‘A Naked Singularity’ and the Affective Human Condition in the Maximalist Novel

‘Near-hysterical humanity’: A Naked Singularity and the Affective Human Condition in the Maximalist Novel

 

In 2001, James Wood coined the phrase ‘hysterical realism’ — a mode of novel writing, Wood argued, in which the conventions of realism are exhausted and overworked through a profusion of hyper-connected plots and subplots.[1] The products are fictional worlds represented in such encyclopaedic detail that they become ephemeral.[2] This results, Wood said, in books which ‘know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.’[3] He identified the presence of this ‘hysterical realism’ in contemporary ‘big, ambitious novels’, such as those written by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith.[4] These texts and others have since been grouped together and discussed under various guises by various other voices, hardening the collection into a recognisable genre.[5] Stefano Ercolino, whose monograph is the most comprehensive theoretical account of this nebulous genre to date, terms the texts ‘maximalist novels’.[6] This is how, for the sake of consistency, they will be referred to in this essay. Ercolino’s study does not discuss texts published later than 2005. However, were it to, Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity would no doubt be admitted into the collection. That A Naked Singularity belongs, through a family resemblance, to the genre of the maximalist novel has been recognised not only by Ercolino himself, but also by many of the novel’s reviewers.[7] Whilst an entire essay could be spent illustrating that their assertion is correct, taking this as axiomatic and moving on to examine A Naked Singularity in light of Wood’s criticisms of the genre is a far more worthwhile exercise. It further allows an exploration into the future of the American novel. Unlike its forebears, A Naked Singularity retains the ambitious elements of the maximalist novel, yet does not fall victim to them, and in so doing avoids Wood’s critiques of the genre.

The novel tells the story of Casi, a public defender in New York City, who is lured into a Faustian pact to execute the perfect crime by his perfectionist colleague, Dane. Within Casi’s narrative, De La Pava includes an extensive range of moral and philosophical debates, a critique of the contemporary U.S image-led society, and a damning representation of the American criminal justice system. Yet whilst these are all worthy of exploration, it is De La Pava’s representation of the family in the novel which leads to the aversion of Wood’s critique. Through Casi’s characterisation, and the relation of his familial sphere, A Naked Singularity paves a path for the maximalist novel that is distinguished from those prior to it; its maximalist qualities do not hinder it from an affecting representation of the human condition.[8] Whilst simultaneously retaining the aesthetic design of the maximalist novel, A Naked Singularity moves away from a dissonant chorality, becoming more democratic in focus, and in so doing retains the element of ‘the human’ which Wood fails to find in other texts of the genre.[9] This retention allows the novel to generate an empathetic response in the reader, distinguishing A Naked Singularity from those maximalist texts prior to it and positing an affective future for the genre.[10]

 

*

 

Like all maximalist novels, A Naked Singularity is formally ambitious.[11] Within its numerous pages, De La Pava includes fictional court transcripts, scans of written correspondence, a recipe for empanadas, and a fictitious epic poem. At times, it is also encyclopedic, and makes use of a self-referential narrator throughout. However, this aesthetic design in A Naked Singularity – unlike in many other maximalist novels – is not detrimental to the novel’s affect, due to its constructive empathetic function in the text.

From the start of the novel, the formal ambition is apparent. Consider the opening lines of the novel, made up of fragmented phrases and images:

 

—noise background,

My getting out or what?!

Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock […][12]

 

The meaning and iconography of the first two lines of the novel hangs unexplained and unintelligible above the descriptive setting until twelve pages later, when it is revealed that they represent the speech of Casi’s client, against the auditory backdrop of the law court interview cells:

 

He spoke first, obviously yelling but still creating only a barely audible signal:

—noise background,

My getting out or what?!

My money’s on what, followed by a pause long enough to be uncomfortable.

(ANS, p. 19)

 

The lines lack the conventional punctuation which demarks reported speech from narration, and utilise chronological narrative subversion through the resumption of a twelve-page long digressive hiatus. This immediately demonstrates the novel’s diverse formal composition, which is further enforced by the early inclusion of a satirical dictionary definition: ‘[bod-y (bõd’ē) n., pl. ies. 9. C.J.S Inarguably odious term used by N.Y.C Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendants.’ (ANS, p. 8) As well as this, the presence of a self-referential narrator is also introduced from the novel’s outset, as shown by the following:

 

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage […] can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam. Digression begins. […] Digression ends.

(ANS, pp. 11-14)

 

The narrative voice adopts a self-referential, meta-fictional pose, addressing the reader directly and discussing their own narrative techniques. (The address of ‘gentle reader’ is also a nod towards the Victorian novelist tradition of Charlotte Brontë and her ilk, furthering A Naked Singularity’s aesthetic hybridity.[13]) The text also visually indicates, through the use of italics, the beginning and end of the discussed digression. A similar visual signifier occurs in the following passage, in which court proceedings are outlined to the reader:

 

And the Rosario List that comes with the material will look substantially like this (well, without the explanatory parentheticals):

 

  1. Online Booking Sheet: (mostly pedigree info but also details your capture including specific time and place).
  2. UF61 or Complaint Report: (principally useful for the narrative of events it includes as relayed by the cop and/or those pesky civilian eyewitnesses).

(ANS, p. 15)

 

De La Pava introduces a numbered, indented list with ‘explanatory parentheticals’ into the narrative, once again utilising a self-referential narrator and eclectic formal composition. This extract also illustrates the novel’s encyclopedic nature, demonstrated by its use of the technical diction of the American criminal justice system (‘Online Booking Sheet’, ‘UF61 or Complaint Report’).

For Stefano Ercolino, this ‘encyclopedic mode’ is one of the identifying features of the maximalist novel. He defines it as ‘a particular aesthetic and cognitive attitude, […] the synthetic representation of heterogeneous realities and domains of knowledge.’[14] Three of these ‘domains’ exist in A Naked Singularity; professional boxing and the life of Wilfred Benitez, the illegal narcotics industry, and the American criminal justice system – the last of which is represented in the above extract.

The maximalist novel’s encyclopedic mode is, for James Wood, a significant contributor to the genre’s downfall. He says:

 

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.[15]

 

In Wood’s view, this encyclopedic scope alienates the reader from the text and the characters within due to the pervasive, narcissistic show of the author’s “brilliance” which underlines the rendering of these ‘domains of knowledge’. However, the above passage demonstrates that in A Naked Singularity, De La Pava manages to employ this mode without alienating the reader; rather, the mode is sustained in a democratic and accessible manner. In the above, the conversational asides and explanatory parentheticals aid the reader’s comprehension of the jargon of the criminal justice system, which most readers would be ignorant of otherwise. The encyclopedic mode is not left as a solitary, hostile presence of intellectual obfuscation, but rather is shared with and explained to the reader, causing a deeper (and necessary) engagement with the text and its protagonist’s vocation.

