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Sergio De La Pava | Interview

The Naked Singularity author discusses his novel.

Photograph: Genevieve McCarthy
Sergio De La Pava

When Sergio De La Pava published his gargantuan first novel, A Naked Singularity, in 2008, it was met with “widespread apathy,” he says. That’s mostly because he self-published it through the much-maligned vanity publishing house Xlibris, which does little for an author other than set the presses, and the tab, running. Unless you were in De La Pava’s immediate family, chances were you never heard of it.

But then De La Pava’s immediate family went to work. While he was content to let a few copies sit on his bookshelf, his wife took it upon herself to act as his publicist, sending out copies to various magazines and bloggers. Even in the egalitarian world of blogging, getting a self-published book reviewed is rare. But a magazine called Open Letters Monthly published a favorable review in April 2009, and then in October 2010 influential lit blogger Scott Esposito of The Quarterly Conversation ran a glowing review, prefacing it: “There is a growing body of evidence that it is a remarkable work of fiction that has been unjustly ignored.”

“What that really did was bring it to his colleagues’ attention, and they picked up on it and started reviewing it,” says De La Pava, speaking from his New York home. “And then Levi came to be familiar with it, and that’s how it all happened.”

“Levi” is Levi Stahl, the publicity director of the University of Chicago Press, who picked up A Naked Singularity, and began, along with editor Margaret Hivnor, championing it in the office. Four years after De La Pava self-published it, the book is now out in a beautiful paperback edition.

So why so many champions? The kinetic and digressive writing draws immediate comparisons to David Foster Wallace, as does the book’s size, but to my mind, the highbrow colloquial style of A Naked Singularity nods more to the writing of Junot Díaz. The book, clocking in at nearly 700 pages, is narrated by Casi, a public defender in New York City who has somehow managed to never lose a case. The first couple of hundred pages make vague gestures at plot, as the reader is plunged into Casi’s perspective on the criminal justice system. It’s one of those reads propelled almost entirely by the voice and charisma of the narrator, until the book takes a sudden turn when Casi and a colleague—exploiting their large bank of knowledge—decide to execute the perfect crime.

Dialogue is the hallmark of the book, and the author’s most remarkable skill allows him to re-create the cadences and diction of a wide swath of characters.

“I find that a lot of times, if I don’t love what I’m reading, I start to skim,” says De La Pava, 40, who works as a public defender in Manhattan. “But I never skip dialogue. There’s an urgency to dialogue, and A Naked Singularity is trying to be an urgent, angry book.”

De La Pava is at work on another book, even as he keeps his day job.

“Writing and being a public defender are equally important to me,” he says. “I value and take very seriously what I do as an attorney, because essentially what I do is act as protection for an individual who the state is trying to incarcerate. So it’s pretty high stakes, and I would feel terrible if my literary pursuits interfered with that in any way. At the same time, to me, the novel is a sacred object, and I wouldn’t want anyone to view my writing as a hobby.”

A Naked Singularity (University of Chicago Press, $18) is out now.