Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Naked, singular notes, part 1

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava. People are gushing over this book. Big Read at Conversational Reading.

Chapter 1, I felt rushed along, perhaps much like bodies are rushed through the system of night court, but while the voice was literate and articulate and witty and knowledgeable and competent, this was very bleak and depressing.

It was desensitizing, first to Crime — it happens all the time, over and over again, and while it's somewhat sobering, it's also hard to be shocked by it, it's a state of normal, kind of like how I feel when I follow the news too closely. It's mostly sympathetic to the "criminals" but I felt desensitized against their plight as well, it's just a hopeless and persistent way of being for them, they're all in bad situations, and it shouldn't be that way, but that's just the way it is. So sympathy, but hopelessness and also apathy, that I or anyone would be able to change the world in any meaningful way. Had the book gone on in this way for much longer, I don't think I could've stuck with it.

Chapter 2, the neighbours. "The three of them were good customers of Columbia University. Alyona was purchasing a doctorate in Philosophy [...]." I love how this is put, showing education as commodity. (Isn't Alyona a girl's name?)

The project: to play all episodes without commercial interruption on a continuous self-propelling and repetitive loop, and by so doing turn Ralph Kramden into an actual human being. Why The Honeymooners? Feels wrong for 20-somethings in this day and age. (And Charlie's Angels, Three's Company, Herb Tarlek.)

Casi had a black and white set (p 51). (I remember Grape Ape, by name anyway, but I've never heard of Magilla Gorilla.) That puts him in my generation, maybe a couple years younger than me. So if he's 24, the novel is set in the early/mid-90s? Mention of e-campus puts it a couple years later, maybe? [Later... Alana remembers the record player, and has a 50-disc CD player (p 129). Someone mentions Spandau Ballet (p 177).] Oh, I get it — it's contemporary with about the time De La Pava would've started working on this novel.

Chapter 3, the office. Casi is "almost tragically late," and the morning I read this I am myself already tragically late, so whatthehell I stop for a leisurely coffee on my way into work and read some more. Casi learns he messed up with Ah Chut (p 73).

I stared at the jacket and just like that wanted be Leon Greene, Esq. I wanted those life moments of highest suspense and relevance to be in my immutable past. Wanted to have been at that desk for thirty-five years and not find the slightest thing wrong with that. And in those years would not once have worn casual clothes to work even if I wasn't going to court or meeting one of my clients, all of whom incidentally I would give the benefit of the doubt despite decades of empirical opposition, and in all that time I would never have raised my voice or used salty language at the office either. And I would bring that quiet dignity to the office every day without fail by the sharpest eight-thirty and would remove it no later than four-thirty, with the same forty-five minutes excluded for the lunch Helen would pack, and allow myself only one glass of wine a night with my light dinner five-thirty and maybe trade some words about our kids and their kids and draw steadily increasing paychecks and save for retirement and talk about pensions and never produce any evidence of having noticed that every square inch of the third inhabitant of that square, one Julia Ellis, was skin-raisingly gorgeous and at precisely that moment I realized I no longer wanted to be Leon. [p 64]

Chapter 4, no one grabs the shooter (p 106), no one minds the purse snatcher (p 108).

Chapter 5, family. Alana. I start to think about this as a book about Beethoven.

Chapter 3x2x1 (it's a perfect number!) features the neighbours again, discussion about the Second Coming, would Jesus use Television as a medium, Pascal's Wager.

Chapter 7 starts with the courtroom underwear anecdote, and, well, maybe cuz I'm a girl, but was that really necessary? Then there's the guy with the third ear, Richard Hurd (get it?) — now that's got to be a metaphor or something... Over lunch, Dane explains to Casi the War on Drugs, and now he really starts to pick at our morality and our sense of justice. Dane leads us, via perfect numbers and Pythagoras, through the concept of perfection and his attempt to achieve perfect legal representation.

Casi keeps trying to interrupt Dane to ask how he knows he's Colombian. For some reason I find this very funny.