De La Pava uses the mode to the same effect in a later passage, this time in relation to a different ‘domain of knowledge’ – that of Colombian cuisine (Casi’s extended family are all Colombian immigrants living in New York). Set at Casi’s family’s celebration of his twenty-fourth birthday, Casi tells the reader that his mother cooked ‘empanadas and these are an unqualified good. If you disbelieve me then get your hands on this:’ (ANS, p. 157) – after which a full recipe for said ‘empanadas’ follows. Whilst initially Wood might recoil at the similarity to the novelist who ‘knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji!’, there is a subtle yet significant element of De La Pava’s instructive interlude which prohibits Wood’s critique. The recipe in A Naked Singularity is given to convince the reader of Casi’s judgement, experientially sharing its basis, to be used ‘if [they] disbelieve’ him. The option to step away and follow Casi’s recipe opens the world of the text to the reader, creating participation in the line of the book and bypassing a sense of alienation. The ‘if’ is also crucial; it permits the reader to side-step the passage if so desired, thereby removing the suggestion of insistent authorial narcissism. The encyclopedic mode (representing a detailed knowledge of Colombian cuisine), the formal inclusion of a recipe, and the self-conscious, meta-fictional narrator, all relate symbiotically to the reader, reducing the distance between reader and text.

 

There are moments, however, in which it seems that De La Pava may fall subject to Wood’s complaint; moments in the novel in which ‘bright lights’ are not ‘evidence of habitation’. For example, in a passage in which Casi details a page-long stipulation on the precise way in which to make instant coffee – comprising of sentences such as, ‘add the sugar at a rate where each individual sugar granule will have its component molecules sufficiently bombarded by surrounding molecules’ (ANS, p. 457). The passage is frivolous and intellectually self-indulgent; Wood would undoubtedly take issue with it. Whilst it is true that Casi is an exceptionally intelligent orator, the Casi which bemoans the wasted intellect of his neighbours’ ‘“bizarre and ultimately irrelevant conversations”’ (ANS, p. 437) about television, is incompatible with the Casi that gives this intellectual, but ultimately irrelevant, response to how he would like his coffee. The voice which permeates through the lines is the author’s, desperately wishing to entertain the reader with a show of his ingenuity. It is the trap Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest is an unmitigated maximalist novel, acknowledges he is liable to fall into:

 

I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!”[16]

 

In this page-long description of coffee-making, De La Pava also seems to have lost sight of the service to the story itself, momentarily contradicting Casi’s characterisation in favour of authorial ‘bright lights.’

The representation of The Orchard hotel provides another instance of this ‘rather darker purpose’ in A Naked Singularity. When visiting his death row client, Jalen Kingg, Casi stays at The Orchard hotel, which figures as an absurdist Edenic allegory. Casi is urged to eat as much fruit as he wishes, but the ‘Apple wing’ is out of bounds, and the current guests are from the ‘Society of Egalitarian Reptile Protectors Entitled to New Technology for long, S.E.R.P.E.N.T for short.’ (ANS, p. 602) At best, The Orchard is a contrived and obtrusive contrast to the postlapsarian endpoint of Casi’s visit, the nearby Holman Prison’s Death Row – a trip outside of the Edenic hotel which, unsurprisingly, the hotel manager’s ‘“almost sacred responsibility” [emphasis added]’ to his guests’ well-being forbids him to encourage (ANS, p. 606). Relinquishing this overly transparent symbolism, The Orchard is either permitted as a humorous mood-lifter, or damned as nothing more than an inane, ironic indulgence that in Foster Wallace’s words, is not ‘in the service of the story itself.’ Wood also has a problem with the transparent absurdity of this type of writing. He criticises aspects of Zadie Smith’s maximalist novel, White Teeth, not for ‘deny[ing] the laws of physics’ but for ‘deny[ing] the laws of persuasion.’[17] He turns to Aristotle for an explanation of why the latter is far worse than the former:

 

This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling ‘a convincing impossibility’ (a man levitating, say) is always preferable to ‘an unconvincing possibility’ (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself K.E.V.I.N).[18]

 

The scenes in A Naked Singularity which take place at The Orchard are all examples of ‘unconvincing possibilities,’ even providing an equivalently ludicrous acronym through the ‘S.E.R.P.E.N.T’ group. It is perfectly possible to have a hotel and guests of that description, but it is entirely implausible. However, unlike in Smith’s novel, De La Pava’s protagonist is as aware as the reader is of the hotel’s ludicrous parallels (‘“You’re kidding right? Serpent in the gardens? Is this some kind of put-on?”’ (ANS, p. 602)). This is a redemptive wink to the reader, hinting at a shared acknowledgement of the passage’s absurdity between reader and protagonist.

 

The occasional presence in A Naked Singularity of instances such as this, which tend towards the ‘hysterical realism’ Wood recoils from, is not, however, hugely problematic. Firstly, because as Daniel Zalewski observes, ‘if novels are meant to reflect the heat of a culture, it seems appropriate for at least some of them to be anxiety-riddled, emotionally confused and intellectually scattershot — in a word, hysterical.’[19] It may not be A Naked Singularity’s sole raison d’être, but the employment of the criminal justice system and other clearly societal narrative components in the novel show that to some extent the novel means to ‘reflect the heat of a culture.’[20] It is not detrimental, therefore, that occasional moments in the text tend towards hysteria. Secondly, the occurrence of these instances is so noticeable and easily identifiable due to their very infrequency and contrast with the majority of the novel. They are not synecdochal; the occasional presence of these fault lines in A Naked Singularity does not prohibit it from avoiding Wood’s critique in general. The second part of Wood’s critique explains why this is so. Expanding his criticism on the stories and sub-stories within maximalist novels which ‘deny the laws of persuasion’, Wood says ‘what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness […] Together, they vandalize each other.’[21] Whilst Wood’s use of ‘vandalize’ seems unnecessarily moral, implying a need for purity, his observation on relentless absurdity is sound. It prohibits the reader from a full immersion in the text, as it consistently reminds the reader of the text’s artifice. As Wood says, the ubiquitous presence of these unpersuasive narratives is what denies them efficacy; for example, with respect to the religious fanatics in Smith’s White Teeth, he notes that ‘One cult is convincing; three cults are not.’[22] In A Naked Singularity, however, these absurdist lapses are few and far between. They are the minority rather than the majority, and most crucially, are not related to one another. For example, the world of the farcical Orchard hotel is unconnected to the equally absurdist priest who secretly videos the inside of his confessional booth for an H.B.O television show ‘Clerical Confessions’ (ANS, p. 544). The isolated narratives, whilst unconvincing, are not related, and so do not ‘vandalize each other.’ De La Pava also protects his novel from Wood’s criticism by constraining these lapses in A Naked Singularity to thematically insignificant instances, such as the making of coffee or Casi’s accommodation. It might be absurd to spend a page outlining how to make instant coffee, but it is, after all, only coffee. None of the novel’s key narratives or developments are subjected to this nullifying absurdism – the style is not allowed to take governance of, and so belittle, the content.

