The New York Times dives into why prisons fear the New Jim Crow certain states have gone to great efforts to allow their prisons to ban it and in other states it’s fairly difficult to obtain if you’re a prisoner. We’re big fans of the New Jim Crow here; it was a Millions staff pick and extremely popular on Year in Reading lists back in 2013.
It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice.
Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game. With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages. In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic.
Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear). Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.
I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year). Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it. This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word. It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time. It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received. I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you’ll love Another Brooklyn.
Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award? This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader. You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch).
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Fifty years from now, Americans may look upon the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the same way we look back today on Martin Luther King’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago — as a hinge of history, one of those rare flashpoints that shapes a society.
But like the Selma march, the shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson last August is just one piece of a longer, more complicated story. Violence against black people is hardly new.
With each new report of a black man dying at the hands of a white cop — such as the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina last week — we pore over the videotape, argue on social media, and rally around hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. But too often we lose sight of the broader context of the racism that is so deeply rooted in our history and culture.
Below are nine books, some new, some decades old, that shed light on the history and evolution of racism in America. As the case with any list of this kind, this one is incomplete. We invite readers to add their suggestions for further reading on this topic in the comments section.
Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy
This fascinating examination of the epidemic of violence in Los Angeles’s poor black neighborhoods grew out of “The Homicide Report,” an interactive database on the Los Angeles Times website that chronicles all murders in L.A. County. Ghettoside follows a single murder investigation headed by a heroically dogged white LAPD detective, but Leovy’s deeper point is far less uplifting. She likens the relentless gun violence in Los Angeles’s black neighborhoods to a “plague,” one caused in large part by the indifference of the outside world. “This book is about a very simple idea,” she writes; “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
Leovy’s argument that poor black neighborhoods need more policing rather than less may be a tough sell to those outraged by “stop-and-frisk” tactics and strict enforcement of petty crimes, but this crisply reported book bears out her points about the consequences of the failure to vigorously investigate and prosecute violent crimes. “Like the schoolyard bully,” Leovy writes, “our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts, but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery, but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Most accounts of the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina report that Scott had a long history of arrests, most involving his failure to pay child support for his four children. But as Alexander documents in The New Jim Crow, in many major American cities four out of five black men have criminal records — a statistic Alexander believes reflects America’s warped law enforcement priorities during the long-running War on Drugs. A law professor who once headed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, Alexander argues that an unholy cocktail of strict drug laws, selective enforcement, harsh sentencing rules, and discrimination against ex-cons has created a de facto “racial caste system” that has, in effect, replaced the de jure caste system that ruled in the Jim Crow South.
Anyone wanting to understand why a police officer like Michael Slager would be so eager to pull over a black man like Walter Scott driving a Mercedes Benz with a broken tail light would do well to read The New Jim Crow.
The Whites, by Richard Price
Price has chosen to half-camouflage himself behind the pseudonym Harry Brandt, but no one should be fooled: The Whites is Richard Price at his ballsy, gritty best. The novel, his ninth, is at once a spellbinding exercise in straight-up genre storytelling, and a haunting meditation on the shadowy line between those who uphold society’s laws and those who break them.
The “whites” of the title are not white people, but murderers who escape justice and live free while the cops who know their guilt continue to pursue them like so many badge-wielding Captain Ahabs. The novel turns, brilliantly, on the moral quandary of how men sworn to seek justice should view those who have slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice system. At the same time, Price, a world-class reporter who happens to write fiction, puts readers inside the minds of New York City cops who serve as the sharp end of the spear of society’s often invisible war against the poor, the luckless, and the depraved.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
This book-length poem aims to document not just the instances of intentional and unintentional racism described in Rankine’s poetry, but the ongoing tide of violence against black men. In its first edition, which went to press in the summer of 2014, Citizen includes the following note: “November 23, 2012/In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” reflecting the date that the 17-year-old black man was murdered by a white man after an altercation over loud rap music at a gas station in Florida. A second printing, which went to press in September 2014, was updated to memorialize the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A third printing, completed in November, not only adds to the list the names of two more slain black men, Eric Garner and John Crawford, but includes a long column of the words “In Memory of,” each left blank, presumably to be filled in with the names of black men whose violent deaths have not yet occurred.
On the facing page, Rankine has tacked on a brief haiku-like epigraph:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deveare Smith
For her one-woman plays, Twilight and Fires in the Mirror, Smith interviewed hundreds of people involved in two of the most combustible race riots of the 1990s — the Rodney King riots of 1992 in L.A. and Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riots in 1991. Then, with a few simple props, Smith impersonated the people she had met, using verbatim excerpts from her interviews to create a theatrical documentary seeking to make moral sense of these explosions of racial violence.
