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Reviews Sun Nov 03 2013

Sergio de la Pava's Strange Personae

rsz_personae.jpgOn Sept. 30, the University of Chicago Press published Personae, the ambitiously genre-blending, polyvocal second novel by Sergio de la Pava, author of last year's award-winning, 698-page surprise hit A Naked Singularity. Initially self-published, ANS became the first novel the UCP has reissued in the entirety of its prestigious 100+ year history. And so, this second novel's publication strikes at least one curious Chicagoan as significant, since UCP had all but sworn off altogether risky indie fiction reprints.

"This is it," Levi Stahl, a publicity director at UCP, had promised his editorial staff, according to a longish review in the Trib. A Naked Singularity was brilliant, sure, but a fluke nonetheless. "This doesn't change anything," Stahl says, in an invented movie version of events (perhaps scripted by De la Pava, himself). Initially, Stahl discovered De la Pava's debut via literary critic Scott Bryan Wilson, who reviewed ANS over at The Quarterly Conversation, where Stahl serves as a poetry editor. Stahl handed the manuscript to UCP editor Maggie Hivnor, also a fan of the book, who then faced the task of convincing the imposing Board of University Publications that De la Pava's scrappy, sprawling, self-published first novel indeed carried literary merit. Fortunately, the case had quite a few things in its favor: an additional favorable review by Steve Donoghue, support from critics Steven Moore and Brian Evenson, plus the author's own unlikely back story.

De la Pava, a 41-year-old public defender in Manhattan, the son of Colombian immigrants, fellow Rutgers alum (Upstream, Red Team!), and non-resident of Brooklyn, wrote ANS over the course of six years, spent another three submitting the manuscript for publication, and received a reported 88 rejections, before turning to Indiana-based self-publishing platform Xlibris. The book went unnoticed until De la Pava's wife and agent, Susanna, sent copies to critics who'd expressed interest in kind of weird, awfully large, avant-garde works of literary art.

The gambit's paid off: ANS took this year's PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, indie UK house MacLehose Press (publishers of Stieg Larsson, of The Girl Who... fame) released the book's first overseas edition, French and Spanish translations are reportedly in the works, and someone snatched up the film options. De la Pava's books perch currently at ~40K and ~262K on Amazon's Best Seller Rankings, and his Goodreads ratings average 4.15 stars on a scale of 5. He's garnered a great deal of critical attention, including Blake Butler's smart, generous read for Vice, in which he describes the varied composition of ANS as:

strange surrealistic stretches of sudden dream, bizarre conversations about the nature of entertainment with weirdo neighbors, fact-based reconstructions of a young undefeated boxer's career, rising crime-genre-style action metered out in crisp, cinematic prose, all the while weaving fragments into a kind of machine that I found truly difficult to break way from.

Elsewhere compared to Dostoevsky, Melville, and Woolf (often in that order), de la Pava has earned comparisons also to William Gaddis (particularly, A Frolic of His Own), Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. But in the aforementioned review for The Quarterly Conversation, Scott Bryan Wilson more usefully compares ANS to Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat, Evan Dara's The Easy Chain, and Joseph McElroy's sci-fi experiment Plus. These comparisons approach nearer the heart of De la Pava's literary ambition: radically original, arguably underappreciated, avant-garde narratives, left to be recovered in time. And, despite the claim on its back cover that it's "nothing like" A Naked Singularity, Personae fits this bill precisely.

If anything, Personae is ANS in miniature, equally the polyvocal pastiche of wide-ranging primary and secondary sources, including 1) the story of wunderkind detective Dr. Helen Tame's discovery of an old man's corpse, told in the first person; 2) excerpts from Dr. Tame's article "Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence"; 3) the deceased geriatric's literary scribblings, including a chapter written entirely in the margins of an old TV Guide ; 4) an eponymous play that occupies most of the book's real estate; and 5) a wicked intense finale, complete with chatty wraith and the Platonic ideal of a Cuban Sandwich.