 

That A Naked Singularity is formally ambitious is undeniable. At times, as in the above, this is detrimental to the text as it manifests itself in absurdity.[23] Yet, as the next section of this essay will explore, the core of the novel’s narration deploys an overriding sincerity. Overall, the aesthetic design of A Naked Singularity – whether in the textual composition, the self-referential narrator, or the encyclopedic mode – functions not to exclude, but to ingratiate the reader with the novel’s protagonist. It demonstrates that whilst A Naked Singularity retains the aesthetic ambition of the maximalist novel, it does not let its aesthetic commitment reduce the efficacy of its content.

 

*

 

Whilst the formal ambition of A Naked Singularity is (in the main) beneficial to its affect, the novel’s success and its distinction from the failings of other maximalist texts is not only, nor mostly, indebted to its formalities. The most powerful actor on the novel’s success is its sincerity. In particular, the sincerity with which it attempts to represent the human condition. Immediately, these prodigious phrases incite a certain level of trepidation. ‘Sincerity’ and ‘the human condition’: vast, abstract concepts which are daunting to approach and often impossible to discuss with any real meaning. Yet if the temptation to become embroiled in semantic, terminological theory is resisted, they are topics which can be discussed with surprising ease and utility.

Foster Wallace does so in an essay on Dostoyevsky, whose fiction, Wallace argues, is unequivocally sincere due to its unwavering attempt to represent the human condition:

 

His concern was always what it is to be a human being – that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.[24]

 

It is the presence of this type of sincerity, a transparent concern with the rendering of the human condition, ‘an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles’, that distinguishes A Naked Singularity from other maximalist novels and the criticisms weighed against them. In the maximalist novels of Smith, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, DeLillo, etc., Wood finds characters that ‘are not really alive, not fully human’; instead, they are ‘flat, but vibrating very fast’, with a ‘showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact they are without life.’[25] This is one of the factors which leads Wood to his damning conclusion that the texts ‘do not know a single human being.’[26] The same cannot be said for A Naked Singularity, which highlights the problem of vast generalisation in Wood’s huge claims about huge texts. Throughout A Naked Singularity, De La Pava attempts to represent ‘actual person[s]’, and the values and principles which inform their lives. In so doing, he retains the presence of ‘the human’ within the maximalist novel, which Wood fails to find in others of the genre.[27]

 

Naturally, the representation of an ‘actual person’ is mainly figured through the novel’s protagonist, Casi. That the novel is narrated in the first person, through Casi himself, has an obvious claim as a significant factor on the reader’s perception of his human condition – the ‘I’ of the first person immediately suggests a more intimate exposure to the protagonist than the ‘he/she’ of the third person. For example, consider this in the following passage, an internalised reflection of Casi’s feelings towards his sister, Marcela:

 

In my head only I said I like you Marcela, I mean I love you but I also like you, I like you because you say things like faith in God and when I hear something like that it’s almost like I’m looking for subtitles […]

(ANS, p. 153)

 

Were the first-person voice to be exchanged for the third, the intimate confessional nature of the passage would be lost. Alternatively, if the italicised first-person sequence were kept, the third-person framework would be an incongruous setting for the confessional thought sequence that follows it. For example, imagine instead that the text read as either of the following: ‘In his head only he thought that he likes Marcela, he loves her but he also likes her, he likes her because she says things like faith in God and when he hears something like that it’s almost like he’s looking for subtitles […]’; or, ‘In his head only he said I like you Marcela, I mean I love you but I also like you […].’ Neither example has the same effect as the original, reading as less personal and grammatically incongruous respectively. Of course, these are contrived examples of a direct substitution of pronouns, and this is not to imply that a skilled author is unable to generate intimacy between reader and character through the third person. However, the exercise illustrates the fundamental point that the first-person narrative voice lends itself more easily to a perception of Casi’s thoughts, feelings, and character.

In this, A Naked Singularity is markedly different from the other maximalist texts studied in Ercolino’s monograph. These are characterised by what Ercolino calls a ‘dissonant chorality.’[28] He observes the following in these texts:

 

[…] the narration is advanced by a greater or lesser multiplicity of voices, which does not allow for the affirmation of a dominant narrative locus. [… For example,] it would be problematic to assert that in Infinite Jest Hal Incandenza is a more central character than Don Gately […] Thus, a choral impulse shapes these works in accordance with their tendency to eschew the imposition of primary protagonists or stories.[29]

 

Clearly, this is not the case in A Naked Singularity. By definition, the singular existence of the first-person narration in the novel ensures a primary protagonist, ever-present as a biased filtration of the novel’s occurrences. Although A Naked Singularity is peopled with many characters, and there are many different stories (Casi’s familial developments, the heist, baby Tula’s murder, Jalen Kingg’s trial, etc.), due to Casi’s feature in and relation to all of them, the novel never fully reaches a ‘choral impulse.’ Even the biography of Wilfred Benitez, the professional boxer whose life-story is woven through the novel’s events, is subject to Casi’s personal narration and thereby becomes an extension of Casi, one of his current preoccupations, rather than an independent narrative. In a sense, then, A Naked Singularity demonstrates elements of what Ercolino calls, ‘the anthropocentric procedures characteristic of the nineteenth-century realist novels.’[30] (Although these nineteenth-century novels tend to exhibit the same anthropocentricism using the third-person narrative voice rather than the first.) Man, in particular Casi the individual, is central to the novel. Ercolino observes a refutation of this protagonist-led anthropocentricism in the polyphonic chorality of maximalist texts.[31] Yet in countering this literary past so adamantly, the maximalist novels Ercolino discusses in his monograph miss out on a beneficial stylistic hybridity which A Naked Singularity employs. In A Naked Singularity, it is the presence of and balance between the two textual strategies which sets the novel apart from other maximalist texts. In this, De La Pava demonstrates what Charles Newman outlines as the ‘obvious task’ of contemporary literature; ‘the recombinancy of 19th century emotional generosity with the technical virtuosity of the 20th.’[32] Whilst retaining a polyphonic nature, through heterogeneous stories and characters, Casi as primary protagonist enables the novel to represent an ‘actual person’ and the actual people around him. This creates a harmonic effect, rather than the cacophonous swirl of immaterial characters which Wood identifies in other texts of the genre.[33]

 

The impression that Casi’s character is that of an ‘actual person, someone whose life is influenced by values and principles,’ is largely conveyed through De La Pava’s representation of Casi’s familial sphere, and the value he attributes to it. This is because a reader’s appreciation of character, and the generation of empathy towards that character, is based on certain of the same observations which occur in reality. Psychoanalytic studies recognise that an appreciation of a person’s character relies on an understanding of that person’s relation to and with others. As Alfred Adler observes, ‘In order to know how someone thinks, we have to examine her relationship to her fellow human beings.’[34] For Casi, the foremost of these relationships are those with his family members, and it is De La Pava’s emotive representation of these connections which enables the reader to ‘know’ Casi. (That almost all readers will have experienced a familial relation in their lives also furthers this effect, as it makes an empathetic connection more readily available.)

