Last month I was reading an article over at The Millions when I stumbled over to their “Top 10” list, a clever little tool that shows which books The Millions’ overeducated readers have been buying via the site’s Amazon affiliate links. #2 was A Naked Singularity, a concept I recognized from theoretical physics. So, I checked out the blurb on Amazon:


A Naked Singularity tells the story of Casi, a child of Colombian immigrants who lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan as a public defender–one who, tellingly has never lost a trial. Never. In the book, we watch what happens when his sense of justice and even his sense of self begin to crack–and how his world then slowly devolves. It’s a huge, ambitious novel clearly in the vein of DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Pynchon, and even Melville, and it’s told in a distinct, frequently hilarious voice, with a striking human empathy at its center. …


(FYI, that Amazon link is an affiliate link for The Millions; their site is free to use, so give back when you can.)


In case you didn’t get the message, the blurb continues with explicit comparisons to Infinite Jest and to William Gaddis’s “slow going” A Frolic of His Own. This is high literature for smartypants, a tough mudder, Rubik’s Cube, and QWOP of a book. The Millions’ profile of the author, Sergio De La Pava, compared it to “Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf.” All of that together was just about enough to make me give up and read John Grisham’s The Litigators instead, but then there was this enticing description in the review:


To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long.


It’s $5.13 on the Kindle, so I bought it.


Like the reviewer at The Millions, I made it about forty pages in, liked it, but then wondered if it was really worth investing the time and energy needed to finish a book that I realized, by the slow movement of the progress bar on the Kindle, was 688 pages. That’s when I actually read The Millions review, learned that the author is in fact a public defender in Manhattan, and committed to making the long haul through the book. This review follows.


If you’ve read this far and just want me to get to the point, then here you go: like the blurb says, it is indeed “frequently hilarious,” and “with a striking human empathy at its center.” The problem is that the blurb also correctly describes the book as “huge.” It was twice as long as it should have been, and a number of readers will miss out on a great work of legal fiction because it’s buried within an “ambitious novel clearly in the vein of DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Pynchon, and even Melville,” none of whom were known for their brevity. Then again, readers who turn their noses up at books that cannot serve double duty as weight-lifting equipment will be thrilled. The rest of this review goes into the book’s themes; I don’t think there’s too many spoilers, but, of course, some points have to be noted to be discussed.


The book has all the standard scènes à faire of contemporary highbrow American literature of our era, from musings about the effects of constant media stimulation on the human condition a la David Foster Wallace to an embarrassing scatalogical scene a la Jonathan Franzen, and ample arguments about the meaning of sex, drugs, death, and family. Then there’s some quirk: Wallace has his tennis, Franzen his birds, and De La Pava is a foodie and a pugilist. Also true to form, there’s a mix of highbrow and lowbrow: the prose is readable by any high school graduate but the themes are learned and mature.


Those scènes à faire, and the relentless argumentative dialogue — at times like Aaron Sorkin unrestrained by the strict temporal limits of movies and television — make the book far too long. It should have been half as long. Neither the standard tropes, nor the extended dialogue, nor anything at all relating to women — there are no strong female characters, and the handful of female characters don’t even affect the plot — is truly essential to the book. De La Pava supposedly refused entreatments by editors to reduce its size, and he was wrong to do so; the collateral themes are admittedly relevant to the story, but they’re not essential, and not really tightly woven into the story. Scott Esposito made a whole series of posts out of them. Slate’s review prepared a hilarious chart demonstrating the space devoted to these excess themes; more than half of them should have been left on the cutting floor.


The real book, stripped of the collateral themes, involves three interesting, and properly intertwined, stories about life as a public defender in a metropolis, the representation of a convict on death row, and the planning, execution, and consequences of the perfect crime.


I could talk about that directly, but in fact there’s not much to say: it’s a great book about the life of a public defender, with scenes that are both funny and realistic, and it’s a great crime novel told from the perspective of the criminals. But I think it would drive De La Pava crazy to reduce the book, even if just by implication, to a legal thriller, so I’ll instead address it from a highbrow perspective, and talk not about law or crime, but about cooking.


About a quarter of the way in, I picked up on the connection between the characters’ obsession with perfection and the author’s obsession with food, a connection then spelled out explicitly a little more than halfway through as the perfect crime is planned in a restaurant over a “perfect” mozzarella caprese salad and fried calamari “neither overcooked nor overly chewy and which were covered with thin breading that clung to the rings even as I dunked them into the moderately spicy cup of marinara sauce provided on the side. Superb.”


Lawyers, like chefs, come in only three varieties: incompetent, competent, and perfectionist. If you want lawyer or a chef to hate you forever, take one of their finer works (the most expensive entree, a lengthy appellate brief) and point out some trivial defect. The protagonist of A Naked Singularity, Casi, and his eventual partner in crime are perfectionists in a world (the public defender’s office) in which the virtues of excellence are constantly dangled in front of them — exceptional representation could, in a very real sense, mean the difference between liberty or confinement — but in which much of their work is fruitless. The book begins with Casi representing a string of clients at preliminary hearings; every single person is held for trial, with bail set at the amount recommended by the prosecution. Casi’s presence is wholly irrelevant to the outcome.


