*A Naked Singularity*

by on March 17, 2012 at 4:19 am in Books, Law | Permalink

Contemporary American fiction faces an ongoing problem of what to write about.  Yuppie life in Brooklyn doesn’t have the gravitas, suburban ennui is long since overdone, and so much of American life — mostly  for the better — doesn’t face serious moral choices.  Sergio de la Pava has solved this problem by writing about the American legal system, set in New York City and with a Colombian immigrant public defender.  At first I was skeptical but at page 256 (out of 678) it is still getting better.  It is likely to make my “best of the year” list.  My five word summary would be “A more approachable William Gaddis.”  You will note it is published by University of Chicago press and presumably it is “too serious” to have attracted a major trade contract.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s living up to its billing as a sleeper under the radar.  You can pre-order it here.

1 Colombian March 17, 2012 at 4:33 am

Colombian, not Columbian.

2 GiT March 17, 2012 at 5:00 am

Maybe he’s a public defender for immigrants who got his JD from Columbia.

3 Tyler Cowen March 17, 2012 at 9:29 am

Thanks, fixed.

4 GiT March 17, 2012 at 5:01 am

Goodbye, (white) American fiction; hello, American fiction?

5 nostril earlobe March 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

Are jewish people considered white?

6 Ben March 17, 2012 at 10:44 am

Depends if they are white or not. But for Ashkenaz, yes.

7 GiT March 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm
8 Anonymous coward March 17, 2012 at 5:12 am

so much of American life — mostly for the better — doesn’t face serious moral choices
Anyone care to elaborate?

9 asdf March 17, 2012 at 10:17 am

Pretty much no matter what you do in America your going to have food, shelter, medical care, basic utilities, and at least low grade entertainment. Even the people on “Shameless” manage to acquire these things. There are some cracks people fall through but its a minority and the welfare state is constantly adapting to try and minimize those falling through cracks. Regardless of your opinion on national finances and such, its likely the industrialization has ended scarcity of necessities now and in the medium term future at a minimum. And while I won’t claim discrimination is dead, its certainly been curtailed enough that most anyone can get around whatever difficulties it may present to a reasonable degree. Lastly, there really are no evil empires with the power necessary to do any damage. Globalization largely eliminates international struggles or national identity.

So what is left to do? For 99%+ of the population the only choices they have left are what to discretionary items consume and how to pursue acquiring the discretionary income necessary for those items. Additionally there is a great deal of intrigue and hustle over who is going to stick their genitals in whom, though most of these occasions involve birth control so its really just an exercise in dopamine release. That’s it really. No big choices. No matter what choices you make things will more or less be the same as they are for everyone else.

10 Miguel March 17, 2012 at 10:53 am

I’m guessing that you had a prototypical upper-middle or upper class childhood and are single with no kids.

11 Ben March 17, 2012 at 10:59 am


12 Anon. March 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm

…and what if he had kids? Caplan tells us it doesn’t matter what choices you make as a parent, the result is gonna be roughly the same.

13 asdf March 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Bingo. I used to think starting a family would be a big part of my life. Was really psyched about doing it. But after growing up, learning more about my own family, interacting with modern American women, and having lots of relationships I’m just not sold. And even if I had kids, is that going to change things. I mostly despise helicopter parents, I can’t see my preferred parenting methods taking up my entire day or being a substitute for purpose.

14 asdf March 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm

I grew up in a lower middle class family that went through a few periods of poverty when my Dad was sick. However, i was born with a high IQ so I went to a good college and now I’m on the upper middle class track. I have no big wants and the only question in my purchases is just how much luxury I want out of any one thing, and how much extra hours at the office are worth more luxury.

When I was young I found extreme purpose in studying hard in school to escape my poor upbringing and gain the security that my father, who didn’t always have health insurance, didn’t have. Having achieved that I now understand that ennui that more well off people I knew felt that I couldn’t understand when I was at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.

I am single and in my 20s, which is the norm for people in my demographic. And I’ve probably had a more varied and interesting set of experiences in career and personal life then most, but its still all kind of a meaningless haze.

