What’s The Opposite of A Cult Following? Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress

By Alex Moran and Diego Báez

Sergio De La Pava’s career as a prolific author may not have seemed readily apparent when his debut novel, A Naked Singularity (2008), first appeared on self-publishing platform Xlibris exactly ten years ago today. And much has been made of De La Pava’s story of literary ascendance: a public defender in New York City, son of Colombian immigrants, and ardent non-resident of Brooklyn, the author self-published his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, after receiving a reported 88 rejections. De La Pava’s wife, Susanna, an attorney-at-law turned literary agent, delivered copies of the nearly 700-page novel to critics who might be interested in a sprawling interrogation of the American criminal justice system, as told through a surprising heist caper, with a seasoning of boxing and pop culture, plus generous doses of dark, deadpan humor.

The outreach succeeded.

Early praise by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, and an enthusiastic recommendation by Scott Bryan WIlson at The Quarterly Conversation, piqued the interest of Levi Stahl, publicity director at University of Chicago Press, who acquired the rights and put out the book, complete with flashy new cover, thus making A Naked Singularity the first and only novel UCP has ever reissued in over a century of publishing.

Indeed, the publication of Lost Empress earlier this year marks a key turn in the author’s career: it’s his first title to appear under a major commercial operation. Pantheon, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday (itself a subsidiary of Penguin Random House), home to Mark Z. Danielewski’s arduously estranging five-installments of The Familiar,[1] is no newcomer to big, ambitious works of avant-garde lit. And Lost Empress certainly fits the bill: it includes transcripts from 911 calls (banal and horrifying alike), dialogue arranged on the page like a screenplay (à la De La Pava’s second book, Personae [2013], an oddball maybe non-novel), copious notes in stenographer’s shorthand, and a smuggled facsimile of an “Inmate Rule Book” ostensibly produced by the NYC Department of Corrections, not to mention a conspicuous reversal of chapter order, counting down from 88, culminating in chapter ZERO.

But for all its formal invention, Lost Empress opens conventionally enough, on the verge of a labor dispute, albeit one unique to American professional sports: the “lockout,” whereby players and owners fail to come to an agreement over pay and conditions, so that the latter take their ball and stop anyone from playing. There have been seven in the history of the NFL alone, with the last, in 2011, ending after 132 acrimonious days of negotiation in which even Congress got involved (another one is seemingly inevitable when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021). In Lost Empress, an impending NFL lockout provides an unexpected opportunity for the book’s chief protagonist.

Nina Gill, daughter of the recently deceased owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has secretly been the brains behind the team’s recent success. However, she’s shocked to discover that, in his will, her father has left the team to her brother. Nina’s inheritance is the less desirable Paterson Pork, an Indoor Football League (IFL) franchise her father also came to own. As her brother and the other owners deign to lockout the NFL, Nina – whose speech is presented throughout as if it were a script in a play, a technique De La Pava honed throughout Personae – launches the IFL to fill the void where the NFL games would usually be.[2] Together with the unwittingly recruited (and cheekily named) Dia Nouveau, a college student who happens to be loitering nearby when Nina embarks on this ambitious undertaking, a league is brought to life with numerous hilarious traits. Most notably, as every IFL game takes place –by definition– indoors, a weather wheel spins to decide the weather inside the stadia before each game. With many laugh out loud moments, plus deep analyses of the tactics of American football, Nina’s single-minded determination fuels the spectacular attraction of the IFL’s underdog grit.

De La Pava’s texts consistently have characters who are the absolute best: in A Naked Singularity, Casi has never lost a case as a public defender; in Personae, Helen Tame is a supernaturally gifted detective.

But Nina’s ambition is only one part of the novel: like Infinite Jest, the narrative occupies two main settings. While Wallace’s epic moves between the tennis academy and a halfway house, De La Pava takes on the world of American football and the infamous Rikers Island jail. Here we find Nuno DeAngeles, a criminal who is seemingly like Batman, The Joker, and Bane all in one. De La Pava’s texts consistently have characters who are the best at something: in A Naked Singularity, Casi has never lost a case as a public defender; in Personae, Helen Tame is a supernaturally gifted detective. In Lost Empress, Nina’s a brilliant businesswoman and football tactician, while Nuno’s a genius who demands the works of Musil and Sabato “In the original German and Spanish” from his state-appointed public defender. In perhaps one of the most spellbinding scenes in the novel, presented as a court transcript, Nuno defends himself in court.[3] Furthermore, his physical strength and fighting ability is that of a comic book character. Nuno has been tasked with stealing a lost Dali from the prison, and so has got himself incarcerated in order to achieve this task. A Pynchonesque caper, this elaborate heist is even more spectacular than the one found in A Naked Singularity.

