Lost Empress

Sergio De La Pava
Pantheon ($29.95)

by Chris Via

Sergio De La Pava’s first book, A Naked Singularity, cast a long shadow that continues to loom over him like Gödel, Escher, Bach over Douglas R. Hofstadter. Even the synopsis on the back cover of Personae, De La Pava’s second novel, is more preoccupied with escaping its towering predecessor than in its own précis, and it seems inevitable that the debut novel itself makes a self-deprecating cameo in this latest production. But for those who crossed over the event horizon and perhaps were befuddled with the slim offering during the interregnum, Lost Empress proves that the author is no one-hit-wonder.

The fateful butterfly wings of an automobile accident and a woman’s bilked inheritance set into motion the intertwining of a motley cast of characters. We open with the magnetic Nina Gill and the conflict with her brother over ownership of the Dallas Cowboys. In the midst of NFL lockouts, Nina—the author’s reimagining of Ayn Rand’s Dagny Taggart—takes over the Indoor Football League’s Paterson Pork and proposes a pons asinorum that will make (and perhaps end) history. Meanwhile a fatal car wreck brings together the lives of an outcast, a priest, an EMT, a CO, and a 911 operator. And in yet another plot stratum, we follow the virtuosic Nuno DeAngeles, an imprisoned autodidact who performs his own grand jury defense in an unlikely turn of events. One of the novel’s greatest narrative strengths is the intersecting of these disparate lives, the sharp contrast of which brings the ideas of fate and justice into bas-relief.

De La Pava revels in playfulness and punctiliousness—for starters, the book is divided into prologue, logue, and epilogue—while maintaining a perspicacity reminiscent of David Foster Wallace. There is an overwrought narration of the trivial akin to books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, but adorned with comedic gilding that ranges from Three Stooges slapstick (think: the banter in Personae’s Waiting for Godot-like brain-in-a-vat play) to National Lampoon gags (think: A Naked Singularity’s Señor Smoke burritos incident) to sardonic social commentary. Add in the interpolated ruminations on coincidence, seasons, silence, islands, music, time, space, sports, and religion; a heavy sprinkling of literary allusions (Keats, Dostoyevsky, Musil, et al.); a keen sense of parallax (“There’s no down or up for the sun”); deft aphorisms (“Memory may be more powerful than pure imagination but both are muffled rumor when compared to our experience of the urgent present”); and you have all the trappings of what makes reading De La Pava a treat.

Like the corpulent Scarpetti, who, ironically, becomes an office celebrity for transcribing 911 calls, De La Pava is an “expert in human truth and impervious to cliché or shallow thought.” Lost Empress is the product of a restless mind that has gorged on the best of recorded thought but is too sensitive to the human condition and the ambiguity of language to succumb to chaotic postmodern regurgitation. The novel is a tightly-crafted, cerebral synthesis that bandies anti-anthropocentrism and human-all-too-human sympathy, while, as The Theorist declaims, “Time is literally running out.”

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