A Naked Singularity
Sergio De La Pava, 2008

the twenty-fifth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Dan Schmidt

When I was in grad school, I picked up a book called Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, which was a mandatory text for the composition class that I would have taught had I stuck around longer.  It was a running joke when I lived with Jennifer, who maintained that it sounded like the most boring book ever written — all I had to do was show her the cover and she would instantly pretend to fall fast asleep.  And I have to admit that, even though I made a few attempts to start into it just out of interest, I never did get very far.  But I did make it through the first chapter a few times, and this passage has stuck with me:

Ancient teaching about rhetoric is everywhere infused with the notions of expansiveness, amplification, abundance. […] The ancient notion of copia ["copiousness"] sometimes strikes modern students as bizarre.  Modern intellectual style tends toward economy […] If students bring modern attitudes about clarity and economy to the study of ancient rhetorics, they are bewildered (and sometimes frustrated) […] They also miss an important aspect of ancient instruction: that messing around with language is fun.

Economy was certainly impressed upon me as priority number one when I started writing movie scripts: never say in a paragraph what you can say in a line, never say in a line what you can say in a look, never say in a look what you can just leave out altogether.  Where scenes were concerned, the rule was to cut into the scene as late as possible and cut out of the scene as early as possible.  So it was a hell of a thing to start into this book and see that the opposite ethos was in play.  A Naked Singularity is a "write what you know" book: Sergio De La Pava is a New York City public defender of Colombian extraction, and his book is about a man named Casi who happens to be a New York City public defender of Colombian extraction.  It begins with Casi on the job, picking up seven cases ranging from loitering to sexual assault.  The purpose of this section is to give us a glimpse of his work life.  In a movie this would last just long enough to squeeze in a quick montage featuring a handful of telling exchanges — maybe a couple of minutes.  De La Pava gives us all seven complete interviews AND all seven complete arraignments.  Something like fifty pages of material, long before the plot kicks in, because De La Pava seems to hold with the ancient notion that if your material is good then having a lot of it is even better.  And this stuff is really good.  It's hilarious, but there's also some real substance to it, as we witness how these people we've met through the interviews are subsequently disposed of by a system engineered less to mete out justice than to grind down everyone who enters it.  Example: an elderly man is arrested for selling batteries on the subway without a license.  After 29 hours in jail he finally appears before a judge.  The prosecutor offers a plea deal of immediate discharge and one day of community service, which Casi grumbles about — the normal offer would be time served — but agrees to because at least it'll get his client home.  The judge then rules that because the defendant speaks only Cantonese, he may not understand what his attorney is accepting on his behalf, and orders him back to jail for several more hours until an interpreter can be found.  And during those additional hours the other prisoners beat him nearly to death.

