Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Fiction

Get Ready for the Movie of “A Naked Singularity” with This Interview and Excerpt

On August 6, the movie Naked Singularity, based on a novel by Sergio De La Pava and starring John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, and Bill Skarsgård, will hit theaters. That’s only the most recent chapter in the wild backstory of this acclaimed novel, which itself reads a bit like something out of Hollywood: A New York public defender writes an incredibly inventive 700-page novel that covers the criminal justice system, our fragmented culture, the fate of the universe, a heist, and more. He sends it to agents. It’s rejected 88 times. So, in 2010, he self-publishes it. Which, let’s be honest, should have been the end of the story.

But this book is too good for that fate. It caught the eye of online reviewers, whose praise led our Marketing Director, Levi Stahl, to pick it up. Within 50 pages, he was hooked and convinced that this book deserved a wide audience. We published it in 2012 to praise from Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, London Times, and Wall Street Journal—which named it one of the 10 best works of fiction that year. Months later, PEN awarded it the Robert W. Bingham Prize for the best debut novel. In the UK, it ended up being a finalist for the inaugural Folio Prize.

Now, nine years later, we’ll get to see what it looks like transformed for the big screen. You can see the trailer now, while the movie itself will start arriving in theaters on August 6 and be available streaming starting August 13. To mark the occasion, we offer below a brief interview with Sergio De La Pava and an excerpt.

With the movie based on your novel A Naked Singularity premiering soon, we thought it would be fun to talk with you a bit about movies in general. Let’s start with something simple: What’s the movie you’ve seen the most times? Why?

The movie I’ve seen the most is probably The Godfather, mainly because it’s so readily and constantly available and it’s hard to change the channel on it. But I do think there are better movies.

Fiction has a narrative pull, but it also affects us at the level of words and sentences. Film works on multiple levels as well, with story, character, cinematography, music, and sound each playing a part. As a viewer, do you find yourself particularly attuned to any of those aspects?

Films very rarely succeed for me on the level of language. On the contrary, I often have to shut my ears a bit to endure the extended trauma to them. Where movies can effortlessly shine is in elements like photography, especially of faces.

Crime writer Donald Westlake, who had many of his books adapted to film and also wrote adaptations himself—including an Oscar-nominated screenplay for the film based on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters—seemed to have a healthy attitude toward seeing his work adapted: Basically, the movie and the book are separate, and the writer of the book is often a terrible source of ideas about how a movie of the book should go. Having now seen your book translated into this other medium, how does it feel?

Sounds like he had a healthy attitude to the process but this notion that most novelists have nothing to offer on questions of narrative, dialogue, characters, etc. is silly on its face.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that The Grifters succeeds as the very rare instance of a skillful screenplay.

As you were writing about Casi, the narrator of A Naked Singularity, did any actors come to mind? Anyone from film history who you wish were here to try playing him?

Orson Welles or bust, what a supremely entertaining dude.

The heist in A Naked Singularity is a prominent part of the film—putting the movie into a long tradition of heist films. Do you have a favorite or favorites in that genre?

Riffifi or The Killing or Heist where Mamet has a character say, “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.” Sweet.

When it comes to home viewing, are you a watch-in-silence kind of guy, or a second-screen guy, or a talk-back-to-the-movie guy? Something different?

First, home viewing is a pale imitation of the theater. I usually just read something while it’s on. Reading is inimitable.

Finally: What’s a movie you love that you feel like not enough people have seen or that doesn’t get talked about enough?

Brain Donors, with John Turturro, was a laudable attempt to resurrect Marx Brothers comedy. I wish it had succeeded on more than just the aesthetic level.

Read on for an excerpt from A Naked Singularity, available from our website or your favorite bookseller.

[bod-y (bŏd ́ē) n., pl.—ies. 9. CJS. Inarguably odious term used by N.Y.C. Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendants: There are three hundred bodies in the system so we should be busy. He’s bringing the next batch of bodies down now, I’ll let you know if your guy’s one of them.]

And this was before anything even remotely insane had happened when I still occasionally thought about things like how it was that people were reduced to bodies, meaning the process. How you needed cops to do it and how their master, The System, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted. And if you learn only one thing from the ensuing maybe let it be this: the police were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make an arrest, rather the police had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing. Consequently, the decision on who would become a body was often affected by overlooked factors like the candidate’s degree of humility, the neighborhood it lived in, and most often the relevant officers’ need for overtime.