15 Robert March 18, 2012 at 12:13 am

Asdf, I empathize with you. I’m also in my mid 20’s now, and I’ve traveled quite a bit, filling a kind of hole I felt in my life experiences. But I don’t think it is possible to fill out lives with just more and more security. I wonder what the point is, to build a fortress or something?

16 msgkings March 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm

asdf and Robert: welcome to your mid-20s. While your feelings of ennui and meaninglessness are real, they are also perfectly banal and cliched. Everyone your age throughout history and location has felt exactly as you do (although it tends to correlate some with IQ, dumber folks don’t obsess over that stuff much).

One of two things will happen: you guys will fall madly in love with gals (hopefully not the same person) who desire children, and to be with her forever you will marry and have kids with her (probably in your early to mid 30s). This will get you out of your solipsistic ruts. Or, you won’t have kids, and will always be seeking something to create meaning, but the urgency of that will decline somewhat as you age. Neither eventuality is right or wrong, they are just the human conditions of self awareness and knowledge of death.

While our big brains have proven evolutionarily advantageous for our genes, they don’t have much to do with happiness, and probably hinder it.

17 Me March 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm

So Asdf, you are not sold on starting a family and you have a high IQ, as you put it. You say that you are in the norm for your demographic. Do you know what you mean by deomographic?

No children, no human race. Of course, who cares about the human race? There will always be plenty of ignorant slobs who can’t control their animal instincts enough to use birth control. Let their genes have the future. Us high IQ types would never sink to the lowly ranks of the reproductive. Besides, for a woman, it is just so uncomfortable and downright inconvenient. Breastfeeding, yuck. That can’t be any fun.

18 tkehler March 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Isn’t this similar to the End of History argument, but on a personal (or familial) scale? FWIW, I think you are right.

19 dearieme March 17, 2012 at 5:14 am

“a sleeper under the radar”: if you fall asleep under the radar you are risking being cooked.

20 Slocum March 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

As is often the case, The Onion has already been here:

Author Wishes She Hadn’t Blown Personal Tragedy On First Book

“So, what happens after she survives her traumatic childhood and, at 20, finally leaves Oklahoma behind to create a new life for herself in New Mexico? A bunch of stuff way too boring to write about.”


21 Ben March 17, 2012 at 10:49 am

Being poor is not easy. It doesn’t make for good books now as there are few moral choices that need to be made, except for abortion which most people feel is too painful to read about. Besides that, life’s problems are like a train wreck in too slow motion to be entertaining.

22 Scoop March 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

The other reason books about the poor don’t work is the intelligence gap between reader and character.

Given how few people read any books, let alone anything approaching serious fiction, median reader IQ has to be well north of 115. Median poor person IQ has to be south of 90. Thus if you want realistic characters, they will be utterly alien to readers, or if you have obviously bright characters, you’ve basically exited literature and entered fantasy. Smart poor people, unlike elves, doubtless do exist, but you couldn’t populate a book with them.

And that doesn’t even begin to consider the cultural differences that are getting so much press nowadays.

Serious consideration of how the poor wreck their lives is sickening, which is why things that deal with “the poor” like Shameless deal with poor people who, though they occasionally do the stupid things needed to get into interesting plot scenarios, basically talk like Noel Coward characters who swear a lot and occasionally forget grammar.

This has always been a problem in writing about the poor, but as we become more meritocratic, it becomes more of a problem.

23 Millian March 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

The Wire = dumb poor people, I guess.

24 ed March 17, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Um, none of the major adult characters in the wire were poor. (Except Bubbles the drug addict.)

25 Douglass March 19, 2012 at 9:10 am

We are becoming more meritocratic? Is this why we have candidates like Rick Perry, and corporate leaders like the Koch brothers, it is a strange definition of merit.

26 Slocum March 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Let me also be a bit of a contrarian on this one. Pick a great 19th century novel, say, MiddleMarch. How many of the characters and plot-lines would absolutely NOT work in 21st century America? The ambitious, promising young physician who plans to do great things but falls for a pretty, vacuous, materialistic girl who spends him into bankruptcy. The careless young man, spoiled by hanging around with rich kids at an elite university and who’s now too good for ordinary work. The wealthy man throwing his weight around by making charitable contributions with strings attached. The young doctor, again, trying to avoid taking part in a political struggle between factions and ultimately being forced to choose a side and make enemies. The socially awkward young woman with a zeal to make a difference in society but who doesn’t know how to go about it. The brilliant young man with no connections acting as the brains behind a foolish politician. All of that could work as well in an early 21st context as in the mid 19th century, no?

