Baudelaire, in a late poem, pictures justice as a daybreak under dire circumstances—“the terrifying dawn,” he writes, “Of strict justice.” To God, described only as “the judge” in the poem, and to his jury of angels, humankind must present proof of its worth. There is no way around the situation: We are expected to meet the judge and jury’s strict demands of justice.
Sergio de la Pava’s new novel is animated by a similar spirit: confident in the inevitability of justice, yet quizzical and equivocal regarding the fairness of its conditions. Unfurling over New Jersey gridirons and descending into crammed Rikers Island jail cells, Lost Empress interrogates its central subjects—justice, art, poverty—with great urgency. It also does so with a certain amount of complexity; few would characterize the novel as anything but difficult. As in his prior works, de la Pava shows himself prepared to risk confusion as he pens reality in all its coiled and thrashing complication.
In this way, de la Pava is among the last of a vanishing breed: a society-spanning novelist of ideas in an era dominated by inert lyrical realism or narratives about authorial selfhood. Breaking from the assumption of a limited upper-middle-class audience, de la Pava holds to a more capacious view of art, seeking entry into a timeless pantheon of great artists on behalf of the less-privileged social strata.
Lost Empress marks an ambitious attempt to produce literature that seeks to resolve the tensions between a grandiose vision of art and a notion that it should advocate for and represent the experiences of the disadvantaged classes. The results are uneven, but they still deserve close attention. Readers and authors eager to escape the claustrophobic confines of contemporary literary culture—or wanting to view the dismal chaos of the present moment in its full variety—can learn much from the bold shortcomings and quiet triumphs of his ambitious experiment.
De la Pava’s status in American letters has been anomalous from the beginning. A Naked Singularity, his superb first novel, dealt directly, as the work of no contemporary novelist has, with America’s criminal-justice system. Narrated from the first-person perspective of Casi, a young Colombian-American public defender barraged by the voices of indigent clients, conniving colleagues, warm-hearted relatives, slothful roommates, and power-tripping judges, the novel was rejected by dozens of agents before being self-published in 2008. Only a combination of luck and the assiduous publicity efforts of the author’s wife, Susanna, rescued the book from oblivion. A handful of glowing recommendations from literary bloggers eventually carried A Naked Singularity to the attention of editors at the University of Chicago Press, which republished the novel in 2012; it would go on to win that year’s prestigious PEN/Bingham Prize for best debut novel.
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With its heft, range, and focus on individuals defined by their entanglement within the logic of larger social structures, Singularity was identified, with reasonable accuracy, as a “systems novel” along the lines of Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest. Yet the system at the heart of de la Pava’s compendium is not, as in the cases of these antecedents, military-scientific or commercial-cultural. Having worked full-time since the turn of the millennium as a public defender in New York City, de la Pava possessed a front-row view of the police-imposed and court-approved immiseration of poor people of color within the system of criminal justice. In life and in fiction, he devoted himself to representing “bodies” (in the system parlance for human beings) locked out of public sight, and the gross iniquities they were compelled to endure.
Yet these brutal conditions—the arbitrary seizures and interminable detentions, the inadequate care and insufferable heat, the torturous solitude, the exorbitant bail, the inflated sentences, the endemic sadism and corruption of officials—are delivered to the reader less through treatises or sermons than as incidentals hitched smoothly to a driving narrative line. The central plot in A Naked Singularity twines around the plan, set up by a fellow lawyer, to rob millions from an upper-echelon drug dealer; though the novel weighs in at over 600 pages, its mass, thanks to the heist narrative at its core, impedes its motion only slightly.
The same can be said of Lost Empress, another titanic novel building up to another expensive theft. There are some differences: Instead of cracking open a cartel’s safe house, Empress sets its sought-after treasure—a Salvador Dalí painting titled Adolescence—deep within the bowels of the state. Donated to Rikers Island by its creator, the painting is coveted by Nina Gill, whose father is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Employing a shadowy figure known only as the Absence as an intermediary, Gill contracts Nuno DeAngeles, a young Colombian-American hoodlum, to steal Adolescence for a seven-figure sum. To make his way into Rikers, Nuno commits what at first appears to be a heinous, headline-grabbing murder.
