The incredible story of Sergio De La Pava is a welcome reminder that talent still counts for something in the often maddening republic of literature. The author of a dense and cerebral but also funny, gripping and brilliant novel called “A Naked Singularity,” De La Pava was forced to self-publish in order to find readers. But his fans proved so passionate that the book was eventually taken on by the University of Chicago Press in 2012, became a critical darling and commercial success and ended up winning a PEN literary award. (Full disclosure: The journal I edit, the Quarterly Conversation, was among De La Pava’s early boosters.)
Thanks to “A Naked Singularity,” the author’s second novel, “Personae,” also originally self-published, has now been released by the University of Chicago. Whereas its forerunner was plump and unified by its protagonist’s youthful narration and the popcorn-cinema heist he tries to pull off, “Personae” is slim and digressive, yet the humor, erudition and ambition are still here.
Like its predecessor, “Personae” begins with the investigation of a crime: Detective Helen Tame arrives at a Manhattan apartment where Antonio Arce, over a century old, has died. She eventually acquires Arce’s notebook, and in due time we read the impressionistic memoir at its heart, but only after meandering through excerpts from Tame’s scholarly paper on Bach and Glenn Gould, a short story about swimming out to sea, a two-act Beckettian play, Tame’s explanation of Arce’s death and two obituaries. The book’s final 50 pages — Arce’s memoir — take us from a suicide mission in the jungles of Colombia to a love story in New York City and feature some of the finest writing of De La Pava’s burgeoning career.
Split unevenly among Tame’s section, Arce’s section and an 83-page absurdist play, “Personae,” is united more by its themes than by any one narrative. The play is the strangest and most difficult part of this book. It involves several mental patients engaged in furious conversation. A gun is introduced in Act I and fired in Act II. There’s also a spearing, a gender change, a severed head and an eerie drumbeat that may herald disaster. In spite of all that, what looms largest is the play’s obsessively recursive dialogue, which opens with several pages of argumentation about what everyone’s name is.
This challenging play is balanced by the portrayal of Tame’s and Arce’s extraordinary minds. Tame, who begins playing the piano at age 5 and gives world-class performances at 20 before quitting to become a detective, comes across as a methodical and quirky cop. Similarly, Arce, a commando of superhuman strength and an exquisite writer, is nonetheless tongue-tied at the sight of a beautiful woman.
De La Pava presents characters widely separated by time and space and then shows us how they become drawn into one another’s lives, despite the odds. Most of all, he inquires into why people fight to comprehend others they barely know.
But “Personae” is not completely successful. Though Tame is far from uninteresting, she comes across as underdeveloped, particularly in comparison to the robust Arce. The play-within-the-book is long and recondite, and it might have been more effective if presented differently.
Yet there is so much compelling writing here and so many beautiful sentiments to contemplate that the book must be considered a success on its own fractious terms. De La Pava is proof that experimental literature can be devilishly entertaining. Given the trajectory of his career, it seems all but certain that the author who couldn’t get one book published will now have presses competing for his third.
Esposito is the co-author of “The End of Oulipo?”
By Sergio De La Pava
Univ of Chicago. 201 pp. Paperback, $17