None of which tells you the exact process by which someone, let’s say You, becomes a body, which account I sort of impliedly semi-promised, so imagine you are on the street, then in an incident, then a stranger’s hand is on your melon making sure it doesn’t bang the half-blue/half-white American-only car with the colorful bar across the top. Imagine that, easy if you try. Now the police have twenty-four hours to get you in front of a judge for your criminal court arraignment but if you’re the perceptive sort you will monitor Time’s ceaseless consumption of this period yet rightly detect no corresponding increase in ambient urgency.

Your first stop is the appropriate precinct where the arresting officer or A/O stands you before another cop known as the Desk Sergeant. He tells him the tale of your alleged sin and the two, speaker and audience, join their heads to decide what section(s) of the New York Penal Law to charge you with. Now you’ve been informally charged and with that out of the way you may be asked to remove all your clothes (the propriety of this being debated at the time) and kindly spread open your ass. This strip search is one of several ways that additional charges can still arise so while you may have been arrested for a triviality like displaying an open bottle of Heineken to the public—a prosecution normally conducted in a decidedly minor key and resolved right at arraignments—your glove-clad searcher may now discover what you most sought to conceal, that you are currently holding one of the area’s surfeit of readily-available-yet-technically-illicit anesthetics in amounts ranging anywhere from the ghostly residue of celebrations past to multiple powder bricks and in locations as presumably inviolable as within your underwear or even up your ass or maybe you possess one of the other less popular forms of the all-inclusive law enforcement term contraband. In that way can minor breaches be converted into major faults and this happens often, not occasionally. The police know this and are therefore unlikely to ignore even nonsense like the above Consumption of Alcohol in a Public Place (AC §10.125). People like you know this as well yet permit it to alter their conduct not in the slightest, ensuring in the process that the number of bodies will always remain fairly constant.

Another way you have to be careful not to pick up more charges is by resisting capture, even if only verbally, because such conduct can incite some of your lesser blue pacifists into a bit of retributory violence, with said violence then necessitating that you be charged with Resisting Arrest (PL §205.30) if only by way of explaining your injuries; which injuries better be minor lest they result in the added felony charge of Assault in the Second Degree (PL §120.05[3]), a more extensive explanation whereby a misdemeanor assault becomes a felony one by virtue of involving a police officer.

Still at the precinct, you are printed, each of your fingers rolled in black ink then onto vestal white paper. The resulting bar code is sent to Albany for the purpose of producing a rap sheet, an accordion collection of onion paper that means everything where you are. It means everything because sentencing like Physics and other sciences builds on what came before so that the worse your past was, the worse your present will be, and no sane person doubts the rap sheet’s depiction of the past since it’s based on unalterable fingerprints and not relative ephemera like names or social security numbers. I say no sane person because when once confronted by an individual who steadfastly claimed not to recall in the slightest what I deemed to be a highly memorable conviction on his sheet and one that substantially increased his exposure, I asked him if he planned to launch a Lockean defense whereby he could not be held responsible for something he didn’t remember as such act was not properly attributable to his personal identity at which point he gave me the blankest of stares in response then started saying increasingly odd things in rapid succession until I realized that he not only sort of knew what I was talking about, which was weird enough, but that he was undeniably insane and my ill-advised Locke reference was like the thing coming after the final straw to tip him over the Axis-II-Cluster-A edge, as it were, so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that.

Now there’s all this paperwork the A/O has to fill out and he’ll stick you in the precinct’s cell while he fills. But first, if the case has any seriousness whatsoever, he and his friends want to accumulate evidence against you and since the best evidence is quite often the very words you emit, they mostly want you to make a statement, and trust me when I tell you that by the time they’re through with you you’ll probably want you to make a statement as well. Because while the police operated under something called the forty-eight hour rule which stated that an officer charged with any kind of official misconduct cannot be questioned about it for forty-eight hours—giving him time to, among other things, retain a criminal defense attorney—you are currently operating under a different forty-eight hour rule. This one says the police can harass, intimidate, lie, cheat, steal, cajole, make false promises, and delay your arraignment (where you would be assigned an attorney who would most assuredly not allow you to speak to the police) for forty-eight hours if that’s what it takes to extract your statement. And it is following all that, not at the very instant you’re arrested as mass entertainment would have you believe, that they will advise you of your Miranda rights so your ensuing statement will be admissible.