The previously mentioned family gathering depicts a multiplicity of these relationships early on in the novel. The novel opens as Casi turns twenty-four, which he celebrates solely with his extended family, at a gathering at his mother’s house. The first family member the reader is introduced to is his sister Marcela, whom he picks up en route to their childhood home. Extending the analysis of the abovementioned extract past an appreciation of the first-person voice demonstrates Casi’s relationship to his sister:

 

In my head only I said I like you Marcela, I mean I love you but I also like you, I like you because you say things like faith in God and when I hear something like that it’s almost like I’m looking for subtitles, I like you because you wear an apron while you ask your kid if he finished his homework and I’m not built for that but I admire the hell out of it, best of all your eyes smile when your mouth does and have you ever noticed you’ve passed that ultra-charming trait on to Mary?

(ANS, p. 153)

 

Even on an initial reading, it is hard not to be moved by this unabashed internal dialogue of familial affection. The overt fondness, conveyed through uninhibited, rambling prose, reads like a free-writing exercise straight from Casi’s heart. Yet it is not solely the gush of emotion behind this which is so affecting. Casi describes how hearing Marcela saying things like ‘faith in God’ causes him to feel like he’s ‘looking for subtitles’, drawing attention to the siblings’ differences; Casi is inarticulate in Marcela’s language of faith. Yet this dissimilarity does not result in a lack of connection or understanding between the siblings. Rather, De La Pava represents their subliminal connection in the face of differences. When he says, ‘I like you Marcela, I mean I love you but I also like you’, Casi sets up a distinction between ‘like’ and ‘love’. Conventionally, ‘loving’ is a more powerful emotion than ‘liking’. So much so that ‘love’ is worthy of its own conception as an abstract noun, whereas ‘like’ is not. You might question, “What is ‘love’?”, but no one ever asks, “What is ‘like’?”. In the above sentence, however, Casi shows how this convention is turned on its head when in the context of a familial relationship. Here, De La Pava presents Casi’s ‘liking’ of his sister as a superlative addition to their natural familial love. Casi does not just feel an assumed fraternal love, but says, ‘I also like you […] because you wear an apron while you ask your kid if he finished his homework and I’m not built for that but I admire the hell out of it.’ Even in their dissimilarity, Casi values his sister for her own worth. This further enforces the subliminal connection between the two siblings, depicting it as multifaceted and independent of familial links or situational compatibility. It is highly evocative, and generates an emotive response in the reader towards Casi and his fraternal role. The comforting, homely image of Marcela’s domestic scene doubles this effect, causing the reader to reflect on the similar connections present between Marcela and her children. This transparent, intimate introduction to Casi’s familial relationships causes his character to vibrate with true vitality, as he is contextualised by his relationships to other members of his family.

 

De La Pava does not, however, represent the familial unit as an unrealistic, sugar-coated idyll. A Naked Singularity acknowledges the experiential truth that with great love, comes great pain. The family have their own troubles – an illegally immigrated cousin is likely to go to jail, Marcela’s daughter Mary has not spoken for months for no apparent reason, and Casi’s mother might have breast cancer. Casi is told about the latter by his sister in the following passage:

 

I was further informed [by Alana] that during that brief hospital stay Marcela’s mother, the mother Alana and I shared with her, took the opportunity to disclose that she had some rather mysterious lumps in some rather troublesome areas […] and all that was left to do now was await the results, which waiting it was understood could be done simultaneously with the wait for Mary to talk and Marcela to give birth to another human whose presence would no doubt some day give rise to feelings similar to the ones we were currently enjoying.

(ANS, p. 639-640)

 

Here, De La Pava shows true insight into the human condition and the complexity of the relationships which influence it, as Casi presents the diverting masquerade individuals adopt when presented with emotionally affecting topics of conversation. Just as one refers to their relative having ‘passed away’ rather than ‘died’, in order to soften the confrontation of a bereavement, Casi’s use of circumlocutory language shows the emotional force the news has on him. He refers to his mother as ‘Marcela’s mother, the mother Alana and I shared with her’ rather than ‘my mother’, and the medical threat is described as ‘rather mysterious lumps in rather troublesome places.’ The use of indirect speech and formal language and syntax (‘took the opportunity to disclose’, ‘which waiting it was understood could be done simultaneously’) also emphasises Casi’s discomfort in confronting his emotions, which hide behind these devices. In utilising such a recognisable emotional coping strategy, De La Pava paves an immediate access to Casi’s character, as the reader is pulled into an engagement with his diversionary language. The reader sees through it to the pain and fear beneath, just as they would in a friend speaking before them in real life. Again, A Naked Singularity separates itself from other maximalist texts, whose ‘mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish.’[35] There is plenty of both here. It is moments such as this that illustrate why the reader comes away from A Naked Singularity aware of the inexplicable presence of ‘the human’ in the novel. The conception of Casi’s pain provides the reader with a comforting, experiential ally to their own sufferings in the past, present, or future. Foster Wallace describes this effect as a ‘big part of serious fiction’s purpose’:

 

I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. […] We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.[36],[37]

 

This passage causes the reader to feel ‘less alone inside,’ and so illustrates how A Naked Singularity is able to move the reader in a way in which other maximalist texts do not; other maximalist texts in which critics have found, in contrast, it ‘customary to read seven-hundred-page novels, to spend hours in a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting or beautiful.’[38] In A Naked Singularity, however, experiences such as this are frequent occurrences.

 

When looking at this passage in comparison with the earlier extract of Casi’s uninhibited affection towards Marcela, quoted on page sixteen of this essay, it might initially seem illogical to label it as a ‘sincere representation’ of Casi’s human condition, due to the acknowledged theatricality of Casi’s distracting narration. However, in A Naked Singularity, Casi’s human condition is not only rendered through his contextualising relationships to and with other human beings, but also through the sincere mode of Casi’s narration, particularly when concerning these relationships. (This directly opposes the persistent ironic tone found in most other maximalist texts, which enfeebles their attempt to represent ‘the human’.[39]) An appreciation of this sincerity does not, however, demand a trip down the technical, jargon-littered rabbit hole of discussions on sincerity and authenticity in literature and language.[40] Stepping over these semantic land mines, the sincerity found in Casi’s narrative voice is simply the sincere depiction of Casi’s emotional affect; by which I mean the genuine conveyance through Casi’s mode of narration of the mental effect these relationships occasion in his character. Ryan Ruby observes how this causes the reader to engage emotionally with A Naked Singularity in a way in which other maximalist texts do not occasion:

 

Whatever debt De La Pava owes to the formal techniques of postmodernism, he is also capable of delivering old-fashioned novelistic pleasure. We root for Casi and we worry about him – affective responses that are surprising in a book that is so unapologetically intelligent.[41]

 

