evidence to the contrary, get it right.

A Naked Singularity is out now, published by MacLehose Press

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