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For those who can’t love Obama

De La Pava Personae coverI’m willing to make a bet: five years from now, everyone will be talking about Sergio de la Pava.

This is an exaggeration obviously, but anyone who likes The Wire will be talking about him, or Louis Ck, or The Occupy Movement. Anyone who is frustrated by ‘literary’ books which cover serious themes in a serious tone and implicitly look down on anyone who doesn’t. Anyone frustrated by the impenetrable nature of long, solemn broadsheet articles about the recession or criminal justice and just wishes that someone would write about these things in a way which was not only amusing and colloquial, but also, at points, astonishingly beautiful. Anyone who hates Ian McEwan and Carol Ann Duffy but loves Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace. Anyone who hates David Cameron, wants to (but can’t quite) love Barack Obama and isn’t quite sure who they should be loving instead. All these people will love de la Pava and probably a whole load more people who love/hate the opposite of all these things. That’s the kind of writer he is.

Sergio de la Pava is a American public defence lawyer of Colombian origin. As is the protagonist of A Naked Singularity, de la Pava’s first novel, which was originally self-published by the author in 2008. A Naked Singularity is for the time being at least de la Pava’s magnum opus; a 700 page leviathan of a book which follows Casi, a New York public defender as he is slowly crushed by the insanity of the criminal justice system. Daunting though it may sound, A Naked Singularity is sheer joy from start to finish. De la Pava juggles current affairs, pop culture, humour, suspense and a small amount of romance in a way which is unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

Earlier this year, de la Pava was awarded the W. Bingham Prize for first-time fiction authors at the PEN Literary Awards. He won the prize shortly after A Naked Singularity was published by the University of Chicago Press (It was recently published in the UK by Macmillan, but for the full effect Left Futures strongly recommends you seek out the UCP first edition, as its lurid and hallucinogenic cover of which is a perfect companion to the text within.) The PEN connection is key – as first, foremost and somewhat frustratingly for fans of his fiction, de la Pava is a lawyer. In the few clips of him talking which exist on the internet, de la Pava talks exclusively about law and justice, and though it could be argued that A Naked Singularity is really about anything and everything, the miscarriages of the American justice system are the primary focus of the novel.

Personae, also published by UCP, is very different from A Naked Singularity, though unmistakably the work of the same writer. The book starts off as a kind of Paul Auster-esque literary murder mystery. A super-centenarian old man is found dead in his apartment, and it is up to concert-pianist turned genius-detective Helen Tame to solve the riddle.  The only solid lead about the man Tame can find is his notebook, and gradually through a mix of short stories, snatches of poetry, philosophy, biography and a wonderful absurdist drama (named Personae), a picture of the dead man begins to emerge. He is a Colombian called Antonio Acre, and from the passages of the notebook that describe his life, it becomes clear he saw a lot in 111 years. But Acre is a foil: it is Sergio de la Pava who we are really reading, and the leapfrog of styles and themes in Personae show the range of which he is capable.

One of the remarkable things about A Naked Singularity was de la Pava’s ability to convincingly adopt the voice of just about anyone he chose. In that book, as in Personae, there are few physical descriptions of the characters.  Yet de la Pava uses their voices in such a way that they become fully rounded and crystal clear in the mind. Even though some of them are just snatches, de la Pava makes them whole.

The unpublished manuscripts of Antonio Acre cover a whole range of styles, locations and situations. The novel’s framing device – the investigation and the notebook – is a simple but effective method through which de la Pava can write about anything he likes. One moment the setting is the jungle, then the beach, then a coffee shop in New York, then a kind of sinister-absurdist void. All of this is punctuated by insights into the life of detective Helen Tame, and excerpts from a mock article about Bach that she apparently wrote.

Personae may be disjointed, but it is not incoherent. Though the pieces work independently they also build to a crescendo, and the ending of the book is as thrilling and well built up as any more conventional novel, or indeed A Naked Singularity. Most reviewers (including this one) have had a hard time describing the true feel of the book, and the impression given is of something edgy, experimental, post-modern, post-novel and thoroughly difficult. Most of these descriptions are accurate, but ‘thoroughly difficult’ most certainly isn’t.

Personae is deeply strange but it is fascinating; more the kind of book you stay up till the early hours reading than the kind where you read a sentence, rub your temples and use as a coaster for a week. You never know what’s going to happen next, flicking through to the end gives no clues (a sentence taken out of context rarely makes sense), but after thirty pages or so de la Pava’s writing is so consistently wonderful that you know whatever happens, its going to be good. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy.

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    People want to love Obama because he’s black, ignoring the fact that it’s class, not race that matters in modern America.

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