27 dirk March 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Yes, but if it was already done in the 19th century, why redo it?

28 Anon. March 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm

It’s on my to-buy list ever since I spotted it on some “cool shit coming out in 2012” list. Sounds good.

29 Ed March 17, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I agree with Slocum. We have an intriguing problem that current publish fiction is more than usually mediocre, but this isn’t caused by lack of things to write about.

Why are the choices Brooklyn (not just Brooklyn but “yuppie Brooklyn”) and upscale suburbs? There is really not much Dickens or Fielding (both of whom used the legal system as subjects) could have done with these settings and there is much more to the United States. I think the problem is really just one of too much attention being paid to upper middle class professional authors, who lack the imagination to write about anything other than their own lives.

30 Doc Merlin March 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm

There has been a whole lot of great fantasy and scifi written in the last 10 years, but I wouldn’t expect Tyler or most readers of this blog to read it. The fiction choices on this blog seem to consist of lots of people trying to convince themselves and others in their social group that the drek they read is actually good.

31 Curt F. March 18, 2012 at 8:43 am

Yeah why are the choices just Brooklyn or the suburbs? If we’re looking for moral choices, how about the military? Maybe should someone should write a novel about how the war apathy of Brooklyn hipsters and suburban soccer moms leads to troops getting their legs blown off and/or deciding to murder innocent Afghan civilians.

32 Foobarista March 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I’m not a huge “modern novel” fan, but from what I’ve read about recent authors, my impression is that many modern authors haven’t actually done much real living. They seem to come from a fairly standard template: come from a mid to upper-class family, go to a fancy college, live in NYC or other big city, hang out with various hipsters, do lots of “writing workshops”, and start cranking out novels.

How many of them have done anything unusual (beyond the usual hipster stuff like backpacking through Europe)?

If you look at writers from the 19th century, they *lived*, and their lives produced lots of great story fodder.

33 Millian March 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm

“Contemporary American fiction faces an ongoing problem of what to write about”

Money? Wall Street’s not that far from Brooklyn, and money gives you plenty of opportunities to write about moral choices and vice.

34 Pierre Menard March 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm

“…whoever controls American publishing loves reading the same thing over and over. Fiction, non-fiction — doesn’t matter… Yes, it’s time someone said it outright: Manhattanites are the new hicks…”

35 Colombian March 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm

For those who can read Spanish, here’s an interview with de la Pava: http://bit.ly/wZMZ6d
Apparently he doesn’t give a lot of interviews.

36 Aidan March 17, 2012 at 6:58 pm

This book came out in 2008.

37 Levi Stahl March 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm

I’ll say up front that I’m the publicist for this novel, but for what it’s worth I was a fan before I was its publicist: I read a handful of rave reviews of the self-published edition from 2008, then read the book and loved it and started pushing my employers, the University of Chicago Press, to publish it. Our edition will arrive in about a month.

Anyway, if you want an English-language interview with De La Pava, you can try this one from last fall at 21C, an Australian culture magazine: http://www.21cmagazine.com/filter/Sergio-De-La-Pava/Boxing-Television-Law-and-More

And this essay that he wrote for Triple Canopy a year or so ago that manages to be about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and boxing is amazing and makes me wish he’d find the time to write more nonfiction: http://canopycanopycanopy.com/11/a_day_s_sail_

38 PB March 18, 2012 at 10:20 am

“Contemporary American fiction faces an ongoing problem of what to write about.”

Says who? Authors? Editors? Is there some study that provides evidence of an “ongoing”problem”?

39 Master of None March 19, 2012 at 10:46 am

This is why The Hunger Games has been the top-selling Kindle book for over a year.

40 Anand March 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm

> You will note it is published by University of Chicago press and presumably it is “too serious” to have attracted a major trade contract.

Or any contract. It was self published about three years ago if I remember correctly.

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