On the page, Smith distills her characters’ words into a kind of loose poetry, which has literary merit in its own right, but so much of the richness of the plays owes to her performance. I saw her perform Twilight in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, while the O.J. Simpson trial was still on TV every day, and the experience has stayed with me. A light-complected black woman with an infinitely malleable body and voice, Smith could plausibly embody everyone from Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates to a gang member, creating a searing indictment of racism in America while also bearing witness to the human capacity to transcend race and social class. She created a film version of the play in 2000, under the direction of Marc Levin.
“Sentimental Journeys” from After Henry, by Joan Didion
This essay about New York’s infamous Central Park Jogger case, which first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1991, is a tart, tough-minded examination of the power of the public imagination to convict young black men of crimes they did not commit. In April 1989, a young white investment banker was raped and left for dead after she was waylaid while jogging at night across Central Park. Five teenagers, four of them black, and one Hispanic, “confessed” to the crime, though, tellingly, none admitted raping the woman, claiming instead that they helped hold the woman down while others raped her.
In her essay, Didion documents how the tale of a rabid gang of black teenagers — early tabloid headlines labeled them a “Wolf Pack” — setting upon an educated white woman fit the public narrative of a city out of control, overwhelming any discussion of the holes in the prosecution’s case. Sharp reporter that she is, Didion also shows how some in New York’s black community sought to demean the victim, claiming she had a black boyfriend and had gone into the park looking for sex. In 2002, another man confessed to the crime, and after DNA evidence confirmed his claims, the original convictions were vacated, though all five defendants had already served out their sentences.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
No story better illustrates the deep strangeness of the relationship between powerful white Americans and the black people under their control more fully than that of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, the mother of six of his children. Gordon-Reed nearly single-handedly put an end to two centuries of scholarship that had held that Jefferson could not have been the father of Hemings’s children — a line of argument that collapsed in 1998 under the weight of decisive DNA proof that Jefferson had indeed fathered Hemings’s children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
But the Jefferson-Hemings saga is so very much weirder than the mere fact that a sitting American president had a black concubine. Sally Hemings was herself the child of a slave, Betty Hemings, and a white planter, John Wayles, who was also the father of Martha Wayles, the first and only wife of Thomas Jefferson. Before she died, Martha made Jefferson promise never to marry again, and he honored this pledge by carrying on a decades-long affair with her half-sister, who by all accounts, looked remarkably like Martha Jefferson.
The Mind of the South, by W.J. Cash
Anyone looking for a single, book-length examination of the conservative, white racial imagination need go no further than this 1941 classic. Published months before Cash’s death under murky circumstances in Mexico, The Mind of the South offers a scorching view of the damage done to the mind of a people whose power, which they view as theirs by birthright, is threatened by the march of progress.
Among the shocks of reading The Mind of the South is how readily Cash’s portrait of the political belief systems of the post-bellum American South fits with those of the more extreme elements of today’s Republican Party. It’s all there: the evangelical religiosity, the veneration of violence and militarism, the preference of morality over law, the distrust of science and rational self-criticism. One sees in politicians like President George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry features of the figure Cash calls “the hell of a fellow” — a friendly guy who is not outwardly brainy, but deeply moral, religious, and fervently patriotic.
American Babylon, by Robert O. Self
Self, a history professor at Brown, is an academic, and writes like one, so this book is not for the Sunday browser, but I know of no more penetrating a study of how institutional racism actually works than this history of black Oakland, Calif., and the rise of the Black Panther Party. The sleepy port city of Oakland, once known in Gertrude Stein’s famous formulation as the place where “there is no there there,” became a magnet for poor black Southerners drawn to steady work in the city’s shipyards during the Second World War. But after the war, the shipyard jobs evaporated, leaving black Oakland residents stranded in poverty while the surrounding municipalities attracted factories employing middle-class white workers living out the California dream.
Self’s achievement is to explain how pervasive racism can exist when no one appears to be actively discriminating against anyone. Northern Californians did not need to slap “Whites Only” signs over swimming pools and water fountains, or ride out at night wearing white sheets. They needed only to build factories far from the homes of black workers in Oakland, and then design a public transportation system that made it difficult for those black workers to reach the distant white suburbs. They needed only to pass a property tax law — known as Proposition 13 — which made it easier for white homeowners to pay off their mortgages but slashed government aid to impoverished black renters in the inner city.
Another year has flown by and so has another Year In Reading. We thank everyone who participated and all who read and shared these wonderful pieces in our series.
While we trimmed our contributor list slightly this year, they shared their thoughts on more books than our participants did a year ago. 2013 brought 68 participants (down from 74 participants in 2012) sharing 350 different books (up from 289 a year ago). We’re happy to note that 11 of those authors highlighted in our series also submitted their own pieces in the series. The books selected run the gamut from nonfiction to poetry, short stories, essays, fiction, and even a zine and an interactive story.
