Nov 1 2013

Personae by Sergio de la Pava

J.W. McCormack

web exclusive


"The ensuing is the report of one Detective Helen Tame. I am Helen Tame, the ensuing is my report, and it is not true that this second sentence adds nothing to the first." So begins Personae, the second novel by Sergio De La Pava. Whereas the famous sleuths of golden-age television and airport mystery novels were preeminently concerned with justice, Detective Tame's obsession with "Truth in its multifarious instantiations," and her infatuation with this capital-T subject goes well beyond the letter of the law. Tame's report, concerning the apparent murder of a 111-year-old Colombian writer named Antonio Arce, "ensues" for all of ten pages. After that, we may as well say goodbye to conventional plot and mystery for the duration of the novel. The remainder of the book consists of the following exhibits, clippings, and curios:

(1) Three excerpts from the introduction to an article on Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould by the young Helen Tame, who was a pianist, musicologist, and monographer before she joined the NYPD's homicide division.

(2) The fragmentary contents of a notebook salvaged from the crime scene, largely consisting of Arce's line revisions of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(3) A short story by Arce scrawled in the margins of an old TV Guide.

(4) A play, also by Arce, called Personae, which is by far the largest section of the book.

(5) A brief return to Helen Tame, this time in the third-person, which dispenses with her "frame story," such as it is.

(6) Two obituaries.

(7) A novella entitled Energias: Or Why Today the Sun May Not Rise in the East, Set in the West about existential violence and the superiority of Colombian coffee that is indisputably Arce's (and perhaps De La Pava's) masterpiece.

So, Personae is by composition less a novel than it is the kind of manifesto a crazy person binds with a rubber band and mails to NASA or the Library of Congress. It is also the most galvanizing meditation on the possibilities and ramifications of artistic process that I have read in recent memory. The novel proposes whole poetic stratagems in its quest for fuller philosophical understanding, and burrows into the question of how we are bound to each other through music and words—or as De La Pava calls them, "tools that will ultimately tame the world."

De La Pava's first novel, A Naked Singularity, was a wildly digressive, dialogue-driven Bush-era social novel about a public defender named Casi in New York City. Originally self-published in 2008 before getting a deluxe re-launch from University of Chicago Press last year, A Naked Singularity was a work of gargantuan ambition, big ideas, and progressive politics that proved to be book-critic catnip. When Casi wasn't sounding out the natural basis of justice with his legal-world cronies, he was pondering Hume while trying to start his car, or lapsing into sustained meditations on the career of welterweight boxing champ Wilfred Benítez. By contrast, Personae, which De La Pava self-published in 2011, and which came out this year from the University of Chicago Press, offers exactitude and pithy axioms. Where just about every move De La Pava made in Naked Singularity felt more or less unprecedented in contemporary fiction, Personae positions itself in the existing canon with its pageant of prose styles that reference (and occasionally improve on) narrative conventions. The baroque continuity of De La Pava's first book is here broken into disparate pomo techniques. Neither naked nor singular, let's call Personae a clothed multiplicity.

Most of that multiplicity comes from Arce's writing, which riffs on literary styles like a pianist oscillating between classical and modern. The resulting medley doesn't just mediate on the anxiety of influence, it dramatizes the relationship between reader and writer—in particular, the writer who creates other writers by compelling his readers to take up the pen and respond with their own output, forming a kind of correspondence that transcends death and the passing of time. The piece Arce wrote in the margins of the TV Guide, called "The Ocean," is a modernist reverie about water and sand that recalls Woolf; his play is an absurd piece of theatre a là Beckett or Ionesco wherein interchangeable characters blunder about a universe that deprives them of taking decisive action or gaining concrete knowledge. And his amendments to the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude seem like a grammarian's carping until we discover via an obituary that Arce lived through the Colombian Violencia that Márquez fictionalized. (Arce even wrote about the period in his own autobiographical novella, Energias.) Knowing that Arce's writing intersects with influence does nothing to diminish its impact. Instead—in Tame's words— it "order[s] our chaos by sweetening our air," and illuminates an order of artistic succession that harkens back to the earliest aesthetes, who established the concept of beauty through "the accidental melody of wind through gaps in wood."

Though Arce—like De La Pava, when he first composed Personae—had "no agent, no prizes, no editor, no book deal," Tame becomes his posthumous disciple and proves perfectly suited to catch the confluence of voices that animate his writing. The younger Tame perhaps best captures the intent behind Arce's work—and De La Pava's—in her article about Bach and Gould, when she writes:

Glenn Gould obliterated the line that seeks to separate interpretive art from its creative superior. Consequently, it can be accurately stated that these two men showed Time for the mockery it is and collaborated artfully despite the impediment of more than three centuries' distance and how many intervening people since?

Such collaborations exist outside of time, or at least, in persisting over centuries, become a chorus made up of influence, adjustments, and improvements. They become an ongoing conversation between the living and the dead. Perhaps this is why De La Pava was content to self-publish: He knows the living are not the only ones worth writing for.

Art, according to Arce's notebooks, is a "purposeful form of play that seeks to illuminate Life," and Segio De La Pava is not fooling around. Eons from the "aw-fuck-it-anyways" tone of other maximalist males like David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon, Personae is serious even when it is droll. De La Pava wants to arm the reader with ideas that can stand up to time (Arce's nemesis) and chaos (Tame's), or at least meet them with heroic composure. I don't think I'm giving much away to say that it doesn't turn out to be much of a murder that Tame is solving. Instead, Personae is a love story about a writer who finds his ideal reader. What's more, the novel suggests that every act of reading can live up to the same standard, and that this futile pursuit qualifies as beauty.

JW McCormack is a senior editor at Conjunctions. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Publishers Weekly, n+1, and Tin House, among other places. He teaches at Columbia.

Advertisement