When Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity (University of Chicago, April 19) takes off, it’s nearly impossible not to get swept up in the sheer giddy volume of wordplay. And because of all the ways he dazzles and distracts, it’s not until you’ve put his book down that you can begin piecing together quite what he’s saying.
Singularity could be a buddy comedy about a heist, or it could be a polemic about the capricious miscarriage of justice in America. Most likely it’s both, with some media criticism, a biography of boxing great Wilfred Benitez and hallucinatory interludes featuring menacing chimps and maybe Ralph Kramden thrown in.
But above all it’s a masterpiece of riffs, specifically the hot-breathed blather of the underachieving and overstimulated. “Do you really think I’ve been snookered? Someone as sapient as me? I don’t buy the Nikes because I’ve been deluded into thinking they’re going to make me jump higher or make me look cooler,” a neighbor asserts, justifying his decision to watch a channel devoted entirely to ads. “I buy them to express my gratitude to Television. I buy all those things shown on the screen to allay the guilt I feel over not repaying a dear friend who has given me so much.”
De La Pava knows his strengths and shamelessly plays to them. His talent for conversation recalls William Gaddis’s disorienting dialogue, but for De La Pava, it’s just one toy in a full sandbox, easily swapped for direct address or magical realism. Even his single bio line (“a writer who does not live in Brooklyn” — that is, one who should not be mistaken for his Brooklyn Heights-dwelling main character, Casi, nor lumped in with the Gessens, Lethems and Foers) is the coy wink of someone getting away with something.
But for all of the exuberance of Singularity, it’s still more striking when Laurent Binet, early in HHhH (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 1), earnestly begins tossing toys out of his own sandbox. He begins by rejecting suspense, setting out the historical facts of his story: He’s writing about Operation Anthropoid, in which Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia to assassinate Final Solution architect Reinhard Heydrich in May of 1942.
At the same time Binet recounts this story, he sets up a parallel storyline dramatizing his struggle to create a novel that’s scrupulously faithful to history. The Czech assassination is thrilling, heroic, larger than life; the Binet telling us the story is funny, engaging and increasingly neurotic — chagrined to discover this story has already inspired a handful of other novels and driven competitively batty by the success of Jonathan Littel’s merely plausible The Kindly Ones. He succumbs to (then immediately rejects) the temptations of fiction: “The people that took part in this story are not characters,” he writes. “And if they become characters because of me, I don’t wish to treat them like that.”
That insistence is the crucial point, not only for the narrator’s scruples but for the novel itself. Among the many things HHhH does — retelling a forgotten episode, dramatizing its own creation, examining the boundary between truth and fiction — the most vital is its moral dimension. By making a historian’s argument for the singularity of its characters (or, rather, its people), HHhH opposes instrumentalizing history, not just in crass Holocaust kitsch like Angel at the Fence, but even in higher-minded stuff like Littell’s book. The novelist in HHhH is easily identifiable as an invented character, but that doesn’t invalidate that character’s belief in the integrity of his historical people, for whom fiction would be an affront — “like fabricating evidence,” he says, “where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.”