First, a favor: Can you please abandon your perusal of this page for just a second or so?
In that interval, we would appreciate it if you could glance at your hand. Right or left. Doesn't matter.
Just a glance. We'll wait.
Thanks. You saw, we assume, all the usual things: Fingers. Nails. Wrists. Little, that is, to distinguish it from anybody else's hand. And yet it is, of course, unique. In small but essential particulars, it has never existed before in the history of the world and, once you have shuffled off this mortal coil, will never exist again.
Your hand may look like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill hand, but it is not. It is an astonishing anomaly. A stunning one-off.
And so it is with "A Naked Singularity."
It looks like a regular novel — albeit a long one — but it is not. Part of the reason for its distinctiveness is that author Sergio De La Pava is a recklessly inventive storyteller of uncommon vigor and originality. And another part is that "A Naked Singularity" arrives with an exotic, unlikely history attached to it, like a wet leaf stuck to the bottom of your shoe after an especially cleansing spring rain.
In other words, it's got a killer backstory.
A backstory that starts in Brooklyn but that makes a crucial, unlikely detour through Chicago, where "A Naked Singularity" recently was published — marking the first time in its distinguished history that the University of Chicago Press has brought out a book that was initially self-published.
But how did this big, rambling wodge of words, a novel that dozens of commercial publishers rejected without a backward glance, a book that wiggles with digressions and lurches with side trips and repeatedly begs the reader's indulgence with the wide-eyed earnestness of an overgrown Oliver Twist requesting an additional dollop of porridge, come to be championed by a venerable, dignified scholarly publisher like the U. of C. Press?
First, a definition: Just what is a naked singularity?
According to Scientific American, it is "a stellar collapse scenario in which an event horizon does not in fact form, so that the singularity remains exposed to our view." Writer Pankaj S. Joshi goes on to explain in his 2009 article that, when a star dies, it begins to buckle under its own weight, crushed by gravity. The result is a black hole. In the center of the black hole is a singularity. A singularity is a prison from which nothing ever escapes, guarded as it is by a thug-like entity called an event horizon. Word to the wise: Don't go messing with an event horizon.
However — and all progress in science, literary theory and intellectual history in general depends upon the other side of a "however" — some physicists speculate that with the suicides of certain stars, the thugs take a coffee break. Without an event horizon standing guard, things do escape. We can see what's going on in the core. What we would see is a naked singularity, and that, Joshi adds, "might offer a laboratory to explore the fabric of space time on its finest scales."
Which is why De La Pava's title makes perversely perfect sense.
"A Naked Singularity" is not about physics. It's about the American criminal justice system in a large and chaotic city, a place slowly crushed by hopelessness in the same way that an ancient star is gradually crushed by gravity. "The police," advises Casi, the book's very appealing narrator, "were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make an arrest, rather than police had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was the wrongdoing."
The novel is a densely packed and offhandedly poetic 678 pages. It offers along the way the story of Casi's days and nights as a public defender in Brooklyn and his encounters with frazzled colleagues, hapless felons, annoying blackouts (the overloaded-electrical-grid kind, not the event-horizon kind) and crummy apartments, in which long, tangled, amusingly overwrought philosophical conversations are forever breaking out.
"A Naked Singularity" is about a city that teeters on the edge of total collapse and complete disaster, but that has the capacity to right itself (whew!) at the last possible second. Moreover, De La Pava has spiced up his tale with frequent and very funny references to pop culture ("Taxi," "The Honeymooners," "Three's Company," "Star Trek") and also with playful references to the likes of Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The novel is a cross between "Moby-Dick" and "Police Academy." Between Descartes and Disneyland. Between Henry James and Henry Winkler.
Which perhaps may give you a bit of a clue as to why the novel was not instantly snapped up by publishers, forcing De La Pava to publish it himself in 2008 and then to sit back and wait for the world to discover it.
The world was too preoccupied to notice, but a small portion thereof — represented by Scott Bryan Wilson, Levi Stahl and Maggie Hivnor— was more alert.
Which, in the long run, may have been even better.