Chapter 8, a blind date, preceded by a lot of daydreaming:

But why limit myself? Forget those puny living types, I could have dinner with fucking Beethoven! Ludwig van Beethoven my friend. I would ask him about Antonie Brentano, what went down there. Then I would say, between the appetizers and the main course, something like my sister Alana contends you didn't really create music. Particularly with the late string quartets, she says, there's no way any mere human could have created that stuff. Instead what you did was more like discover notes that had already been celestially arranged to optimal psyche-rattling effect. In other words, your function was not unlike that of a receiver picking up radio waves that could never be heard with the naked ear. Which theory, I would say, would seem to be belied by the apparent painstaking manner of your compositional process. What say you Lud? [p 217]

And there's the question again: How can you represent someone you know is guilty?

Chapter 9 brings the case of Ramon DeLeon, and it's clear when he meets with the DA and others that Casi is (and knows himself to be) the smartest guy in the room. I guess this quality was always there but slightly obscured by smart-assery and/or not entirely giving a shit, but now it's evident. And he gets to thinking what if a truly talented person focused his efforts on the sort of scheme DeLeon has in mind.

Also, there's some announcement with respect to the Human Genome Project, which should dat the events of the novel to 2000, but it's winter in the book, and I don't see a date matching up. And here comes this spectacular digression on being liberated from one's genes, no longer being told what to do, and being able to create superhumans

Chapter 10's a bit weird, the bridge, Uncle Sam and the chimp, and the Kramdens get a new neighbour. We hear a bit more about the appeal for Jalen Kingg who's due to be executed. "It was no longer a matter of choice or free will once the candy appeared. We were dealing with a genetic makeup, namely mine, that was incapable of dealing with matters of this nature. (p 262)" And there follows the story of the rainbow candy, which is really, really sad.

But mainly it's about the Hurtado case, how he won't take 2 to 4, over the 3 and a half to 7. But Hurtado wants to fight it, and Casi can't sleep, and it's like he's caught a bug, some inspiration to win this case, and he's being very clever but "I should have been kissing her ass from the outset." "Why didn't you?" "I don't know, genetics?" (p 262) and meanwhile Dane is tugging at the desire, need to achieve perfection in the form of a crime, whose monetary value keeps increasing from paragraph to paragraph. Casi loses the case. The effect of which is chapter 11, in which Casi says yes to Dane's scheme.

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Some stylistic quirks I was having a hard time getting over:
- "my" for "am I" — why not " 'm I" or even " 'mI" if you want to get the full slurry rushedness of it?
- d'know for don't know — what's wrong with the conventional dunno?
- the lack of commas, particularly in the vicinity of names when people are being addressed — I've encountered several garden path structures, where a name could be taken for the object of what's going on in the sentence rather than being immediately understood as being used in a vocative sense

Given that this novel was originally self-published, I'm not surprised that there should be copyediting-type glitches of this sort, and apart from the above-mentioned deviations from established convention the writing is otherwise fluid and clear. Not sure if there is less of this as the novel goes on, or if I'm just getting used to it.

Motifs
  • ears — Casi's ear pain, the man with the third ear, hearing above the din, auditory hallucinations; Beethoven's deafness; possibly related, niece Mary refuses to speak
  • genetics, DNA, the Human Genome Project — lot of little throwaway mentions (e.g., in conversation with his sister, wrt id-ing people, a stamp of who you are, why'd you do it, see mentions above
  • Beethoven
  • genius — the nature of; Eddie van Halen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Wilfred Benitez, all gifted and accomplished at a younger age than Casi (p 61); Mozart, Eistein, Pascal, Nietzsche, Wagner (p 209)
  • perfection — the perfect chess opening: "Sixteen hundred years they been playing this game and it took a homeless brother in the park to come up with the perfect opening." (p 23); extreme beauty (p 91); perfect attendance (p 92); the perfect crime (p 93); mathematical, but also the perfect crime. Practice (p 45) makes perfect?
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