Book review: Lost Empress, by Sergio De La Pava

One of the great neglected works of American fiction is the USA trilogy by John Do Passos, intelligent, angry, socially committed, experimental in form, with, for instance, its use of newspaper cuttings, some genuine, some made-up. It was a huge work and hugely admired by, for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre and William McIlvanney, unlikely as that coupling may seem.

Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress recalls the USA trilogy in its ambition, adventurousness and angry social concern, but, in the habit of our times, De La Pava tempers his seriousness with wild and utterly improbable comedy. Dos Passos was able to take the world as it was presented to him and do so straight; you had no doubt about his political seriousness, his commitment to social, political and economic reform. De La Pava may be equally committed – I fancy he is – but he is reluctant to be grave lest he be charged with a lack of postmodern irony.

This works. Critics are impressed but uncertain. So they reach almost indiscriminately for comparisons – just, you may say, like my invocation of Dos Passos.

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So one reviewer of A Naked Singularity – De La Pava’s first novel – said it was “like The Wire written by Voltaire” and “infused with everything from Moby Dick and Dostoevsky to Hamlet and Hemingway”. These are the sort of judgments we reviewers fling out when we think something is good, may indeed be very good, but we don’t quite know why.

De La Pava is certainly as unusual as he is interesting. He is not of course unusual in writing a novel of gargantuan length, scope and ambition, but he is unusual among contemporary American novelists in that he doesn’t teach literature or creative writing. Instead, he is a lawyer who works as a public defender in the Manhattan courts, representing people who can’t pay for a lawyer. Moreover, his first two novels were self-published, A Naked Singularity after receiving 88 rejection slips. If he writes with sympathy for the underdogs and people battered by life or cast adrift, it’s not surprising – and not only because it is men and women like this that he defends in court.

It would be ridiculous to summarise plot and themes. The novel begins with football. Nina Gill hopes to inherit the Dallas Cowboys but her father leaves her only Paterson Pork, New Jersey’s only Indoor Football League franchise. When there is an NFL lock-out, she proclaims that the IFL games will be televised. It’s crazy, all the more so when she hires as deputy commissioner a student journalist who has come to interview her. This young girl, Dia, is the link to the other main character (but there is a host of characters) Nuno DeAngeles, a convict serving time in Rikers Island where he is the terror of guards and inmates alike. The plot, which is as richly complicated as it is agreeably preposterous, will involve a commission to steal a painting by Salvador Dali from the prison. (Dali did indeed apparently donate one of his works to Rikers Island, and it was indeed stolen and never recovered.) One has to say that the plot does just what Walter Scott required of a plot – what was it for but to bring in fine things? You are likely to be less interested in what happens than pleased by the way this is presented to you.

The novel is impressive in its vigour and virtuosity, pleasing in its exuberant fancy, admirable doubtless in its commitment to questions of social justice and its indictment of the reality of the American criminal justice system with its mass incarceration.

Using comedy to expose horror and absurdity is of course as old as the novel itself, and De La Pava’s evident indignation finds what one may consider its proper style of expression in his exuberant but also savage comedy. If in its ambition and formal inventiveness Lost Empress recalls Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, it is also in the long tradition of the American comic novel which stretches back to Huckleberry Finn. There are echoes also of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, a novel which employed the absurd in order to expose absurdity.

Lost Empress, by Sergio De La Pava, MacLehose, 640pp, £20. Sergio De La Pava is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 27 August