“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.”
Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We’d both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism.
The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip.
Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips — from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue — in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall — on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?”
Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.”
Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere.
The 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis’s lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 — years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in — that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar’s sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately…”
Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “…unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet…”
I had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold. A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks.
There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else — where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-’50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self — the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him.
Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing:
Q In other words…it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?…Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you?
A Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play?
Q Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea?
A Well, yes. Yes of course.
Q Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear?
Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis’s unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back.
After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think?
We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are…the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people — the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.”
This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing.
The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.
— Yes well there was just one more thing here I, that I think you might…
— That? My God, haven’t seen one in years.
— No this isn’t what I…what is it.
— Russian Imperial Bond.
— You mean it isn’t worth any, worth very…
— Mister Bast, anything is worth whatever some damn fool will pay for it, only reason somebody can make a market in Russian Imperials is because some damn, somebody like your associate will buy them.
This is the hapless Edward Bast, early in William Gaddis’s J R, trying to interest a stockbroker in the eponymous JR Vansant’s penny-stock portfolio. These Russian imperial bonds, issued in 1916 and repudiated by the Bolsheviks the following year, were real. There was a real market for them, even if it consisted of “damn fools.” I should know; I was the law clerk who drafted the 1987 opinion that extinguished all claims on them. And that is why The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me.
It’s a pity that Mr. Gaddis never met Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York — a large, rotund man with a fluffy walrus mustache and a bow tie, who never dropped character and who loved nothing better than to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s a pity, too, that Bast never visited Carl Marks & Co. This brokerage had cornered the market on Russian Imperials and had sued the Soviet Union to collect. Judge Brieant, who had the case, was vexed; a Son of the American Revolution with the paperweight to prove it, he would gladly have written against the USSR at length but had been warned by the State Department that this would cause an international incident. He was inclined to issue a simple opinion flatly denying Carl Marks’s claims.
But I had already decided that a case called Carl Marks v. USSR was too good to pass up. The clincher was my coming across the Russian Imperial Bonds passage in J R, which I was reading on my commute to the Judge’s White Plains courthouse. I worked surreptitiously, finally presenting the Judge with a 68-page fait accompli that used the Bast quote as a headnote. After he signed off on the opinion, I sent it to Mr. Gaddis. Why go to all that effort and not tell him? I never expected his response: the first letter reproduced in the book (January 10, 1988), inviting me to lunch and telling me of his “novel in the form of a network of lawsuits of every variety” — the book that would become A Frolic of His Own.
I don’t remember much from that visit, apart from Mr. Gaddis’s graciousness and his indignation at what he considered the vulgar display of a Francis Bacon triptych by “the evil Saul Steinberg” (the corporate raider, not Mr. Gaddis’s friend the cartoonist). But he had a request for me. Would I be so kind as to review a mock judicial opinion meant to form part of that “network of lawsuits”? You bet I would!
I took home a draft of the opinion that appears in A Frolic of His Own, pages 399-416. The draft made essential use of an opinion entitled Murray v. National Broadcasting Corporation, in which the plaintiff claimed that NBC had plagiarized his idea when it created The Bill Cosby Show. I found that Mr. Gaddis had misunderstood the case and that this vitiated the whole fictional opinion, literary tour de force though it otherwise was.
I pointed this out, among other things, as tactfully as I could. Mr. Gaddis’s January 5, 1990 reply, beginning “Dear Jim: Do not panic!” accompanied an outline of the maze of lawsuits as revised in response to my letter. After reading my “meticulous informed & delightful dissection,” he wrote, “I went into a blue funk, from which my struggles to emerge have now got me as far as the brown study down the hall.” I don’t have any record of a written reply to the four-and-a-half-page outline, so we may have discussed it in person as he suggests in the letter — mortified as I was by the thought that I might have had something to do with making the writing even more difficult.
Other letters in the collection confirm that Mr. Gaddis was having serious problems with the book and his life, but the one he wrote me on September 22, 1990 remains almost unbearably moving: “Unproductive months, a bleak and grey winter spent out here [in Wainscott, Long Island] alone largely, each day starting Now I shall get to it, ending Perhaps tomorrow, then.” Mr. Gaddis always professed not to appreciate or even understand Beckett, but this little passage sounds Beckett’s register.
In November, Mr. Gaddis was back at work, sending me the opinion that appeared in A Frolic, pages 285-293. There was then a long gap in our correspondence. The loss of my Wall Street law firm job and attendant personal disasters plunged me into depression; as other letters reveal, Mr. Gaddis also had to struggle with wrenching emotional issues while he continued to work on the book. It’s a relief to turn to his last letter to me, from May 21, 1993, announcing that A Frolic of His Own was finished. (He got me the set of galleys he promised, though it is the hardcover, inscribed “you will recognize your own contributions for which I am eternally grateful,” that I treasure).
“What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Mr. Gaddis would ask, quoting his character Wyatt Gwyon from The Recognitions. I wanted Mr. Gaddis to know how grateful I was for the work. Thanks to him, I have a (very) small place in legal and literary history. Only later did I fully understand what an extraordinary privilege he had offered me. I can but hope that I proved worthy of it in his eyes.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment. Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction. While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation. In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees. In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism. Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty. And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money: in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance. As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.
Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage. Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto. (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.) Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral. These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.
Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received. Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector. They marveled at its intelligence and grace. It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.” Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot: “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily. And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype. Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.
Why such a big gap?
I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?) A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition. (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.) I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors. It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.” (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.) But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects. As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved. Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness. If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.
Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book: it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release. But the book was part of that noise. Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly. It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions. And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar. As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.” And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot. As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”
Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly. As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.” Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters. The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash. He’s just a lot louder than she is.
Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman. He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is. He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck. Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT. The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.
When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls. In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out. (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:
For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them. Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size. The cabinets were stocked with books. Not a dish or cup in sight. Only books. Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets. Not a single pot or pan. Just books. She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. Books there as well.
George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running. Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe. He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold. Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. He opened the book at random: Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c. He had never tried to roast a carp.
But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:
He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately. The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little. Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy. The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain. He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged. Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice. He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it. He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel. When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers. (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.) When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.
Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis. He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore. Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic. Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism. And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise. In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume). But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid. Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.
Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books. Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other. In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.
In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel. After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.
In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father. They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself. Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s. For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives. In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light. Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work. In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic. And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.
Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads. Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.” Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap. At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world. Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.
Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic. At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts. This final section succeeds movingly.
But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom. Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.
David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells. Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries. That’s some kind of triumph.