In the midst of reading A Naked Singularity, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (“a thoughtful and elegant meditation on work, family, and the art of perfection”) serendipitously came out on Netflix Streaming, and I recommend it highly. The core question pertinent here was asked of Jiro by Anthony Bourdain when he visited the restaurant as part of his show No Reservations: is perfection possible? “No,” said Jiro, who has spent a lifetime advancing his own sushi to the point that sushi as a whole has benefited, and at 85 years old still goes to sleep thinking, and wakes up thinking, about how to make it even better. “Perfection is something you never actually achieve.” It’s a journey, not a destination.


But Casi is not Jiro, an elder man with a family and a world-wide legacy as the best ever at his craft.  Rather, Casi is an ambitious, unmarried lawyer in his 20s trying to prove himself and riding high on an unbroken record of acquittals at trial when he suffers several professional blows. When smart, motivated people are eager to achieve but find themselves frustrated by impotence, they get themselves into trouble, and Casi is no exception, hence being convinced by a colleague to consider committing the perfect crime. (One wonders what would have happened if Casi had ended up by fate as one of Jiro’s apprentices training under close supervision for ten years to make the perfect tamagoyaki.)


Having dealt with the law, the crime, and the food in the book as metaphors for the Quixotic quest for perfection, we’re left with explaining the physics. Of course, perfectionism is a concern outside of the law and cooking, and we’ve reached a point where experimental physics may be largely finished, at least for our lifetimes, leaving mostly unprovable conjectures about theory. As Stephen Wolfram (a mathematician of the perfectionist variety) explained in a blog post, he found the Higgs Boson discovery to be disappointing and frustrating, because it is both inelegant and, due to limitations of foreseeable technology, is “likely to be the last major discovery that could be made in a particle accelerator in our generation.”


I don’t think the perfectionism–frustration connection is what De La Pava intended with his forays into theoretical physics in A Naked Singularity; it’s just the connection I prefer, because then the novel is more like a focused meditation on perfectionism than a strained synthesis of a half-dozen disparate themes common to this generation’s literature. I think De La Pava intended to connect (a) the Infinite Jest-esq observation that the dulling of the human experience caused by the relentless stimulation of mass culture with (b) the theory of relativity’s insight that there is no objective viewpoint from which to observe reality. That would explain both the strange Honeymooners subplot and the forays into physics, and, indeed, the title. Without giving it away, a naked singularity is, physically, a standalone black hole with no event horizon or, conceptually, an observable event with a future and past that general relativity cannot predict. A Naked Singularity does indeed invoke in the story a situation analogous to a naked singularity in physics.


I thus recommend and applaud the book, but as written, it is the type of book you should not approach unless names like Gaddis, Wallace, Franzen, and the like excite you, rather than bore you. Maybe one day there will be an abridged version that would be as fast-paced and readable as a Grisham best-seller.






What’s a naked singularity? Basic resources: Wikipedia pages on Naked Singularity and Cosmic Censorship Hypothesis, surprisingly readable research paper Gravitational Collapse and Cosmic Censorship.


Further answer by my brother the theoretical physicist.


The word “singularity” has several definitions. The function f(x) = 1/x has a singularity at x=0. Spherical coordinates have singularities at the North and South poles. (If you’re standing at either pole, your longitude is an ill-defined number.) To pop-sci futurists, The Singularity is a hypothetical future time when human progress becomes infinite, or something like that.


GR describes spacetime as a smooth 4-dimensional surface with weird rules for geometry. The curvature of spacetime near an event (x,y,z,t) is given by a function called the metric tensor. A singularity is a point or region of spacetime where the metric tensor becomes poorly-defined. Physicists distinguish between two types:


1) Coordinate singularity: the coordinate chart we used to describe the metric tensor has failed.

2) Gravitational singularity: any coordinate chart we use to describe the metric tensor must fail.


Hawking and Penrose showed that, using some reasonable-looking assumptions, GR requires gravitational singularities. This typically means calculation of some number(s) in the metric tensor becomes arbitrarily large at some spacetime coordinates, and the problem can’t be fixed by choosing a better coordinate system.


The usual meaning of “black hole” is a gravitational singularity surrounded by a boundary called an event horizon. No object outside the horizon can directly observe what happens inside the horizon; if you throw a rock at the horizon, it appears to just slowly sink towards the horizon forever. From the rock’s point of view, it passes through the horizon and gets ripped to bits.


A gravitational singularity is “naked” if it is not enclosed by an event horizon. Existence of naked singularities would cause serious confusion about determinism and causality. My paraphrasing: GR would predict that somewhere in spacetime, there is an observable event whose future and/or past cannot be predicted by GR.


The Cosmic Censorship Hypotheses are all conjectures that say: naked gravitational singularities do not appear in solutions to the Einstein equation unless one makes physically unrealistic assumptions. If true, then GR predicts its own inability to describe what happens at singularities, but that’s not so bad because the singularities are hidden behind event horizons and nobody outside the horizon can observe what happens there anyway.


The conjecture(s) have been very difficult to prove or disprove. Many (most?) physicists who study this stuff think that neither GR nor any quantum field theory can unambiguously describe gravitational singularities, so we need a working theory of quantum gravity to sensibly answer questions like the censorship hypothesis.