While the book's structural collage echoes De la Pava's debut, the play at the center of Personae stands out as distinctly dissimilar. The "List of Dramatic People" comprises seven characters, including "Adam" and "Not-Adam," all of whom are identified only as, "A person," "Another person," "Yet another person," and so on. The action takes place in a bare room with five beds and a gun behind glass on the wall. 95 percent of the play is quick conversation, filled with wordplay and puns, mistaken identities, disguised characters, and shifting hypotheses as to why they're all together in this space. Things get tense and, of course, De la Pava can't ignore that old maxim about Russians' rifles. This strange centerpiece will appeal to fans of Beckett and McDonagh, but also reminds one aspiring dramaturg of Sarah Ruhl's minimalist Eurydice or Lars von Trier's brutal, hellish Dogville. Perhaps Court Theatre will take "Personae" to the stage?

Don't count on it. Critical reception been a bit tempered: "despite its brevity," local culture critic Julia Keller says, "the book is a supermodel-slim 201 pages -- it sags and it drags." Elsewhere, she praises the book: "the theological mutterings toward the end...are stingingly profound, as if William Blake had rewritten his prose poems while listening to hip-hop." Oddly, Yours Truly sees neither Blake's wildly prophetic illuminations (even "The Couch of Death" and "Contemplation," though topically related, diverge at a narrative angle I can describe only as obtuse) nor hip-hop's, what? edge? patois? cred?

Part of the challenge may be a failure to read De la Pava within the alternative-lit context his books' strange process of publication has created for him. After all, it's not every quarter a university press rescues an indie author's odd work from oblivion. Plus, curiously, De la Pava's not often likened to other authors of Latin American heritage, despite writing with the kinetic sentences of Rey Andújar's stories, glancing nods to pop culture, as in Giovanna Rivero's "Twin Beds," and the segmented, steady intensity of Pola Oloixarac's "Conditions for the Revolution." Granted, Andújar, Rivero, and Oloixarac write in actual Spanish, but De la Pava's prose resembles these writers' more so than, for example, the self-contained universe of Junot Díaz's Yunior, the atmospheric precision of Daniel Alarcón, or the carefully-crafted, minimalist aesthetic of Justin Torres.

This may be the case because De la Pava's self-determination, collage-like final products, and artistic concerns with philosophy, theology, and justice invoke a 21st century version of Nadaísmo, a Colombian literary movement that "seizes the public attention by ritually performing transgressive delights," according to Enrique Yepes. This description would seem to apply to both A Naked Singularity and Personae, especially the latter's final chapter, in which Man (short for "Manuel," but also, obviously...) embarks on a journey through the jungle to seek vengeance, only to confront a strange manifestation of the metaphysical. Questions of nothingness and heritage appear to have been on De la Pava's writerly radar. Of those last, waning pages, he says, in an interview with Spanish language lit journal Hermanocerdo, (forgive Google's so-so translation):

I decided that the last section was to occur in Colombia and was to be written only in Spanish... Well, I almost fainted at the difficulty and began to combine the two languages, thereby creating a third, and if you think two beautiful parents can't give birth to an ugly child, I myself saw proof that that's not true. I say that the book still ends in Colombia, but it's a strange Colombia (more strange?) where people inexplicably speak only English.

At once aware of the linguistic unreality he's created, De la Pava chose still to situate Man's final mission in the jungles of Colombia, a gesture one might argue qualifies the work as a first instance of North American Nadaísmo, fiction produced outside the confines of traditional publishing.

Even so, De la Pava's apparently not giving up his day job to pursue writing full time. He's reportedly at work on a third novel, and It will be interesting to see whether UCP snags publication rights, if they haven't already. In the meanwhile, check out "A Day's Sail" over at Triple Canopy, an essay on "Fight and metaphor in Virginia Woolf, Gatti-Ward, and Corrales-Castillo."

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