Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Walking beneath the stars - then all collapsed - Sergio de la Pava and Herman Melville

Tomorrow I go to France.  Back in a couple of weeks.  My attention has turned to sifting and sorting the books that will accompany me, judging them by weight per word and required concentration and disposability.  That tattered Lord Jim could stay in Europe, couldn’t it?  I wanted to take the Selected Writings of Paul Valéry, since I might visit his home town, but the book fails the Concentration Test.  Who am I kidding?  So it’s Trollope instead.

For example Sergio de la Pava's novel, A Naked Singularity, self-published in 2008, other-published a couple of months ago, is too heavy for travel, so I had to get through it's 670 pages before I left.  The book is excellent, a fine imperfect American mess in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, as is often mentioned, but also of Richard Russo and Chuck Pahlaniuk, less often mentioned because less prestigious.  A young public defender gets caught up in a variety of this and that, including a capital punishment appeal and a Tarantino-ish heist.  The book is all about the voice of this character.  The Magnificent Octopus has typed in many representative quotations accompanied by enthusiastic criticism - please, sample.

It has been a while since I read one of these books (five years, Pynchon’s Against the Day), these discursive rambles through whatever has been gnawing at its author (say the career of boxer Wilfred Benitez), stuffed with whatever amusing nonsense he has thought up (like a fresh fruit-themed luxury hotel).  One chapter is in the form of a court transcript, another is a children’s story in verse, another the correspondence between a lawyer and a prisoner of Death Row.  The latter contains a deft little turn, a change in the tone of the lawyer’s letters after he actually meets the prisoner, that is one of the most moving things in the book.  De la Pava, ya big showoff.  Anyone tried the empanadas recipe yet (pp.118-20)?

The granddaddy of this tradition is Moby-Dick, so what fun to discover that the villain, so to speak, of the book is an invincible, immortal giant whale.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

I guess that is Melville’s ending, or close to it, not De la Pava’s, although A Naked Singularity also ends in a collapse.  Each of the three parts of Singularity ends not with the sea but with stars, though, the word “stars.”  New York City is enjoying a blackout:

I looked up just in time to witness a celestial transfiguration.  The new terrestrial darkness allowed the heretofore invisible above to emerge, as the sky, now cleansed of all mortal light, became dotted with astral pinpoints.  I went out and wandered the streets; for the first time in that hyperkinetic place, walking beneath the stars.  (525)

The narrator is like “those old astronomers [who] were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.”  That is Melville again.  Hard to stop quoting him.

I guess this is what will be floating atop the site until I come back.  Levi, let me know how many books I sold for you (my guess: 0).

Maybe  I will be able to check in sometime.  I heard somewhere that they have installed the internet in France.

Nobody write anything too interesting while I am away, please.


  1. Just when I'm back you take off. Ah, well, it'll give me time to catch up on what I've missed the last two weeks.

    I've been tracking A Naked Singularity out of the corner of my eye and contemplating reading it, so I'm glad to have your comments on it.

    "discursive rambles through whatever has been gnawing at its author" is maybe the best single description I've ever read of a certain kind of American writing.

    Have a splendid voyage au bout de la France.

  2. Best wishes for your travels, Tom! I think for my part I can promise not to be interesting these next few weeks. :)

  3. Scott, please, catch up. Argue with my Flaubert posts. Himadri left some good counter-arguments in the comments.

    Amanda - thank you! I appreciate it!

    1. Authorial intrusion and narrative voice are huge topics, really truly immense, but I'm thinking about it, really I am, and I might actually have something interesting to say about it in a bit. My ignorance of Flaubert beyond the Madame Bovary narrative makes me hesitate some.

    2. Also, say hey to France for me.

  4. Have fun in France - I'm sure it won't be too hard to leave the blogosphere behind for a couple of weeks while you enjoy yourself...

  5. I'm so lucky to have read A Naked Singularity in the company of so many astute readers and commenters. I'm glad you call out the correspondence between Casi and the inmate -- I don't generally like the epistolary format, but this was devastatingly poignant. I must get round to reading Moby Dick some day.

    Bonnes vacances!

  6. Did I miss something?

    Which Trollope? (I love him.)

  7. Ipads and kindles are perfect for trips. If i was going to France I would take some more Jarry, reread Sentimental Education, a Zola, Have a great trip

  8. happy camping. I second the question..which Trollope?

  9. Guy--I'm glad you seconded that. I was doubting my sanity!

  10. If you look in the upper right hand corner, under the Tenniel, you'll see that the Trollope is "Orley Farm."

  11. I came to your blog through your piece on Koda Rohan who I have been reading recently, and then found your latest writing on ANS. I hadn't realised each section ends with the word stars, and once I had I couldn't stop thinking about it. Thanks for that great insight.

  12. Hi, everyone, thanks for the kind words and encouragement and so on. Roussillon was most pleasant, instructive, and tasty.

    mel, I'll take an ereader to Europe as soon as they are so cheap I won't feel too bad if - no, I mean when - I leave it on a train or drop a suitcase on it.

    I'm about halfway through Orley Farm. Standard Trollope - brilliant here, maddening there. I bet I'll write about it soon.

    Gilly - thanks so much. I suspect de la Pava's novel has more little treasures like that.