John Nichols

John Nichols teaches Composition and Research Writing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he is also pursuing a PhD in American Literature, Poetry, and Humor. He and his wife Rachael live in Knoxville.

Escaping from Infinite Density

“With every passing moment any given individual is being stripped of significance, either being herded together with a great number of others only to be slaughtered en masse or else being severely isolated, left to fend for itself with only its meager gifts for protection. And make no mistake but that this state of affairs is as it should be. Let us continue to hone and hone the methods by which man hangs his fellow man and be done, once and for all, with any hypocrisy.”

Sergio de la Pava’s recent novel, A Naked Singularity, nears its end with this Kafkaesque image of the human drive to find more violent and perversely satisfying ways to do harm to each other. His novel exposes a contemporary fetish for collapse and compression, a fetish that aids in the creation and perpetuation of human violence.

As the violent and emotional reactions to the deaths and murders in Dallas, Ferguson, Nice, and Orlando, this fetish lives in the news cycle. In the aftermaths of these tragedies, camps assemble and make ready for war. They accept and exclude, judge with ideology, and shout louder when evidence contradicts them. If a person is “pro-law” or “pro-cop,” that person clearly cannot be “pro-justice” or “pro-black.” So runs the logic of collapse, the lifeblood of compression, the lust of control.

These three—collapse, compression, and control—are at the heart of A Naked Singularity, the story of narrator and New York City public defender Casi. The novel is his struggle against a deaf, ironically blind, self-perpetuating, decidedly unjust justice system. Writing in the same tradition as great 20th Century authors like William S. Burroughs, David Foster Wallace, and others, de la Pava’s aim is satirical, and like all good satire, A Naked Singularity reveals what has been there, if only people would look and see.

The title, like William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, concerns itself with revelation and with truth. Burroughs meant his title to be taken literally; its meaning, well known among Burroughs fans, to be “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Similarly, de la Pava’s novel suggests that moment of stark recognition coupled with an intimate knowledge of black holes and general relativity. Black holes have at their center a singularity, a region in which gravitational forces become infinite. Normally, these singularities are unobservable because the singularity is surrounded by the point of no return, the event horizon that gives black holes their name.

A naked singularity, on the other hand, has no event horizon, meaning that the infinitely collapsing point of infinite density and gravitational pull is observable. As a metaphor for New York City and 21st-century human life, the naked singularity is at one and the same time suggestive of both hope and despair. Hope, because the ability to observe the singularity leaves open the possibility of escape. Despair, because the observers (Casi, readers, and others) can see everything falling into it, to be compressed infinitely.

The exposition of Casi’s clients, many of whom he despises, reveal the withered husk of urban and contemporary life. In media res, the novel begins “—noise background,” amidst life and the middle of a moral struggle: “we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil and, oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating…in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.”

The comic force of the “good versus evil” trope takes on a deeper moral significance as it becomes clear that here “Good” is an overworked lawyer defending real people from the dehumanizing power of the justice system, a fine-tuned mechanical beast that works to keep itself alive and exert its increasing power over those it consumes. While in most cases, self-perpetuation is not the embodiment of capital-e Evil, it quickly becomes clear that this government-sanctioned and legislated system of law and punishment is.

Casi calls judges and DAs “puppet masters” and meditates on “how it was that people were reduced to bodies, meaning the process. How you needed cops to do it and how their master, The System, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted.” As feeders of The System, the police “had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished” in order to maintain its proper functioning.

Far from being an anti-police novel, A Naked Singularity shows nothing less than the erasure of the human before a powerful System of politics, self-interested and ideologically implicated in its own process of survival. Its systematically legitimized ability to create the conditions for its own survival ensures its infinite and expansive reach that can pull “former people” into itself, into its singularity past the point of no return. Casi’s capitalizations of words like “Justice” and “System” serve to emphasize the powers of collapse, compression, and control enacted by these systems. Indeed, The System’s method of turning humans into “former people” is to engineer circumstances that will create citizens out of them, controllable individuals who are organized, categorized, and made insignificant through amoral laws invented to trap them.