Having entered the facility as planned, Nuno soon discovers that he cannot stay there long enough to seize the painting. After savaging a crooked guard, he is hurled into solitary confinement, where he lapses into a catatonic state. Unfit to appear in court, he is shipped to the mental ward for inmates at Bellevue Hospital, where, though he eventually regains consciousness, he finds his route back to prison barred. Much like the airman Yossarian in Catch-22, whose attempts to abstain from bombing campaigns on the grounds of insanity is taken as proof that he is sane enough to execute bombings, Nuno’s eagerness to return to the war zone of Rikers is interpreted by ward authorities as proof that he is still insane.
As Nuno slowly writhes toward his objective, his employer is engaged in a prolonged campaign of her own. Despite being a strong-willed oligarch, Nina faces long odds. Bilked by her brother out of inheriting a Cowboys franchise that owed its success to her superior management, she receives control, as spiteful consolation, of a run-down arena-football franchise, the Indoor Football League, and one of its teams, the Paterson Pork. Bent on revenge, Nina takes advantage of a season-canceling player lockout by National Football League owners and determines to raise the IFL to national prominence. Moving and shaking, she scoops up an alcoholic but talented coach and several brilliant players thrown to the roadside by the NFL in former years. Teasing a famous retired Cowboys quarterback with the prospect of his first championship ring, she convinces him to lead the Pork’s offense, then leverages his signing into a deal with television networks to broadcast IFL games nationally.
While Nuno’s scheme is frustrated, Nina’s is carried off without a hitch. The Pork have a flawless record; the popularity and revenues of the IFL skyrocket. Faced with the collapse of its monopoly, the NFL comes to Nina with a sweetheart offer. In exchange for an ungodly sum, the IFL will become a subsidiary of the NFL, a minor league feeding the existing behemoth. Nina accepts the offer, or at least claims to. At the press conference held to publicize the accord, she announces that the NFL has agreed to a championship match with the IFL between their best teams: The Dallas Cowboys will face off against the Paterson Pork in the first-ever Global Bowl.
At this point, the ambition behind de la Pava’s looping set of narratives grows clearer. His intersecting plotlines double as a schematic of American class relations: the slum-born prisoner of color on the one hand, the freewheeling white capitalist on the other, and between them the world—a powerful Absence, a valuable work of art, millions of dollars, and various classes of human beings.
The secondary cast of Lost Empress spans the intervening rungs on this social ladder. Travis Mena, a small-time landlord and inept Bellevue surgeon who owes both of these positions to nepotism, stands in for the feckless upper-upper-middle class. Living directly beneath him in New York is his tenant, Dia Nouveau. A recent Brown graduate neck-deep in student debt, chipper Dia is dragooned into service by Nina as an assistant and IFL commissioner: She’s an image of the lower-upper-middle-class millennial, flailing and game for anything. Below them are the state and church employees—the core of the middle class—all living in Paterson. Their characters reflect, as if in Chaucer, their respective occupations: Sharon Seaborg, a 911 dispatcher, is resigned to disaster; Simon Ventimiglia, a parish priest and Rikers chaplain, is conscientious; Hugh Seaborg, Sharon’s ex-husband, ex-EMT, and current Rikers guard, is fearful and officious; Larry Brown, a skilled EMT, is dutiful and puppylike.
As though tracking so many characters with so many trajectories were not enough, de la Pava introduces yet another set and binds them into an ever-larger plot, even as he shatters them with tragedy. One night, Jorge de Cervantes, a Colombian immigrant whose backbreaking labors have elevated his family to the cusp of middle-class status—they are about to move into a small house—is struck and killed by a drug-addled driver. Travis, Sharon, and Larry respond to the accident in their respective functions, but all are helpless to save him. Jorge’s son Nelson, a prize-winning middle-school student, finds himself stricken by a numb fury, but his spirits are revived once he happens on a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems in his father’s belongings; he ends up titling his high-school application essay “Emily Dickinson Is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her.” (We never learn if Nelson’s equally bereaved mother and sister manage a similar redemption; they vanish from the novel almost as soon as they enter it.) Meanwhile, since Jorge’s killer is housed in Rikers while awaiting trial, the task of vengeance falls on Nuno, a relation of the de Cervantes clan.
