Personae   by  Sergio De La Pava   University of Chicago Press (September 2013)   Reviewed by  Christopher Fletcher  

Personae 
by Sergio De La Pava 
University of Chicago Press (September 2013)

Reviewed by Christopher Fletcher 

In the middle of Personae, Sergio De La Pava’s second and newly reprinted novel, Detective Helen Tame tells her superior-in-name-only that “when you return the report will be on this desk...and though it will be fairly voluminous it will be true, understand?” The statement assumes that there is something inherently dubious about lengthy answers. And when we consider that Personae is both the account of Helen Tame creating that report and also the report itself, it becomes clear she is telling the reader not to expect an easy summary somewhere within its pages.

De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was similarly resistant to summary, which, considering its leviathanic dimensions, makes perfect sense: how exactly does one go about paraphrasing 678 pages narrated by a character who apologizes at the outset for being a known digresser? In Singularity, De La Pava eventually corrals the chaos he has unleashed: the lawyers who form office pools concerning baby abductions, the neighbors who watch the full run of The Honeymooners on repeat so as to make Ralph Kramden real, the defendants who speak only in rhyme (“I kicked the window in for sure. But look in me and see my motives were pure”)—and something like a novel emerges.

After such a debut, no one would have blamed De La Pava if the slim Personae wound up being reducible to an elevator pitch. But instead, it is a novel that needs 216 pages to explain what it is about, and even then, it's not explaining. It's setting out its various exhibits and asking the reader to inductively reach a conclusion.

Among Personae’s exhibits are a one-act play, a short story, and a possibly unfinished novella—all written by Antonio Arce, a character who is introduced as a corpse in the first chapter. The reader ping-pongs back and forth between the main narrative and these stories until it becomes clear that there is no main narrative.

According to his publisher, De La Pava has said, “I want every novel I write to depart significantly into a new direction.” Personae feels like a departure from his last book because there is no hyperaware narrator to be seen; this trick, however, is only one of many in De La Pava’s arsenal. His larger project of pushing the limits of the novel form is hardly finished.

Levi Stahl writes that an early reader of Personae referred to it as a “novel in a fugue state.” Roughly speaking, a person in a dissociative fugue has amnesia regarding their memories and personality. When the fugue ends, they regain their memories and personality but lose those formed during the fugue state. In some ways, Personae is fugue-like: once I finished Personae, I’d read more works written by De La Pava as Antonio Arce than I’d read works written by him as Sergio.

But if Personae is the result of a fugue state, it is not total. Helen Tame and Arce sound at times like De La Pava and at times like each other. And it’s not just their voices; they repeat the same themes and use the same images as well. In this way, Personae is less a novel in a fugue state than a novel-as-fugue, in the musical sense of the word—where a voice (or instrument) states the subject (or theme), another voice answers, and a conversation is had between them concerning the subject until yet another voice restates the subject.

Perhaps we ought to take to calling novels like Personae—novels that play variations on a theme—something other than “novels.” Perhaps we ought to steal from the Italian again, as we did with novella (“little new thing”), and call them fughettas: short fugues.

Excerpt from “The Ocean,” by Antonio Arce

He is floating on his back, drifting out and talking to empty air. He says the word riptide a few more times until it no longer seems to make sense; it can’t be the right word, can’t even be a word period its sounds are so funny.1

The first voice we are introduced to in Personae is Detective Tame, who tells us that “if I had to cop to any obsession it would be with the Truth.” True to her name, Detective Tame is a rather subdued presence on the page; she spends a lot of her time intuiting crime scenes and closing her eyes and standing perfectly still so as not to be observed observing others. Along with Sherlock-Holmes levels of observation, she has a kind of ESP that allows her to experience the life of murder victims.

The victim in question in Personae is a supercentenarian first referred to as John Doe, then as Writer, and finally as Antonio Arce, a Columbian who fled Columbia and Cuba in turn before winding up in New York. Helen Tame is called to his apartment to investigate his death and, through what may be a supernatural occurrence, finds a package.

Inside the package is a notebook, a roll of brown paper towel, a TV Guide, and a ream of printed research. All of them are covered in Arce’s handwriting. The paper towel has become a palimpsest as words have been layered atop one another, the TV guide is filled with marginalia, the blank backs of the research pages are no longer mutely white but the recipients and vectors of language. And, as it turns out, the towel, guide, and ream contain not just writing but stories.

Most of Personae is taken up with these three stories: "Personae," a play reminiscent of Beckett, Sartre, and, well, De La Pava; “The Ocean,” a short story; and "Energeias," a novella. Interspersed with this literary output is the narrative of Helen Tame’s search for the truth of Arce’s death and life, an introduction to a monograph on the relationship between J.S. Bach and Glenn Gould, and two obituaries. As you might imagine, the effect on the reader is something like being asked to make a story out of manila envelope full of manuscripts and newspaper clippings.

In an interview with Garth Risk Hallberg in The Millions, De La Pava says that while writing A Naked Singularity he “was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?” Many reviewers identified Casi and Dane’s decision to actually pull off a heist as the point when the novel announces itself as such. While I will admit to having a kind of Aha! moment once the heist seemed likely, I was fully committed to A Naked Singularity without it. In fact, the plottiness of a heist almost felt a letdown after riding the palpable surge of propulsive language through the first part of the novel. (Thankfully, Dane’s announcement that he and Casi would bring swords in place of guns buoyed my spirits considerably.)

Personae has no such moment. Its plot does not coalesce from elements already in play as in A Naked Singularity. From the very first page it has a plot and then it has another and another and another. And none of them are subplots.

