Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Naked, singular notes, part 2

The more it goes, the more I'm liking this novel, A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava. I mean, I liked it from page 1, but it just gets bigger and better, and more, and funnier, as it goes. It has seeped into my real life, as all the best books do.

A Naked Singularity is about a lot of things. The story, in a nutshell: Casi, a public defender, at age 24 is somewhat disillusioned, both with the system he works within and more generally with all he's managed to achieve (or not) in his time on this planet. A colleague tries to enlist him in committing the perfect crime. There will be swordplay!

But it's also about Beethoven, boxing (more specifically William Benitez), coffee, The Honeymooners, empanadas, the nature of reality, genius, perfection, God, genetics, free will, the nature of justice and morality, perception, and more. Also there are Casi's cases, and in particular the appeal he's working on for a young death-row inmate in Alabama.

Casi's sister Alana — I love her, I wish there were more of her. Somewhat ironically, although she's an artist, and lives a lifestyle, and comes off as flaky in some ways, she's also extremely grounded and sensible, emotionally and otherwise. I get a real sense of how much Casi loves her and why he turns to her.

Alana raises the point during a family dinner early in part 2 about "who the real me is. Who the real any of us is." It's a callow kind of exercise, but I find myself engaging in it this week, because I honestly don't know the answer. Do I feel most myself when I am with the family I grew up with (like Alana, I hate going there, yet I love being there), or with the family I created? When I am working (no!, though I am a certain person, and I like being that person, when out foraging for coffee or lunch, or just shooting the shit, with certain coworking friends), or with old college friends? Online, cultivating personas that are at once not-at-all-me and intensely-and-completely-me, or when I'm entirely alone? Weirdly, although I may be happiest when engaging in now moments (y'know, the stuff going on in my life today), I feel most real when the situation is loaded with history, memory, and yes baggage — I think because it combines weight, weightiness, with a sense of potentiality, whether ever realized or not, the what might've been melded into continuity with my current potentiality. (Actually, Dane brings me back to this in his pep talk to Casi on p 511, about possible worlds, and that on one possible world, these guys do this, and doesn't it make you mad it's not you.)

Some may argue these are merely different facets of the same person, but — and I suppose it reflects poorly on my mental state to admit this — they can feel like very different people to me. (Thanks, Alana, for making me think about this, and sparking some interesting conversations around here.)

Alana goes on to claim that all her good qualities are innate, the product of genetics, and that all her bad qualities are self-generated as a result of environmental factors, the product of circumstance. Very convenient.

And then! The neighbours! If God exists, why the suffering in the world? At what price heaven? And! "Because whether God exists or not, there is still such a thing as justice. Justice exists [...]." Casi doesn't quite seem convinced.

Casi procrastinates at work by making lists. "Because everything is susceptible to discrete, unproblematic listing. Anything can be ranked. Subjectivity has nothing to with it. If something is ranked higher it simply is higher. Better. Understand?" (p 357). Let us quantify the universe and our place in it!

Dane gives an intense exposition on the Beastly Burden Channel, and an incident between a cheetah and pack of hyenas. Animal nature, and the law of the jungle! Actually, I find this passage beautiful, because it's loaded with judgement as the hyena morphs into mangy mutt, filthy dog, rat, weasel. (p 403)

"Of course it can also be quite sad. As a matter of fact just before coming here I was home crying it was so damn sad. It seems a pride, has there ever been a more apt word, of these gorgeous cats had fallen on hard gastronomical times. Anyway one of these famished felines had managed to secure a tasty meal, but is eating alone without catty support. Suddenly it's surrounded by goddamn hyenas, those mangy mutts. Turns out they want the cat to share. Share! Can you imagine? This majestic, sexy, sleek beast giving even the slightest bit of its lion's share to those ratty mouth-breathing pieces of shit. Now if you know anything at all about the situation, you know there's not a lioness in the world that is going to lose to a fucking single hyena, is going to let a hyena take even a morsel of its food. And don't kind yourself, the pussy hyenas know this as well. Of course we're not dealing with a single hyena here, we're dealing with like twenty of the bastards and, as I said, one cat. They surround the cat, these filthy dogs. But the cat, like the viewer, knows that twenty dogs can kill it if they need to. It takes one last bite of its zebra dinner, a zebra it fucking acquired when no one else could, through its feline will and sense of self, a zebra rightfully bestowed on it by the cosmos, then leaves it to the mutts. Well if that doesn't make you cry then you're just an unfeeling bastard and I take my leave of you. The cameraman had to gall to stand there and film these lowly furry rats stuffing their faces, knowing that not one of these weasels would've had the balls to so much as look at our cat crossly if not for their overwhelming numbers."

There's this other theme that resonates with me hugely, and it's related to genius, or at least, fulfilling one's potential. Only now that I'm looking back, I can't really find anything to sustantiate this reading, it must be all in my head. But I'd decided I can relate to Casi, I too was once young and thought to be, if not exactly a genius, then at least very, very smart. And then very suddenly it just didn't pan out for me. But I still check the gauges, that so-and-so accomplished whatever by age twenty-something, and whosit published whatsit at exity-ex years of age, to measure my (lack of) progress. As if it's not too late for me. As if I could be both the prodigy I once was and a late bloomer. I feel for Casi, but he's only 24. Just wait, boy.

I was like that Benitez. I had maybe not always put the appropriate work in and had therefore messed up. I too had lost. But likewise I would rise again. Everyone I saw around me looked like they were were in my way and I was sick of walking around these people and would start to go through them if need be to get what I wanted, needed. (p 492)

And the heist. Free will, striving for perfection, the slipperiness of morality — all very interesting. How this aspect of the book represents subject matter of obsessive interest to myself?: what makes someone walk away from their life?

Part 2 leaves two great mysteries unanswered: 1. What did Traci draw in the condensation on the window? Once Casi saw it, he couldn't unsee it (p 405). Does it matter what it was, and I wonder if De La Pava had a specific image in mind even if he chose not to tell us. 2. Casi had the energy to call either Dane or Toomberg, not both, before heading to the airport, and he had finally decided, and the decision surprised him, but finally the phone didn't work (p 455) — what had he chosen?

The Big Read continues at Conversational Reading, and if you're at all interested in knowing to what degree these themes play out in the novel, I urge you to explore the discussions there.

I'm onto part 3 of the novel, which puts me well ahead of the reading schedule — I can no longer help myself. I am saddened to be nearing the end, relieved to count at least 150 pages to go. I find myself laughing out loud quite regularly, and in public places, and that's a good thing.

A Naked Singularity is highly readable, and I highly recommend it.

"Life is nasty, malevolent, toxic, evil, and brutish. And you know the worst part? The part that really sticks in my craw, whatever a craw is."

"What?"

"It's too short."
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