Along the way, we meet numerous other characters who are also the best at what they do. For instance, Jorge de Cervantes is a Manhattan parking attendant who is “the world’s foremost expert in … the cheesy maneuvering of aluminum alloy rectangles into and out of impossibly constrained spaces” (p. 62). There’s also a savant of an emergency responder and a law office clerk who can transcribe recordings better than anyone in the history of this largely mundane occupation. What is stunning here is how what seem like tangents –about the immigrant experience in America, about the workings of the justice system, or quantum theory– are never actually tangential; or rather, even digressions do more than point to an unkempt canine.

The obvious point of connection between the criminal justice system and American football is that both industries exploit people of color. However, A Naked Singularity is already the novel that excoriates the racial biases of the American justice system. Indeed, Casi’s rage is often transparently the voice of the author on his soapbox. Here, De La Pava is subtler: the subtitle of Lost Empress, “a protest,” written pointedly in lowercase, suggests this quieter critique. Most interesting is how De la Pava states early on: “Let us then have, in these pages, an entertainment. Not strictly one, but principally so. Let wit and peals of laughter distract to the point of defiance and leave for elsewhere the desultory analysis of decay and devolution” (9). While Wallace famously spoke of the dangers of entertainment and Michael Chabon has recently tried to consciously recover the value of entertainment [4], De la Pava’s novel merges protest with entertainment in a way that makes one think such an opposition was nonsense in the first place.

This merging of protest and entertainment manifests in the structure of the novel: the countdown from chapter 88 to chapter zero not only nods to his own aforementioned experiences of rejection, but possibly also nods to 88 as symbol of fascism, as well as being suggestive of an impending event. Empress can be situated alongside Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016), and Adam Nemett’s upcoming We Can Save Us All (2018) as part of a developing genre of pre-apocalyptic fiction, whereby we see all the action before the apocalypse happens. A protest, a warning about where we are heading, an entertainment —Lost Empress is all of these and more. Late in the novel, Nuno realizes:

Step back a bit. Think how weird this whole thing has been. The NFL is a wildly successful industry. That there would be a work stoppage at some point given the massive revenue involved was entirely predictable. That it would persist to this point, where they would cancel an entire season and its profits and let some ludicrous comedy act fill the void, would be literally inconceivable if not for the fact that we are currently experiencing it (569).

De la Pava appears to be contending here that fiction cannot outpace reality, as what was previously regarded as “inconceivable” has come to be in recent years. In doing so, he recaptures the radical political intent that undergirds so many of the texts that are unfairly disregarded by readers and critics as unnecessarily difficult and self-indulgent. De La Pava’s fiction is a politically-engaged and rewarding protest against the current state of American life. Surprisingly on point, even given the high yield of commentary nowadays so quick to issue it verges on the post-contemporary. In fact, so timely and topical, certain passages bear more than a passing resemblance to prescience. It could even pass muster for spooky. Exactly [5] halfway through the novel, Nina drops some knowledge on novitiate Dia’s ever-eager self regarding the global monopoly exerted by NFL owners:

Realize that with the slight exception of Canada, no other place in the world has the slightest interest in playing this stupid sport. Contrast that to soccer or basketball, hockey and baseball for that matter. Think of being a human with this very specific skill set. You can execute at a high level only a very specific series of motor tasks that have relevance in exactly one country and is valued by precisely one employer (310-11).

Nina goes on to mention the infamous concussion studies and their subsequent cover-up, but has nothing to say here about the NFL’s paid-for patriotism: the fact that national anthems and military aircraft accompany this uniquely North American game. And not just by accepted practice or incidental celebration, the populus actually pays for it with their own hard-earned tax dollars.[6] Millions of Americans, every week in the autumn.

And who could have imagined that, in September 2016, two months before a reality TV show host would become President of the United States [7], a quarterback for the 49ers would spark a national debate about the place of protest in American civic life. And that said President would later go on public record to denounce this act of protest, and others like it, calling protesters “embarrassing for the country.”[8] Of all things.

By so many measures across several dimensions, Lost Empress succeeds. It’s an intelligent and complex, yet deeply readable story that provides well-placed commentary on the ever-churning engine of United Statesian politics and culture, and on its desperate clawing to these cults of personality, simmering to the point of fanaticism. Or fandom.

 

Works Cited

De la Pava, Sergio. Lost Empress. New York: Pantheon, 2018.

 

[1] The remaining 22 (!) volumes of the myopically greenlit franchise have apparently been put “on pause.”

[2] Vince McMahon is planning to relaunch his mercurial XFL in 2020, the marketing of which Nina’s IFL echoes. McMahon really should wait until the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021.

[3] Like Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), what is remarkable about De la Pava is his ability to wring depth and drama in sections where he uses administrative forms.

[4] Michael Chabon, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” in Maps and Legends. Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. New York: Harper, 2008. 1 – 14.

[5] Pagination ends at 622, excepting a curious Epilogue.

[6] But don’t get her started on the accounting breaks afforded NFL owners with regard to non-profit status, construction contracts, merchandising rights, television royalties, et c.

[7] One month before an upset Cubs World Series victory, the first in over 100 years.

[8] That Kaepernick scored a multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorship from the whole ordeal is too predictable, even by the standards of Wallacean silliness.

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