By sincerely depicting Casi’s own affective responses, De La Pava elicits similar responses in the reader. To explain this, consider the difference between the modes of narration in the two passages discussed. In the earlier extract, when divulging positive emotions, Casi’s language is transparent and his tone gushing. In the above extract, when divulging negative emotions, he erects a smokescreen of formal syntax and indirect language. Whilst the obvious diversionary tactics in the latter imply a lack of sincerity to Casi’s actual words – made more apparent by the uninhibited prose encountered in the previous extract – it counterintuitively does reflect the novel’s sincere representation of Casi’s emotional affect, and so the human condition. There is, between text and character, a sincerity of the kind defined by Lionel Trilling as a ‘congruence of avowal and actual feeling.’[42] Trilling’s use of ‘congruence’ in his description is crucial; according to Trilling, sincerity is a right and fitting harmonious accordance between what is expressed, and what is felt.[43] Casi’s transparent language in the first passage, describing his love for his sister is, by this definition, sincere, as the emotions he is expressing are equally uncomplicated and transparent. Yet when confronted with the pain this love can cause, as all readers will experientially recognise, these emotions become more complicated and, therefore, so too does the way in which they are expressed. The individual is unable to simply say, “This makes me sad”, as the emotions involved in the confrontation of a relative’s mortality are multifaceted and often linguistically inexplicable. In the second extract, therefore, Casi’s obfuscating narration is an equally sincere representation of his ‘actual feeling’, as it is a fitting accordance with the complicated emotional reaction instigated by the news he receives. Through narratorial agility, De La Pava renders a sincere representation of the complexity of the relationships that shape ‘what it is to be a human being’, and the multifarious emotions these entail.

 

*

 

The structural format of the novel also demonstrates a paramount concern in A Naked Singularity with the family unit’s constitution to the human condition. The novel is structured in three parts. ‘Part One’ ends when Casi loses his first trial, ‘Part Two’ begins after the trial’s verdict causes Casi to agree to Dane’s heist, and ‘Part Three’ begins after the heist is complete. The chronology is linear, with the partitions structured around crucial moments in the development of the heist – pre, intra, and post. It is significant, then, that the only long-term disruption to the linear chronology occurs in relation to Casi’s familial setting. In ‘Part Three’, the chapter which chronologically occurs between chapter twenty-four and chapter twenty-five, appears at the end of the novel, as chapter thirty-two. This chapter narrates Casi’s arrival at his mother’s house after the blackout lifts (a coup pulled off by Dane in order to shift attention away from the accomplished heist), where he learns that his niece, Mary, has started to speak following the birth of her brother. This is clearly an intentional move in a novel whose chapters otherwise correspond entirely to linear progression. It posits the idea that De La Pava is saving the most important aspect of the novel to the end – the personal, human connections that make us who we are as individuals. Although the heist is superficially the most obvious plotline of the novel, through this narrative disruption De La Pava demonstrates an overriding concern with the rendering of the human condition and the relationships which comprise it, as the familial scene is savoured until the end. This is confirmed in the narrative, when Casi arrives at his mother’s house and observes how ‘No-one talked about the blackout and Mary filled the room with words.’ (ANS, p. 702) The blackout, and so the heist which occasioned it, is superseded by and pales into insignificance beside the restoration of Mary’s speech and the gathering of family members in the wake of a crisis. For all its intellectual intricacy, and the conceptual sophistication of the heist narrative, at the end of the day (and of the novel itself), A Naked Singularity returns the reader to humanity, and genuine human connections.

Not only does this structural hierarchy distinguish A Naked Singularity from other maximalist texts, but so too does the way in which De La Pava depicts the scene itself. Wood observes how, ‘the big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.’[44] The close of chapter twenty-four in A Naked Singularity, however, is neither embarrassed into velocity nor ashamed of silence. The description that, ‘No-one talked about the blackout and Mary filled the room with words,’ is the concluding sentence of the chapter, and the reader is not returned to the room filled with Mary’s words until over a hundred pages later. The sentence is made all the more powerful, then, by the silence that follows it with the chapter’s close. De La Pava does not hide, embarrassed, the gravitas of the scene beneath lines of further descriptive text, nor a literal reproduction of Mary’s speech. Instead, De La Pava pays service to the idiom that less is more, allowing the simplistic sentence and the silence in the text itself to give greater poignancy to the revival of Mary’s speech, her brother’s birth and the familial reunion. Compare this with the narration of an event of equal, if not greater, emotional significance in Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A character commits suicide by putting his head inside a microwave oven, which is described in a dense spew of ephemeral detail:

 

The rotisserie microwave over next to the fridge, on the freezer side, on the counter, under the cabinet with the plates and bowls to the left of the fridge as you face the fridge.[45]

 

Here, the emotional effect is lost under a crescendo of descriptive specifics. Once again, A Naked Singularity distinguishes itself from others of its ilk; De La Pava allows for textual silence to resonate with the importance of familial love and genuine human connections.

This effect is similar to that which Wood identifies in the novels of Charles Dickens (whom he establishes as the father-figure of maximalist characterisation) but fails to find in contemporary maximalist texts:

 

[…] in Dickens there is always an immediate access to strong feeling, which tears the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them. […] One recalls that very passionate and simple sentence, in which David Copperfield tells us: ‘Mr Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to his room, and cried very much.’ It is difficult to find a single moment like that in all the many thousands of pages of the big, ambitious, contemporary books.’[46]

 

A ‘moment like that’ is, however, present in the sentence which describes the resumption of Mary’s speech. Just as Dickens chooses to not inform the reader of the exact words and emotions passed between Mr Micawber and David Copperfield, but leaves intuitive emotive depth underneath the simplistic description that they ‘cried very much’, the same is seen when De La Pava does not inform the reader of what Mary says, to whom, or how, but just gives the ‘very passionate and simple sentence’: ‘No-one talked about the blackout and Mary filled the room with words.’ This is not a one-off, either; moments such as this occur frequently in the novel. For example, when Casi’s sister cannot find the words to express her emotion:

 

She came into the living room and opened her mouth but nothing came out and it slowly closed.

(ANS, p. 150)

 

When Casi depicts the weight of adult responsibility:

 

On my old bed in my mother’s house like the squirt I used to be covered with a guilt I never felt back then.

(ANS, p. 429)

 

When Casi’s vocational success is put into perspective by his client’s outlook:

 

And I felt good and he looked sad and scared and then I felt bad too.

(ANS, p. 614)

 

When Casi embraces his grandparents after a dangerous experience:

 

I gave them hugs and kisses and didn’t want to let go of my grandmother.

(ANS, p. 851)

 

Consistently, all of these examples exemplify a complex aspect of ‘what it is to be a human being’ (for example; emotional expression, adulthood, guilt, and love) and concern interactions between people. Through ‘very passionate and simple sentence[s]’, they move the reader with a direct approach to the complexity of the human condition, providing an ‘immediate access to strong feeling’ which is absent from the numerous pages of other maximalist texts.