In the spirit of copia, De La Pava spins out a bunch of different plot threads following this sequence, but the most compelling ones all involve disillusionment with the legal system.  In one of them, Casi joins the team appealing the sentence of Jalen Kingg, an Alabama death row inmate with a mental age of eight; with the Supreme Court likely to hand down a ruling in the Atkins v. Virginia case that will bar states from executing the mentally handicapped, Casi is confident that Kingg's life will be spared.  Except that the state of Alabama responds to the impending ruling by simply putting Kingg in solitary confinement until he kills himself.  The main plot thread involves a megalomaniacal colleague convincing Casi to assist him in a heist, but even this seemingly unrelated storyline touches on the same theme, as what prompts Casi to break bad is the judicial stupidity and misconduct in a case that goes to trial.  Casi's client broke into a commercial van, was caught red-handed, and was charged with third-degree burglary.  It seems like an open-and-shut case, but Casi discovers a key flaw in the prosecution's argument: burglary requires that the defendant knowingly enter a building in order to commit a crime.  The "building" part is not the issue: the law holds that commercial vehicles count as buildings.  The issue is the "knowingly" part, because if the defendant broke into the van thinking that it was a personal vehicle, then he did not knowingly enter a building.  He may therefore be guilty of petit larceny, but not of the crime with which he was actually charged, and must be acquitted.  The problem is that, first, the judge keeps misunderstanding Casi's defense, thinking that he's arguing that the defendant had to know the law, i.e., that a commercial van counted as a building, when Casi's actual argument is that he had to know that the van was commercial.  Once that is finally cleared up, the judge declares it a moot point, since in the transcript of the day's testimony, the driver says that the van had "our" lettering on it, but when Casi contends that the transcript is in error and that he just said "lettering" — which could mean anything — the D.A. asks the driver for clarification and this time the driver says that actually there's no lettering on the truck at all.  The judge's response to all of this is to deny the motion to dismiss, to deny the motion to instruct the jury about the function of the word "knowingly" in the statute, and to deliberately read back the false testimony to the jury in response to a request for a recap regarding the lettering.  It's a travesty of justice, and I was appropriately outraged… until I took a step back and realized that, wait — Casi was trying to get his client off on a technicality.  The guy did break into a van to steal stuff.  The judge is giving him an unfair trial, but the ultimate effect is that the verdict comes closer to the truth than would have been the case in a trial that was actually fair.  It reminded me a bit of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, the gimmick of which was to assert (ahistorically) that her trial was conducted in good faith while her canonization proceedings were corrupt.  So, yeah: this is a book that's impassioned enough to stir up some real sorrow and anger at how shit is fucked up and bullshit, nuanced enough to offer up genuine complexity along the way, and manages to weave solid laughs even into material as grim as the death row segment.  It looked like a pantheon-level score was on its way…

…but the thing about copia is that eventually there is too much of a good thing, and the less good the thing is, the faster it hits that threshold.  So, for instance, there is a looooong multi-part thread about boxing, focusing on a welterweight named Wilfred Benitez who fought in the 1970s and '80s.  I am not into boxing, but I am into history, so I found this thread mildly interesting, which is to say, not nearly interesting enough to keep me from losing my patience at how long it ran… especially after it became evident that it would not end up tying into the narrative.  It really is just a matter of Casi occasionally saying, "And then I thought about boxing for a while", followed by page after page after page recounting various fights.  Now consider the following excerpts from Casi's interviews with his clients.  De La Pava has an annoying tendency not to tag his dialogue, so I'll stick a [C:] before Casi's lines.  Here he is talking to a teenager:

      "oh yeah, my moms wanted me to ask if i have a criminal record."
      [C:] "Yes, you do, quite a one."
      [C:] "Why? Man, how many times did we go over that before we took the plea? I told you, you have a record now and it stars a felony."
      "oh, but what does that mean?"
      [C:] "It means you're a fucking felon. All your future actions are felonious because taken by you. You can't do certain things. You can't vote, you can't hold certain government jobs, can't say you're not a felon. Get it now?"
      "but that gets sealed after a while right? if i stay out of trouble?"
      [C:] "No it doesn't, the only thing sealed is your fate. You're a sixteen-year-old felon, for good. Well your age will I hope change."

And here he is talking to an older fellow:

      [C:] "Who did you move in with?"
      "Warren Holliday but that didn't work out neither cause he's like a known felon and shit."
      [C:] "What does that mean?"
      "Well he's a felon and it was knowed."

Delightful!  Like it says above: De La Pava messes around with language, and it's a lot of fun.  Except… everyone sounds like this.  That is, characters in A Naked Singularity come in two flavors: wittily hyper-articulate or comically inarticulate.  No one sounds like a regular person.  This approach to dialogue was very familiar to me; it's the same one I employed in the first edition of Ready, Okay!.  Which is one of the main reasons I rewrote it.  The hyper-articulate characters are indeed very witty and the inarticulate characters are indeed very comedic, but after hundreds of pages, I was really in the mood for some variety.  Instead, as the novel nears its end, it devolves into surrealism, and so as I finished it I had to conclude that I had read a book that was not a masterpiece but was merely very good.  But there are certainly worse ways to spend your time than reading a very good novel!

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