This secondary plotline highlights many of the links between death, life, art, and justice in Lost Empress. Art returns to life the meaning that death removes; as opposed to the justice of the state of things, where death is arbitrary and inevitable (“everything’s already a mass grave with some of the corpses dreaming of life,” de la Pava writes), art is a form of justice that helps people find a way to restore some measure of an absent life. Jorge de Cervantes perishes meaninglessly and unaccountably; his son revivifies under the influence of a great canonical poet. The same is true of Nuno: He writes poems and requests great novels to read to keep from succumbing to the death-in-life of jail; later on, he will produce a work of art that saves him.
The redemptive vision of art that runs through Lost Empress underlines how it strives to advance on the model of A Naked Singularity. De la Pava’s debut owed its success to his fusion of naturalism, rooted in his experiences in the courts and prisons, and a comic postmodernism in the line of Pynchon and Wallace. The diction of the earlier book was demotic and procedural, its voice focused on material facts; the diction of his new one bristles with Latinate polysyllables. What A Naked Singularity did not do was foreground its artistry: Its allusions to Moby-Dick and Cymbeline were buried in the mix, not blared. It was a work of art, but it did not engage with questions about art. It did not represent, as Lost Empress does, an ambitious attempt to hybridize the classic systems novel with works centered on art formation and the artist’s displacement in society, such as Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In this endeavor, de la Pava’s greatest success takes the form of a comic set piece situated halfway through the novel. It is discovered within the district attorney’s office that one of the DA’s interns, Sylvester Scarpetti, possesses an uncanny natural talent for transcribing 911 calls in all their horrified humanity. The precision and emotive force of Scarpetti’s transcripts are such that they transcend the category of valuable legal documents. They come to be seen by his colleagues and superiors as sublime and beautiful—literal artworks. Scarpetti’s own awareness of his genius swells: To forestall plagiarism, he begins personally signing all of his transcripts. In demand for his transcription services, lines “form outside his office as if to a nightclub. DAs holding CDs in those formfitting plain white envelopes with the plastic windows in the middle. See, you couldn’t just drop off the CD with the expected instructions. No, you had to convince Scarpetti to take on the project, and you did this by, in essence, pitching its desirability. Remember, this is an artist and you are asking him to produce art, he needs to be treated as such.” Yet the resentment inspired by his vainglorious posturing—coupled with his growing willingness to depart from verbatim transcripts in the name of higher human truth—eventually do Scarpetti in, and he is fired.
The Scarpetti episode serves as more than just a sparkling divagation satirizing the tendency of successful artists toward bombastic self-valorization. Through it, de la Pava gestures at the broader aesthetic project of his own novel. He aims to generate and sustain a form of literary expression with three distinct elements: naturalistic reproductions of reality verging on the lurid (the 911 incidents); a self-reflexive narrative defined by the improbability of postmodernism and systems novels (the 911 transcripts, which can never actually rise to the level of great art); and a transcendent conception and celebration of the power of great art.
As expected from any ambitious effort to fuse these competing elements, the results are mixed. If the Scarpetti interlude marks a moment when all cylinders are firing, there are times when de la Pava’s merging of these registers works at cross-purposes. In this regard, one character truly jars. The problem is that he also happens to be Nuno, the closest thing Lost Empress has to a main protagonist. Not only does Nuno write poetry; he also pens Rage Against the Machine–style raps. And not only is he capable of a passionate, singular love for Dia (who, in a fortuitous plot twist, turns out to have been his high-school sweetheart), but he is also a world-class street fighter as well: In one chapter, he withstands a marathon session of kicking and stomping by Rikers guards, then immediately picks open his handcuffs with a palmed hairpin and caves the head correctional officer’s face in with a single punch. Nuno also, incidentally, possesses a gift for criminal law that far exceeds that of the hapless public defender assigned to his case, and his expertise in theology is such that he can trounce Father Ventimiglia, the Rikers chaplain, in a debate over the Gospels.
With this impossible concatenation of interests and skills, Nuno is a superhuman. Such a characterization is, of course, intentional: Like some latter-day Colombian-American Paul Bunyan or John Henry, Nuno embodies the different registers de la Pava aspires to work in. Yet even in a fictional space, with its high tolerance for the unlikely, Paul Bunyan and John Henry never became literary intellectuals and legal geniuses. Nuno’s chimeric combination of muscles, brains, and good intentions is so overwhelming that the reader has great difficulty taking him as human.
