After failing to place his novel with a traditional publisher, Sergio De La Pava decided to strike out on his own in 2008. He self-published A Naked Singularity, an absurdist romp through the justice system, which slowly but steadily found its audience, critical acclaim and the welcoming arms of the University of Chicago Press. The protagonist Casi is the driven son of Colombian immigrants, a 24-year-old public defender in Manhattan with a spotless record. Perfection doesn’t last long, though, and when Casi loses his first trial because of the judge’s staggering incompetence, he suffers from a crisis of faith. Around this time, Casi’s colleague Dane – another lawyer obsessed with perfection, specifically the perfect crime – makes a startling proposition.
Acting on information provided by one of Casi’s clients, who is simultaneously trying to play off the police against his former associates in order to double-cross both, Dane counsels that the two lawyers should swoop in on the stash and make out like bandits. It’s an audacious scheme, one worthy of The Wire, but Casi and Dane are confident in their ability to plan the perfect crime. At first, all this banter seems like a fantasy – like the croupier who dreams about ripping off the casino – but the caper solidifies in direct proportion to Casi’s disgust with his job.
And what a job it is. The first chapter – worth the price of admission alone – details the sordid humanity of a typical late shift at a Manhattan night court. Casi’s clientele is mad, bad and heartbreakingly sad. While their circumstances differ (drug charges, mainly), all are cast adrift in a system that treats them with contemptuous indifference at best and administrative sadism at worst: “Sentencing, like physics and other sciences, builds on what came before so that the worse your past was, the worse your present will be.”
Casi proves an able guide to the legal underworld, walking the reader through the procedure whereby a person accused of crime becomes a “body” processed through the courts, an exercise that touches on encounters with everyone from booking officers to district attorneys (there’s even a sparkling digression on Miranda rights). Casi’s disgust is shot through with a streak of self-loathing as he comes to realize his clients are just bodies to him too: “Those arraignment faces always bled together like in an amateurish, speedy camera pan.”
In addition to his heavy caseload, Casi has to navigate toxic office politics, frigid weather, a city obsessed with the tabloid murder of Baby Tula, and his downstairs neighbours, who come off like the Brothers Karamazov reimagined as television-obsessed graduate students. Meanwhile, an all-too-literal deadline is looming for his pro bono case: getting the childlike Jalen Kingg off Alabama’s death row. Casi is particularly devastated by the fact that the oblivious Kingg is most worried about losing his “recess” privileges (his daily hour outdoors).
I’ve barely scratched the surface of a narrative that features animated philosophical banter, hilarious courtroom scatology, a close examination of the link between perpetual surveillance and urban paranoia (Video Vigilantes and the case of Baby Tula) and, the best part of the novel, a running commentary on the boxing career of Wilfred Benitez, the rise and fall of which parallels Casi’s sense of his own predicament. Put another way, A Naked Singularity has about as much to do with the legal thrillers written by John Grisham as Melville’s Moby-Dick has to do with Jaws.
A Naked Singularity is a hugely ambitious book, if uneven. Upon hearing Dane’s plans for the heist, Casi describes it as “a fiction so powerful it outrealized reality,” which is a pretty good description of the novel as a whole. And therein lies the problem. The very expansiveness of a narrative that seeks to contain everything works to undermine its own consistency and coherence. In the early going, that doesn’t matter because De La Pava’s fine ear for dialogue allows the voices of his characters to serve as the chorus holding it all together. As the plot progresses, the chorus fades and De La Pava struggles to map out an overall narrative trajectory capable of containing each of the individual storylines.
In the end, he opts for thematic unity in the form of a presiding metaphor: the titular image of a naked singularity (a visible black hole), where the usual rules of space-time gravitation no longer hold. The author, a practising lawyer, sees the justice system in similar terms: collapsing inward under its own weight, succumbing to the physics of institutional inertia and moral torpor. A Naked Singularity suggests the law today is nothing more than an infinitely dense dot of human absurdity.
Matt Kavanagh is not a lawyer and has no first-hand experience of spicy capers unless you are referring to the garnish. He lives in Kelowna, B.C.