 

*

 

After Wood’s iconic call for the next contemporary ‘big, ambitious novel’ to ‘Tell me how does it feel?’, Jonathan Franzen’s maximalist text, The Corrections, appeared on the literary scene as, in Zadie Smith’s words, ‘a blatant attempt to redress that imbalance and return the intimate voice to a DeLilloesque [read; ‘maximalist’] structure.’[47],[48] The intimate voice was returned in The Corrections by Franzen’s characterisation of the Lambert family, following the same familial path to ‘the human’ that A Naked Singularity takes. Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan note this in their introduction to The Good of the Novel:

 

The Corrections was hailed as a literary event – and its author as a stellar new talent – mainly because the novel was understood to represent the return of character. […] The Corrections restored a concern with plausible human beings, their complex desires, their compelling stories, their difficult relationships. And it did this by returning to the institution that lies at the heart of so much American art: the family.[49]

 

Franzen’s novel could not, however, substitute for A Naked Singularity as the subject of this dissertation. This is because The Corrections was unable to resist sacrificing its human heart to the totalising lure of maximalism, as McIlvanney and Ryan go on to observe:

 

And yet, at times in The Corrections, Franzen seems to regard his fictional family as worthy of artistic attention only if he can make it serve the ends of ‘social description’ and ‘cultural engagement,’ ends Franzen discussed in a famous Harper’s essay of April 1996 called ‘Perchance to Dream.’[50]

 

This is evident in the following passage from Franzen’s novel, where marital love is used to serve commentary societal ends: ‘Never mind that his work so satisfied him that he didn’t need her love, while her chores so bored her that she needed his love doubly. In any rational accounting, his work cancelled her work.’[51] Franzen’s moving representation of imbalanced love is undermined by the corporate evaluation at the end. Here, A Naked Singularity takes over Franzen’s incomplete corrections to the maximalist genre, by presenting a fictional family worthy of ‘artistic attention’ in and of itself. Consider the ‘artist attention’ evident in the narrative style of the following passage, in which Casi reflects on a memory of Marcela rescuing him when he was lost in a shopping mall as a young child:

 

All the lines you’re only peripherally aware of came into focus and sharpened dangerously. I was afraid they would cut me because that’s what sharp lines do. I wasn’t crying but I was upset and I was walking faster and faster, circling, trying desperately to return to my point of origin. Resigned misery I felt. I was staring at the floor and decided I was going to dive in and try to quantum tunnel right through to the under side. But when I bent my stubbly legs in anticipation I found I could fly. I rose above everyone, the earthbound, and started spinning. Then Marcela put me down and smothered me with love.

(ANS, p. 153)

 

The memory is narrated in a hybrid of childish syntax and adult vocabulary. The logical deduction is the simplistic one of a child’s (‘I was afraid they would cut me because that’s what sharp lines do’; ‘I found I could fly’), as is the defiant bravery in the face of tears (‘I wasn’t crying but I was upset’). Yet this phrasing and thought process sits alongside a sophisticated, adult vocabulary. Casi describes shapes he was ‘peripherally aware of’, feeling ‘resigned misery’, and trying to ‘quantum tunnel right through’ the floor. By using the adult Casi’s language but the young Casi’s syntax, De La Pava implies that his older sister is still as comforting a presence to him in adulthood as she was in childhood, demonstrating the enduring value of their relationship and further humanising Casi as a recognisable character shaped by relationships with others around him. This demonstrates a clear ‘artistic attention’ to the family, with no ulterior motive other than the depiction of the siblings’ relationship.

 

This does not mean, however, that A Naked Singularity does not also serve the ends of ‘social description’ and ‘cultural engagement’ which Franzen strives after.[52] De La Pava, however, has the astuteness to not undermine the one by attempting to approach it through the other. Rather, A Naked Singularity attributes artistic attention to the fictional family with a self-contained teleology, whilst also separately serving these societal ends.

What Franzen calls ‘social description’ and ‘cultural engagement’, corresponds with what Ercolino identifies as ‘ethical commitment’ in the maximalist novel.[53] Ercolino evidences this with the observation that the ‘thematic field of the maximalist novel is monopolized by themes of great historical, political, and social relevance.’[54] In A Naked Singularity, the depiction of the American criminal justice system – which highlights the injustice in much of its design and execution – is an immediately obvious example of ‘ethical commitment’ in the novel. That, however, is for another essay. Here, it suffices to examine another ‘theme of great historical, political, and social relevance’ which coincides with and supports A Naked Singularity’s concern with ‘the human.’ This is exemplified in the narrative of Casi’s fatuous neighbours. Three ‘good customers of Columbia University’, ‘purchasing’ (ANS, p. 66) degrees with their parents’ money, Angus, Alyona and Louie do little more than excessively consume, and discuss, Television with a capital T. Although, as Ruby notes, ‘this section seems to be the weakest, a rehashed DeLilloan media critique,’ when the blackout occurs, it provides an emphasising point of contrast to Casi’s familial home that demonstrates the layer of ‘ethical commitment’ to De La Pava’s representation of the family.[55]

Before Casi retreats to his mother’s house, at Angus’ apartment, ‘The candle went out and [he] lost his face along with everything else in the room. There was nothing to look at; all [they] had left was [their] voices and the words they caused.’ (ANS, p. 695) The loss of electricity results in an absolute darkness, which leaves only fragmented aspects of human interaction in their ‘voices and the words they caused.’ This fragmentation is mimetic of Angus’ entire life and the incomplete relationships within it. He spends his life denying human connections, supplanting them for pixelated relationships with characters in a television show. ‘“Two-dimensional, three-dimensional, what’s the difference?”’, Angus asks when Casi contests this lifestyle. The ‘difference’, and the importance of it, is highlighted by the consequences of the blackout, where the scene in Angus’ apartment is starkly contrasted with that at Casi’s family home. When Angus’ apartment, in which the Television acted as ‘the sun’ (ANS, p. 70), succumbs to the loss of electricity, it ‘kept getting colder and it kept feeling darker’ (ANS, p. 696) until there is ‘nothing left to look at.’ On the other hand, at Casi’s mother’s house, where social interactions between family members are so frequent and extensive that they create a ‘near-hysterical humanity’ (ANS, p. 159), the ‘heat [is] actually visible so that the room seemed almost foggy.’ (ANS, p. 850) The blackout throws a damning light onto the insufficiency of Angus’ two-dimensional relationships through this ocular comparison, as the cold and dark of his apartment is directly contrasted with Casi’s mother’s house, where a crowd of family members produce visible heat.