The youngest author selected was Gabby Bess. Her book Alone with Other People was one of several selected by Roxane Gay. Bess was born in 1992. This beats out the next-youngest author, Eleanor Catton (b. 1985), whose Booker-winning The Luminaries was a selection of both Garth Risk Hallberg and Janice Clark, by quite a bit.
Finally, seven books were named by three or more Year In Reading participants, and six of those seven books were written by women. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite for her book The Flamethrowers, getting six mentions (picked by Garth Risk Hallberg, David Gilbert, Matt Bell, Bill Morris, Adam Wilson, and Elliott Holt.) Dave Eggers’s The Circle was picked by Choire Sicha, Hannah Gersen, and Tess Malone. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa was picked by Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, and Charles Blackstone. Renata Adler’s Speedboat was selected by David Gilbert, Matt Bell, and Emily St. John Mandel. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was picked by Sergio De La Pava, Rachel Kushner, and Teddy Wayne. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was chosen by three staffers: Hannah Gersen, Edan Lepucki, and Janet Potter. And Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was picked by Benjamin Percy, Edan Lepucki, and Janice Clark.
We hope you enjoyed we had on offer this month, and we’ll see you again next year.
P.S. Special thank yous are due to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, who prepared every last one of our Year in Reading entries for publication. Also very deserving of thanks are Tess Malone and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped spread the word about our biggest Year and Reading to date, and to Nick Moran who oversaw their efforts and compiled the stats I used to write this very round-up. Thank you to our staff writers, whose pieces were some of the highlights of the series and who did wonderful work for us throughout 2013.
And of course, thanks to all of you, our readers, and to all a Happy New Year!
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One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time is Eric Lundgren’s debut, The Facades. It’s hugely imaginative, brilliantly written, funny, and sad. What else would you want from a novel? I can’t improve upon this New Yorker review of it, so I’ll link to that.
For nonfiction, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, about the mass incarceration of men of color, was eye-opening in its synoptic analysis of how predatory and ruthless the entire criminal justice system is, from the War on Drugs to the near-impossibility of repairing one’s life as an ex-convict. It’s also extremely accessible; Alexander avoids sociological and academic jargon in her swift, upsetting, and important book.
I don’t read much poetry, but I’m glad I read Caki Wilkinson’s Circles Where the Head Should Be: it’s completely unpretentious yet lyrically gorgeous, wry, and plaintive, and about subjects as varied as basketball and TV weathermen.
Her second collection, tentatively titled Wynona Stone, comes out in 2014, and follows the titular fictional character. An example:
The plot unfolds, backwater roman-fleuve:
hand-shaking husbands, wives who say make love
as in “When Doug and I were making love,”
or “Doug made love to me,” or “Doug, that love
we made was really something.”
It promises, like her first book, to be really something, as well.
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Recently (this fall—autumn being more tangible to me than the integer “year”) I have read, and been amazed by Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which a friend in the collective Endnotes (whose new issue was just published) recommended to me. This book provides a detailed structural account, and analysis, of how, and why, the prison system in California has grown so massive, and so “modern.” And come to think of it I also read Angela Davis’s dagger of a book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which does in 128 pages what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow does in several hundred, but to be Davis’s reader and have that effect produced you probably need to either have already read Alexander’s excellent and very important book, or to be already a yes in response to Ms. Davis’s eponymous question, or both. Now that we’re creeping into the thick medium of a certain terrible reality, I also read Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, and was thunder-struck by it, page by page and cumulatively. I went from there to Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor and Prisons of Poverty. And then to Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s beautiful “biography” of Genet (more biographies should be poetic-philosophical treatises that foreclose morality in favor of essence). Around that same time I “read at” Victor Hugo’s autobiographical/diaristic Things Seen, in which Hugo gives us his own lived encounters with History and World-Historical Individuals, as Hegel would call them, in moments like this one: “They executed the king with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Sanson, seizing by the hair the executed head of Louis XVI, showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it stream onto the scaffold.”
Moving on from that encounter with the “real,” I was eager for the long-awaited October release of Frederic Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism. In fact I remember even kind of revving up for it by producing my own semiotic square for Michel Houllebecq’s The Map and the Territory, as I read that novel in late summer (the four sides being Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, The House of Prostitution, the House of Euthanasia). Anyhow, Jameson’s new work was foreshadowed by Perry Anderson’s article in the LRB in 2011, interrogating the “postmodern revival” of the historical novel. Lukács, who perhaps invented this literary category, pointed toward realism as the only legitimate novelistic mode into which to summon “History.” In that, all novels become historical novels when and if the present can be sufficiently apprehended as history by their authors. Jameson’s book, dense and meandering as it is, seems to offer multiple crucial antinomies. His conclusions are too complicated to get into here, but Cloud Atlas figures prominently among them, a book that greatly interests Jameson for its formal inventiveness, its pastiche of periods and styles, and for the fact that when all is said and done, despite its relativizing panache, it seems to transform history and ideas into meaning, and in particular, to have something to say about enslavement and emancipation. Thusly, the joyousness of art and the slaughterhouse of humankind both shine through. And Jameson seems to have enjoyed the movie version, too.