Thus, in a work that seeks to be grounded to the world as it is as much as it is a break from it, these contortions of the plausible sometimes devolve into the sheer escapism that they seek to parody. Excessive duties are imposed on the reader, who must reconcile fundamentally contradictory impulses: de la Pava’s attempt to take flight from a grinding social reality; his desire to chronicle that reality in intimate detail; and his ambition to ennoble both of these endeavors with masterpiece status.
It’s a risk worth taking, but ultimately the art suffers. It is quite possible to simultaneously revel in the fun-house reflections of actually existing capitalism and grieve for whole abandoned classes of the human race. But doing so while being compelled to hear out frequent, implicitly author-directed disquisitions on artistic greatness (“Joni Mitchell was an artistic genius and on the rare occasions when that occurs it is always a fact well understood by the actual genius”) might strain even the most generous reader’s tolerance. The contrast between Lost Empress and A Naked Singularity, which dissembled its titanic ambitions while firmly, calmly, quietly numbering itself among the greats, is telling, and it is also unfavorable.
Though there are points where de la Pava’s novel exceeds the plausibility of the real world and even the fictional one he’s imagined, one never doubts that the drive behind such excess is a yearning for freedom. Who wouldn’t want to overrule the justice system as it currently exists by sheer artistic will? But even though de la Pava often tries to transcend the systems he so acutely describes, his novel also recognizes the ultimate limits of such an ambition. Death and prison may prove so powerful that human beings and their art can never hope to fully overcome them; the best they can do is report the situation lucidly and hope they find an audience.
Even de la Pava’s superhuman protagonist, by the end of the novel, cannot escape these forces. At Bellevue, he meets a character known only as the Theorist. The Theorist helps to catalyze Nuno’s mental recovery but also, Nuno discovers, wants to destroy the world we live in—a deed which, for convenient reasons of plot, can only take place in Paterson on the night of the Global Bowl, at the base of Paterson’s Great Falls. Though it’s never really clear why, Nuno takes the Theorist’s plans seriously and vows to thwart them; he escapes from Rikers with the Dalí painting intact and confronts the Theorist at the last minute, only to learn that nothing can be done: Nuno’s universe will come to an end just as the Paterson Pork win and Nina’s own plans are realized. The last-second victories and fabulous jailbreaks that human beings can contrive are one thing, but preventing the apocalypse is another—only the author, de la Pava, can stop such an event from occurring, and ultimately, in his universe, no crime—and Nuno has committed many—can go unpunished.
Despite the sheer expanse of his novels, de la Pava resembles no American writer so much as Bernard Malamud, who in his short fiction and quiet novels paired a staunch, yet nonchauvinist, assertion of his ethnic identity with a rigorous and passionate desire to see right rewarded and wrong punished. Similar, too, is de la Pava and Malamud’s affinity for tracing the limitations of humble lives.
One stands out especially in the midst of all of Lost Empress’s action heroes and screwball heroines: Feniz Heredia, a working-class Puerto Rican Patersonian in his 60s. At first he seems marginal, a faint, plaintive echo of the novel’s more consequential figures. Like Nuno, he was once a mental patient in Bellevue and, like Nuno, he also will eventually journey to Paterson’s Great Falls. But Feniz is in many ways also Nuno’s opposite: Reclusive and largely living in the past, his inner depths are unknown to anyone but the reader. He lacks a job to mold his attitude, and the austere dignity of his mind, narrated in free indirect style, is a clear reflection of his straitened material circumstances.
Yet de la Pava makes Feniz his most realized character. Insofar as the novel has any politics, it is in conversation with Feniz that Sharon, channeling the author, expresses it: “The only thing the broke have going for them is there’s so many of us…the only way we’re going to be heard is if we speak with one voice.” And it is through the rich texture of Feniz’s being that de la Pava carefully reveals to us Feniz’s supreme worth. Feniz was never a great artist; it’s just that, in a better world, he likely would have been. How much wasted brilliance has flowered in the minds of people as poor as Feniz, living in towns as run-down as Paterson, and what kind of social system might correct for this injustice and welcome their presence as friends?