This contrast is mirrored through a series of objects which enforce the tangible connections between Casi’s family members. Casi ‘fell on the sofa’ (ANS, p. 850) which his grandparents then sit on, and ‘That night Marcela lay on that same sofa’ under a ‘red yarn slipcover Buela [his grandmother] had sewn by hand.’ (ANS, p. 851) Nearby, ‘in the same modest bassinet Alana slept in two decades earlier, lay [Casi’s] nephew.’ (ANS, p. 851) The security of the three generations’ familial links is physically represented through the objects that surround them, sharply contrasting with the intangible presence of Angus’ relationship to pixels on a screen. The ‘ethical commitment’ is clear as De La Pava engages with a theme of ‘social relevance’; contemporary society’s struggle to prioritise real relationships over the plethora of two dimensional alternatives offered by a mass televisual media.[56] Whilst simultaneously representing and critiquing the inhuman aspects of contemporary ‘Television’ society and Angus’ submission to them, De La Pava illuminates an alternative in the genuine, tangible relationships between Casi’s family. In so doing, De La Pava demonstrates what Foster Wallace describes as the defining feature of ‘good art’:

 

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still love and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.[57]

 

A Naked Singularity has a sufficiently dark worldview; its depiction of the failings of the American criminal justice system and the televisual existence of Casi’s neighbours are bleak renderings of ‘the times’ darkness’. Yet in its depiction of this world, it also locates and emphasises through the lasting value of Casi’s familial connections, ‘those elements of what’s human and magical that still love and glow.’

The proffering of this alternative also differentiates A Naked Singularity from other texts of its genre. Foster Wallace observes how the current U.S literary world is populated by books that cause a reader to exclaim: ‘“Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!”’[58] But, for Foster Wallace, mere commentary is not enough. He explains why:

 

[…] we already “know” U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price?[59]

 

Here, Foster Wallace identifies the distinguishing realisation in A Naked Singularity which makes it far more ‘engaging and artistically real’ than other maximalist texts. In the novel’s Dantean descent into the ‘dark times’ of the blackout, Casi’s mother’s house figures as a safe house in which human beings still ‘love and glow’ both literally and metaphorically. Contrasting Casi’s family with his ‘grossly materialistic’ neighbours, De La Pava shows how it is through these human connections ‘that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price.’

Although as in The Corrections, this ‘ethical commitment’ involves the fictional family, unlike Franzen, De La Pava does not use Casi’s family as the means to this end; rather, he offers it as a contrasting alternative to that which is critiqued, containing its value in the purity of its representation. Criticising the teleological goal of the Lambert family in Franzen’s novel, Wood voices the thematic appreciation due to the family, which De La Pava exhibits in A Naked Singularity:

 

What grates is that there is no need to make enlargements of the theme in this way. What is larger, as a subject, than the eternal corrections of a family? […] Family is the great determinism.[60]

 

Unlike Franzen, De La Pava is aware of this, and feels no such need for extrapolation in A Naked Singularity. He gives prominence to Casi’s family in its own right, and so A Naked Singularity shows itself as ‘A “good” novel [which] is metaphysical and human before it is social and documentary.’[61] The novel’s ‘metaphysical and human’ priority is evident in the following dialogue between Casi and his two sisters:

 

Love you say, hmm.”

“What?” I said.

“Nothing, just that love is an unarguably good thing it seems.”

“And?”

“Well there didn’t have to be Love you know. Love didn’t have to exist, right Mar?”

“I don’t know if it had to exist or not but I’m not sure it’s all you’re cracking it up to be,” she said.

“Huh?”

“I know this is going to sound weird but this kind of love is almost too intense. It hurts a bit. It feels almost like loss.”

[…]

“Oh man,” said Alana. “I think I know what you mean about the tinge of loss in love and what’s worse I think I can explain it.” She waited for us to ask her to do so but we said nothing and she continued anyway. “It’s not like loss, it is loss. What you’re feeling, and this is neither the time nor place of course, is the actual loss that is the inevitable end of all love, barely discernible but nagging.”

(ANS, p. 853)

 

Through the siblings’ ‘metaphysical and human’ discussion, De La Pava grapples with the intimidating concept of ‘love’ and its paradoxes, without falling into cliché. In so doing, he meets head on aspects of the human condition which critics have found other maximalist novelists too scared to address. Foster Wallace observes this, comparing the ‘thematic poverty’ of contemporary American fiction to that of Dostoyevsky’s, in which characters’ dialogues discuss ‘what’s really important – motive, feeling, belief.’[62] Wallace asks, ‘Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this […]?’[63] A Naked Singularity removes the need to ‘imagine’ a U.S novelist ‘allowing a character to say stuff like this’; the characters in A Naked Singularity frequently do so. Although this is but one example, in a novel in which recurrent philosophical and moral debates occur – between Casi and his neighbours, his colleagues, his sisters, and Dane – it is significant that De La Pava chooses to withhold this particular discussion, on the characteristics of love, until the end of the novel. It is a concluding reminder that this text does know human beings, and the emotions and relationships which make up the human condition.

 

*

 

In her essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, Smith exposes the choice left to contemporary American novelists, between two diametrically opposed paths of literary style.[64] The first, the well-trodden route of ‘the nineteenth century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert,’ in which, ‘the self is a bottomless pool’; the second, the ‘dialectical materialism’ of the sort of books encompassed in Ercolino’s monograph, in which ‘every detail is attended to except […] how it feels.’[65] A Naked Singularity, however, highlights the insufficiency of these binary options. The novel is undeniably maximalist, yet also clearly attends to ‘how it feels.’ Within a maximalist framework that elevates the importance of aesthetic design, De La Pava also gives a heartfelt representation of the human condition, through Casi’s characterisation and his familial relationships. If the latter of Smith’s paths is a refutation of the former, De La Pava illustrates an awareness that such an antipodal response is not the only route available. This chimes with what John Barth observed over thirty years ago; that ‘if the modernists […] taught us that [lyrical Realism was] not the whole story, then from the perspective of these closing decades of our century we may appreciate that the contraries of those things are not the whole story either.’[66] The worthy programme for future authors was, in Barth’s view, ‘the synthesis or transcension of these antitheses.’[67] It is this that is present in A Naked Singularity, which leads it to pave a new path for the American novelist, where ‘both sides of the equation – brain and heart – [is kept] present in their fiction.’[68] A Naked Singularity demonstrates that the maximalist novel’s aesthetic design does not need to intrinsically involve a loss of ‘the human’; rather, as Ruby notes, De La Pava’s novel shows that it is possible for the two to coexist, since ‘A Naked Singularity is that rarest of things: an uncompromising work of fiction that perfectly balances its aesthetic and its political commitments.’[69] In so doing, A Naked Singularity provides an expansion on the characteristics of the maximalist novel, suggesting that, contrary to Wood’s view, an incorporation of an affective representation of the human condition is also possible within this genre. This proposes a form, then, not of Wood’s ‘hysterical realism’, but rather of ‘near-hysterical humanity’ (ANS, p. 159). This union between a sincere representation of the human condition and a contemporary maximalist design is encapsulated in the last lines of the novel. In A Naked Singularity, we see De La Pava ‘take what was already within us, that which was central to our core, and from it form new stars.’ (ANS, p. 864)

 

 

Words: 10910

 


 

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[1] James Wood, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’, The Guardian, 6th October 2001, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/06/fiction> [last accessed 27th April 2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example: Charles McGrath, ‘Souped-up Fiction’, The New York Times, April 17th 2005, <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/17/weekinreview/the-soupedup-knockout-total-fiction-experience.html?_r=0> [last accessed 27th April 2017]; Patrick O’Donnell, The American Novel Now: Reading Contemporary American Fiction Since 1980, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 34; Zadie Smith, ‘This is how it feels to me’, The Guardian, 13th October 2001, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/13/fiction.afghanistan> [last accessed 27th April 2017]; David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13.2 (1993), 151-194 (pp. 172-3).

