De La Pava’s dizzying novel covers a lot of conflicting territory. (Image courtesy University of Chicago Press)

Singular sensation

A sprawling, self-published debut novel has a happy ending for the author and the press.

Levi Stahl is used to raving about new University of Chicago Press titles. He’s a publicist. But Stahl did more than promote A Naked Singularity, the debut novel by Sergio De La Pava. He brought it to the press’s attention.

When Stahl came across the 678-page self-published book from an unknown author—and loved it—he spread the word around the office, although he describes his role in modest terms: “I was the one who brought it in and sort of handed it off.”

Once the press acquired the rights, Stahl found himself in an unusual position, marketing a book to which he had a personal connection. “The old joke is, ‘Publicist is excited about something!’ You don’t actually get to go out and say, ‘No, I actually put my neck out for this a little bit, this is actually something I believe in,’ and be able to say that sincerely and have people take you seriously.”

The novel tells the story of Casi, a young, overworked public defender in Manhattan who is dragged into the pro-bono defense of a mentally handicapped man on death row and also into a plan to pull off the perfect heist. The book is massive, containing long segments of unattributed dialogue ranging from New York narcotic slang to pop-culture musings to Casi’s own brand of acid-laced legalese.

De La Pava, himself a New York public defender, might have let A Naked Singularity languish after rejections from New York publishers. “I think he would have just tucked it away in a drawer and kept moving on,” Stahl says. But in 2008 his wife and agent, Susanna De La Pava, convinced him to self-publish it through Xlibris.

Initial lack of interest seemed to vindicate his reluctance. “At first we sold no copies,” De La Pava says, but sales slowly increased as online reviewers took notice. One reviewer was Scott Bryan Wilson from the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal where Stahl serves as poetry editor. “He was just raving about it,” remembers Stahl, “basically saying this is a great book, it’s the best thing he’s read in years, maybe all decade, and it was a shame that no publisher saw it and was ready to take a chance on it.”

When the buzz continued to build, Stahl asked Wilson to put him in touch with the author. Susanna De La Pava gladly sent him a copy. In addition to its academic, reference, and journal publications, the press publishes only a small selection of fiction each year. Stahl’s proposal to acquire rights to an enormous novel by an unpublished writer required a certain adjustment of protocol.

Maggie Hivnor, AM’77, paperback editor in charge of acquiring reprint rights, generally consults scholarly reviews when considering a book. For A Naked Singularity, there were only online reviews. “We couldn’t go to our [editorial] board with reviews off the Internet. That would have been too new and strange.”

So she sent the book to novelist Brian Evenson and nonfiction writer Carlo Rotella, U-High’82, whose work the press has published. “And then these reviews came back,” says Hivnor. “Rave reviews: ‘Yes, yes, you should publish this!’”

When the press’s edition came out in April, A Naked Singularity inspired more praise. Within its “densely packed and offhandedly poetic 678 pages,” Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune found “a cross between Moby-Dick and Police Academy. Between Descartes and Disneyland. Between Henry James and Henry Winkler.” The Wall Street Journal called it “a propulsive, mind-bending experience.”

De La Pava, who published his second book, Personae, through Xlibris in 2011, insists that no amount of literary success could persuade him to end his legal career. He considers the circumstances of A Naked Singularity’s publication just “a confluence of fortunate breaks,” a sentiment Stahl and the University of Chicago Press share.