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.

Digression begins. So Ernesto Miranda is the Miranda of the warnings and the same year a famous shooter(s) would later scatter John Fitzgerald all over Jackie he was twenty-three and creating smaller-scale mayhem. A high school dropout with the mental development of an eighth-grader, Miranda had already served one year on an attempted rape conviction. In a perpendicular universe, an eighteen-year-old Phoenix girl who I’m Digression begins. So Ernesto Miranda is the Miranda of the warnings and the same year a famous shooter(s) would later scatter John Fitzgerald all over Jackie he was twenty-three and creating smaller-scale mayhem. A high school dropout with the mental development of an eighth-grader, Miranda had already served one year on an attempted rape conviction. In a perpendicular universe, an eighteen-year-old Phoenix girl who I’m going to say strove to dress like the glossy girls she saw in magazines and to listen to the same records as her more desirable classmates indisputably acted as attendant to some movie theater’s candy counter, the true home of such an operation’s profits incidentally. She sold synthetic butter and liquid Real Things and when done tried to go home. Enter Miranda who interrupted her trip home. He grabbed her, dragged her into his car, and drove her out into the Red, Brown, and Purple of the Painted Desert where he raped her.

Fast forward one week when the girl briefly saw what she thought was the car driven by her assailant, a 1953 Packard. She reported this belief to the police, telling them the license plate of the car was DFL312. That plate turned out to be registered to an Oldsmobile but the police discovered that DFL317 was registered to a Packard—a Packard owned by Twila N. Hoffman, Ernesto Miranda’s girlfriend. Off to 2525 West Mariposa (Oeste Butterfly) Street where Miranda was found to fit the description given by the girl. He was arrested and placed in a line-up. The girl said he most resembled the rapist but failed to make an unequivocally positive identification.

Detectives took Miranda into Interrogation Room Two where he was told he had been identified as the rapist and asked if he wanted to make a statement. He did, a signed written confession that took two hours to elicit following his initial denial of guilt and that included a section saying he understood his rights. Miranda was charged and assigned an attorney. The attorney, Alvin Moore, had plenty on his neck, however, and for a well-spent $100 he objected that the confession had been illegally obtained because no one told Ernesto, prior to his statement, that he had the right to an attorney. The trial judge said no way to that and after the jury consequently heard the confession, and was surely impressed by it, he got to prescribe twenty to thirty years in special housing as a remedy. Ernesto wondered if he could appeal and he could.

The ACLU grabbed the case and 976 days later they were in front of the court that never gets overruled with John Flynn saying, and this is a direct quote (no it isn’t): “look dudes, and I refer to you thusly because this is way pre-O’Connor/Ginsberg, your Fifth Amendment deal is only protecting the rich and powerful: those who are brainy enough to know what their rights are or who have the dough to rent a lawyer.” The Warren Supremes actually agreed and, in the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy, held that before future police could torment some illiterate sap who nobody cares about into confessing his sins, real or imagined, they would have to inform him of certain rights not covered in your average eighth-grade Social Studies class. As is customary in these all-too-rare instances, Miranda’s conviction was reversed and his case set down for retrial—a trial to be conducted without his now tainted confession, without any physical evidence of a struggle, and with a dubious identification. In a stroke of all-too-common prosecutorial serendipity, however, Miranda’s common-law wife, the previously-mentioned Twila, emerged to testify that Miranda had admitted the rape to her. The fact that she and Miranda were then involved in a bitter custody dispute—are these ever otherwise described?—was conveniently ignored and the new jury said something to the effect of where are your Supremes now because we agree with the first jury. Miranda was eventually paroled then, the same year his country celebrated its two-hundredth birthday party, stabbed and killed in a Phoenix bar fight. As the police arrested one of his assailants they took care to read him his Miranda rights in English and Spanish. Digression ends.

Photo by Genevieve McCarthy

Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn. He is also the author of Personae.