[6] Stefano Ercolino, The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. xi.

[7] See, for example: S. Ercolino, personal communication, 1st February 2017; Stuart Kelly, ‘A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava – review’, The Guardian, 29th August 2013, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/29/naked-singularity-sergio-pava-review&gt; [last accessed 27th April 2017]; Paul Ford, ‘The Defence Never, Ever Rests’, The Slate, 5th May 2012, <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/05/sergio_de_la_pava_s_a_naked_singularity_reviewed_.html> [last accessed 28th April 2017]; Darren Anderson, ‘Refracted In All Its Minutiae’, The Quietus, 20th October 2013, <http://thequietus.com/articles/13644-sergio-de-la-pava-naked-singularity-interview> [last accessed 28th April 2017].

[8] Affect theory in literature is a complex case. For the purpose of this essay, ‘affect’ is that defined as, ‘the manner in which one is inclined or disposed; […] a mental state, mood, or emotion’; and more complexly, ‘those forces […] that can serve to drive us towards movement, toward thought and extension.’ In effect, the psychological state which wills us to an outward manifestation. See; OED Online, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/3321?rskey=LfKxl6&result=1#eid> [last accessed 26th April 2017]; and, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’, in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1-29 (p. 1).

[9] Wood, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’.

[10] Similarly, when ‘empathy’ in literature is discussed in this essay, it refers to ‘a vicarious, spontaneous, sharing of affect, […] provoked […] by reading.’ Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 4.

[11] Ercolino, p. xiii.

[12] Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity (London: MacLehose Press, 2014), p. 7. All subsequent references to De La Pava’s writings are from this edition and are given in parentheses after quotations in the text.

[13] E.g., ‘Gentle reader, may you never feel what I felt then!’. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999), p. 284.

[14] Ercolino, p. 39.

[15] Wood, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’.

[16] David Foster Wallace, ‘A Conversation With David Foster Wallace’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, by Larry McCaffery, 13.2 (1983), 127-50 (p. 130).

[17] James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 169.

[18] Wood, p. 170.

[19] Daniel Zalewski, ‘The Year in Ideas: Hysterical Realism’, The New York Times Magazine, 2002, <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/15/magazine/the-year-in-ideas-hysterical-realism.html> [last accessed 27th April 2017].

[20] De La Pava acknowledges this himself, saying, ‘Novels have only one mandatory job, to function well as novels. But that doesn’t prevent one from doing more, provided it’s not at the expense of the preceding. Because of the context of ANS, it couldn’t help but have political force. So since I voluntarily picked the context I suppose I have to cop to having a political purpose, however inartistic it feels to say it that way.’ S. De La Pava, personal communication, 25th April 2017.

[21] Wood, p. 170.

[22] Wood, p. 170.

[23] The existence of these moments may also be excused due to the fact that De La Pava self-published the novel, without a wily editor who may have prohibited their detrimental inclusion.

[24] David Foster Wallace, Consider The Lobster (London: Abacus, 2005), p. 265.

[25] Wood, pp. 171, 173.

[26] Wood, p. 191.

[27] Wood, p. 171.

[28] Ercolino, p. 48.

[29] Ercolino, pp. 48-49.

[30] Ercolino, p. 63.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985), p. 202.

[33] In email correspondence with Ercolino on this subject, he acknowledges as a reader of maximalist novels that he also finds their polyphonic chorality leads to a lack of empathy between reader and characters, due to their unfocalized profusion; saying, ‘at least that’s what happens to me when I read a maximalist novel.’ S. Ercolino, personal communication, 25th April 2017.

[34] Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature (Oxford: Oneworld, 1994), p. 34.

[35] Wood, p. 169.

[36] Foster Wallace, ‘A Conversation’, p. 127.

[37] There is a certain irony here in that for all Foster Wallace’s appreciation of “good” fiction’s ‘purpose’, which he discusses here and in other quotations used at later points in this essay, much of his own fiction fails to live up to his evaluation, instead demonstrating many of the inhuman characteristics which he criticises.

[38] Wood, p. 174.

[39] See, Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram’, pp. 173-183; and De La Pava himself on the subject: ‘Overly ironic works seem empty to me.  A pose designed to insulate the artist from criticism or to mask deficiencies. I’d rather swing and miss than bunt or not even go up to the plate.’ S. De La Pava, personal communication, 25th April 2017.

[40] See, for example, Adam Kelly’s logically complex argument that contemporary American fiction requires a new conception of sincerity which revolves around a paradoxical aporia of intent and motive. ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’, in Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, ed. by David Hering (LA: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010), pp. 131-146; Ernest Van Alphen, Mieke Bal, and Carel Smith, The Rhetoric of Sincerity: Cultural Memory in the Present (California: Stanford University Press, 2009); and, Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (London: OUP, 1972).

[41] Ryan Ruby, ‘Of Loopholes and Black Holes’, Dissent, 60.3 (2013), 112-116 (p. 114).

[42] Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 2.

[43] OED Online, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/39176?redirectedFrom=congruence#eid> [last accessed 11th April 2017].

[44] Wood, p. 167.

[45] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (London: Abacus, 2004), p. 248.

[46] Wood, p. 174.

[47] James Wood, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’.

[48] Zadie Smith, ‘This is how it feels to me’.

[49] Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, ‘Introduction’, in The Good of the Novel (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), ed. by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, pp. vii-xiv (p. x).

[50] McIlvanney and Ryan, p. x.

[51] Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (New York: Picador, 2001), p. 249.

[52] Jonathan Franzen, ‘Perchance to Dream’, Harper’s Magazine, April 1996, 15-54 (p. 41).

[53] Ercolino, p. 134.

[54] Ercolino, p. 136.

[55] Ruby, p. 115.

[56] Like in many maximalist novels, this draws on some of the ideas in Foster Wallace’s pivotal essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction’. For example, Foster Wallace observes: ‘It’s also true that to the extent one begins to view pseudo-relationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley [characters from a television series} as acceptable alternatives to relationships with humans, one has commensurately less conscious incentive to try to connect with real 3D persons, connections that are pretty important to mental health.’ Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram’, pp. 163-164.

[57] Foster Wallace, ‘A Conversation’, p. 131.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Foster Wallace, ‘A Conversation’, p. 132.

[60] Wood, pp. 192-193.

[61] Wood, ‘Tell me how does it feel?’.

[62] Foster Wallace, Lobster, p. 273.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Zadie Smith, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, New York Review of Books, 55.18 (2008), 89-94.

[65] Smith, pp. 89, 92.

[66] John Barth, ‘The Literature of Replenishment’, in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 203.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Smith, ‘This is how it feels to me’.

[69] Ruby, p. 115.

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