Tobias Carroll | Longreads | May 2018 | 18 minutes (4,881 words)
Lost Empress addresses the injustice of mass incarceration, plays with the possibility of parallel universes, and uses arena football as a metaphor for how the revolution is unforeseeable. Welcome to the world — or should I say worlds — of Sergio De La Pava, whose fiction certainly doesn’t lack for a sense of scope.
His debut, A Naked Singularity, followed a young, incredibly successful public defender through a personal and professional collapse, weaving in a heist narrative and moments of absurdist comedy, moving from harrowing scenes of inequality to suspenseful setpieces and back again. Initially self-published before being reissued by the University of Chicago Press (which also released his second novel, Personae), A Naked Singluarity would go on to win the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize — an award also won by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Paul Harding’s Tinkers.
In De La Pava’s fiction, grand ideas and societal tragedies coexist with a brisk narrative voice and an irreverent worldview. Lost Empress alternates between two seemingly unconnected stories: Nina Gill, a genius football strategist, suddenly becomes the owner of an indoor football team in Paterson, New Jersey, during an unexpected pause in the NFL season; meanwhile, Nuno DeAngeles, imprisoned at Rikers Island, ponders his earlier crimes and romantic connections, and his plans for the future. Within this sprawling narrative, De La Pava tells the secret history of a Salvador Dalí painting, discusses Cambodian politics in the late 20th century, and muses about why the NFL’s labor market is uniquely exploitative of American athletes.
Improbably in our age of hyper-specialization, De La Pava, like the hero of A Naked Singularity, is a public defender in Manhattan, where he handles 70 to 80 cases at a time. He recently wrote an impassioned op-ed calling for reform of New York’s discovery laws. His interests are obviously wide-ranging, and our conversation touched on the cultural history of Paterson, what we hate about rich people, the multiverse, and more.