De la Pava’s novel takes the tension between man and System to the ridiculously comic and the gut-wrenchingly emotive. The movement between comic and tragic is part of Casi’s attempt to truly and sincerely connect to another human being outside of the ideological and legal system in which he lives, moves, and breathes. Fraught with almosts, Casi’s attempts to connect are either rejected or destroyed on his own terms, as Casi refuses any relationship outside of the professional (read: systemically necessitated). Casi rejects friendship with his loony graduate-student neighbors, one of whom watches The Honeymooners on repeat in an attempt to make the characters into real people. He also tries, but fails, to reconnect with his lively, large Puerto Rican family, especially with his sister Alana, who is too distracted by her own problems to even notice Casi’s desire for human contact. These near misses, especially with Alana, are the closest Casi gets to a shared humanity outside of the legal-political singularity of his work and world.

Until Casi meets Jalen.

Jalen, the pro bono client Casi takes on, has the mind of an eight-year-old and a frightening-until-you-meet-him fascination with the “rainbow fruit” his mother gave him, i.e. Skittles. When Casi meets Jalen, the Aristotelian distinction between human and system is set in direct contrast with the overwhelming systematization of the human throughout the first half of the novel.

The tender moments that Casi and Jalen share make Casi realize that Jalen is not reducible to a body that committed a crime. He is, rather, a broken human in need of redemption. In the course of their conversation, Jalen begins talking about the “rainbow fruit” his mother used to make him. After Casi realizes this “fruit” is actually just Skittles, Jalen looks at him and says, “your eyes are funny now.” The reader knows that Casi is crying, the first time Casi has emoted anything in this novel besides anger, frustration, and wry bemusement. Before this boy, “beautiful and ugly simultaneously,” who is in need of human contact rather than a legally defined attorney-client relationship, Casi is able to help plead Jalen’s case, which has the potential to heal both of them.

This moment of beauty in a dark novel reveals the human triumphing over legally and politically organized relationships. Here Jalen becomes a human rather than just a client, rather than just a body the System will eventually consume. De la Pava even devotes the entirety of Chapter 30 to the correspondence between Casi and Jalen. The letters move from initial legal communication about the case to beautifully devastating personal letters about Jalen’s deteriorating circumstances and his eventual reliance on Casi for hope.

Their correspondence ends with a form letter sent to Casi from the correctional facility where Jalen was being held. Complete with circled options and space left for further explanation, the form unfeelingly states that Jalen took his own life, thereby “avoiding the judicial justice previously meted out by the People of the State of Alabama.”

Here, again, is the stark and brutal battle between Good and Evil. Two human beings fight against an all-consuming legal-political System that wants these two people to live and behave “by the book.” This is a well-regulated, scripted set of encounters that will admit no alternatives to what is essential to the System’s survival: the logics of compression, collapse, and control. To compress and collapse is to actually control how people interact with and relate to one another, and when human relationships and ideas follow the patterns laid out by the System, those relationships can be observed, understood, and regulated. The only way the System can understand human interaction is when humans are made into “former people”, when they are fed successfully into pre-determined categories of behavior and identity.

These categories can resemble anything that compresses the complex human being into something simple, singular, or quotable in a sound-byte. Terms like criminal, killer, offender, and defendant serve the perpetuation of the System in much the same way that “pro-cop” is forced to be synonymous with “anti-black” as if something so complex could be reduced to a two-word slogan.

In part, de la Pava shows what happens when humans become systematized, when they rely on an artificial system to do human work for them, when they put their faith in the institution of capital-j Justice rather than its real embodiment in individual action. But A Naked Singularity shows that humans are always superior to the systems that try to control and compress them. In the midst of the darkness in this novel, hope emerges through the revelation of the singularity itself. If only people would look and see the collapse occurring all around them, would continually struggle against it, de la Pava suggests, they might move towards escape, towards grace.