(Which I myself have not yet seen, but . . . there is always next year.)
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Much as I love the damn thing when the A is capitalized, the most potent words I read this past year weren’t even lowercase art. They were more like a truth-seeking missile, one that seethed with indignant if wholly justified outrage.
Imagine a country that never tires of self-identifying as the land of the free yet is actually the undisputed global leader in incarcerating its own citizens. Now imagine that this country’s program of almost-militaristic mass incarceration is being deployed in a racially discriminatory manner and almost exclusively against those who are already pathetically marginalized; and all the while almost no one with a platform or power can be bothered to utter a dissenting syllable, so entranced are they by what insulates them.
If that seems too grim an imagining to engage in, then just pick up The New Jim Crow by the equal parts brilliant and courageous Michelle Alexander. With the kind of meticulous empirical support such a title demands, Professor Alexander sets out what must become the new template for thinking productively about American criminal justice. I say must because no entity that silently countenances the fact that “[a] human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” can ever truly cohere.
So read it. Now. But be forewarned that you may thereafter have trouble getting too worked up by the usual filler whereby a liberal arts college professor finds himself attracted to a comely grad student or Upper West Side locavores debate how to best staff their food co-op.
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
If you are anything like me, you cried along with Jesse Jackson on the November night, now almost four years ago, that Barack Obama was first elected president. Jackson, who had been with Martin Luther King the night he was shot in 1968, seemed to be passing the torch from a generation of black men and women who had known segregation and racial oppression to a new generation that not only stood as equals to white people, but could offer up a leader to help bring the nation out of a financial crisis.
But if you were one of hundreds of thousands of young black men in prison, many of them on drug charges, Nov. 4, 2008, was just another night in a long march to nowhere It is the plight of these Americans, not the success of figures like Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey, that law professor Michelle Alexander believes gives us the clearest picture of the true state of race relations in the Age of Obama.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Alexander, a former ACLU staffer, argues that the 30-year-old War on Drugs has created a de facto “racial caste system” to replace the Jim Crow laws that fell in the 1960s. Today, thanks in large part to the drug war, more than 2 million people, disproportionate numbers of them black and Hispanic, are locked up in America’s prisons, giving us an incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000 people, outpacing even repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In major cities, Alexander says, four out of five black men have criminal records, which not only takes them out of the legitimate economy while they’re in jail, but keeps them out of work after they’re freed because of widespread, and quite legal, discrimination against ex-convicts.
According to Alexander, an unholy cocktail of strict drug laws, selective enforcement, harsh sentencing rules, and societal discrimination against ex-cons has led to a systematic stripping of voting rights, economic security, and basic dignity for a generation of black men. To make matters worse, she says, most states restrict prisoners’ right to vote, rendering those most affected by the drug laws unable to help elect politicians who might make the system less draconian. She writes:
The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race.
Readers familiar with the horrors of the Jim Crow era may find it hard to see today’s drug war, harsh as it may be, as destructive a system of social control as decades of sharecropping, systematic disenfranchisement, and lynch law – to say nothing of the centuries of slavery that came before it. In her effort to wake up her readers, Alexander may be guilty of exaggerating for effect. If so, the exaggeration is worth it. The War on Drugs, and the massive buildup of our prison populations, has barely come up in this year’s presidential campaign. Before we lecture the Chinese and Iranians on their treatment of their ethnic minorities and dissidents, we need to look more closely at the millions of our own people we are locking up for years, often for no more than possession or sale of a few grams of weed.
The statistics Alexander cites, while shocking, are hardly new, and the racially stratified world she describes is visible to anyone with open eyes. It’s there when a white person describes a neighborhood as “sketchy,” and we know without having to ask that this means the area is full of poor people of color. It’s there if you drive in a car with a black man and notice how careful he is to abide by traffic rules whenever he sees a cop. If you are white, it’s there every time you pass a police officer and smile, knowing there is no chance he is going to stop you and frisk you for drugs.
“I have a dream,” Dr. King declared in 1963, that black Americans would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For many Americans, particularly those of us who are white, that day may have seemed to come four years ago when an overwhelming majority of Americans of all colors voted for Obama for president. The New Jim Crow reminds us that we aren’t there yet, not by a long shot.
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