Excerpts from "Personae" by Antonio Arce

1 Nestor: (pointing) Dear God look, his legs, they’re hideously mangled, oh the horror!

Wheelbound Stranger: They’re fine, actually. (rising)

Luwig: What’s that you say? Call you Adam?

Adam: I didn’t say that.

Ludwig: I know you didn’t say that, you said call me Adam.

Nestor: Yeah and why say call me all ambiguous-like. Your name Adam or not?

Adam: It isn’t and I never said it was!

Clarissa: Relax Adam.

Ludwig: Yeah relax, if you want us to call you Adam we will. We’re easy that way.2

2

Adam: ...Look at him gasping there. Living, no dying proof, at long last, that life is grand.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. Else why the white-knuckle grip on something that otherwise engenders so much bemoaning?3

As I read my way through the multiply-plotted Personae, there were times I found myself forgetting whose work I was reading; I caught myself flipping through Antonio’s notes wondering whether I could piece together a sense of who he was in life from the writings he left behind and whether such a thing was even in the realm of possibility. The realization that I was treating a fictional character as if he were real led me to speculate on De La Pava’s ability to write as someone else.

Anyone who’s read A Naked Singularity (or at least the first few pages) knows that De La Pava has a way with voices, but the voice of Arce is not what made me feel as if he were real. In fact, it was his voice that reminded me of De La Pava. There are passages from Antonio’s notebook that read as scenes cut from A Naked Singularity:

“Avenge me man.”

“Avenge?”

“You mean avenge your death. His death he wants you should avenge.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I’m dying bro, you see the blood.”

“He’s dying.”

“No that part I get. It’s the avenging part that stops me.”

The reluctant avenger goes on to ask the dying man: “all of a sudden you’re a goddam Shaolin monk or something?”

Despite these reminders that Sergio was writing for Antonio, it was hard to remember for very long that the author of the fiction I was reading was also a fiction. You would think the effect would be the opposite, that a fiction within a fiction would heighten the sense of unreality, but the unreality went deeper than that, deep enough to strike the hyperreal.

It starts on the first page of the novel, when Tame uses a footnote to explain that she will use cop-speak throughout her report. In another footnote a few pages later she refers to herself in the third person as the author of a monograph. This footnoting reinforces her character so clearly that here I am, writing that she uses footnotes—she and not De La Pava. Tame’s use of footnotes grounds her.

Thus Helen Tame provides a way into the stories I’m not sure I would have discovered on my own. Without her, I may have read Personae grudgingly, as a favor to an author I admire who’d written a fiction about fiction. But Tame reads the deceased’s works with the expectation that they will lead to answers, and so I wound up doing the same. Did I read to enter the consciousness of another person or for the pleasure of a writer’s language? No: I read because a very self-assured, possibly psychic detective thought it was the best course of action. Even though Tame’s narrative seems a mere frame built to contain Arce’s stories, she proves indispensable to the experience of the novel as a novel.

Excerpts from "Energeias: or Why Today the Sun May Not Rise in the East, Set in the West," by Antonio Arce

1

The rain won’t stop. Will it ever stop? He thinks no. This heaven-sent water will merge with our seas to overrun all the terrestrial and flood us out of being. Already it seems as if everything solid is only temporarily so and will soon return to its natural liquid state.4

2

—...Everything you build Manuel, including a family, is built using grains of sand.

—Then we’ll build structures of such wise beauty that even our sudden absence won’t slow their radiant glow as it sears into permanence in the mind’s eye of all who bear witness.5

3

He felt a weak joy, not so much at the particulars of the song, great as they were, as at the mere fact it was ever created, if that makes any sense. Near the end, the singer seemed to grow frustrated with the limits of his words and in an expert reversal of Beethoven’s Ninth expressed the brotherhood of Man more cogently through an electric guitar’s wail that leveled everyone present. The world had shrunk.

None of which is to say that when he got home that night he didn’t feel the cruel fact that no one needed to be told of his arrival.6

Interspersed with Helen Tame’s narrative and the works of Arce are three “Excerpts of Dr. Helen Tame’s Introduction to Her Article: Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence.” In her introduction, Tame writes about J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which begin with an aria, are followed by thirty variations on that aria, and conclude with the aria once more. Tame sees the ending of the Variations as a “heartwounding repetition of the aria as if the whole of life hadn’t just changed in the interim.”

In “Hannibal Lecter’s Guide to ‘The Goldberg Variations,’” the pianist Jeremy Denkman has a different take on the Goldberg Variations. He posits that we can better understand Bach’s variations by paraphrasing Hannibal Lecter’s question (which itself is from Marcus Aurelius) in The Silence of the Lambs: “Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?” Denkman, likewise, wants to know what the Variations seek, and he finds out by looking at what they do:

We have been pursuing abstract re-thinkings of a harmonic ground for an hour or more.... But against these more "universal" abstract manifestations, we have a "personal" return of a theme, of a musical texture entire; in a sense we have been looking at DNA for an hour and finally we get to see a familiar human face. It's a (last) moment given to you, a gift, in which, inevitably, something occurs to you. ...The job of the return is to make you realize something.

For Denkman, the aria at the end of the Variations is not a “heartwounding” repetition of sounds left behind in the passage of time but a revelation. The return to the original state serves as a reminder to the listener/reader of the endless variation contained within that seemingly set form.

Every story in Personae save the last ends with death, with the return of nonexistence. And even the end of that last story—the story of Arce—is contained in the beginning of the novel. As I closed the book, however, I was not thinking of the inevitability of the end but of all the possible paths a life can take.

As a novel, Personae ends on a variation. It is not until is read again that the aria repeats. In this way, the book compels the reader to return to it for closure, and the process begins anew. Or perhaps it encourages the reader to tear its pages from the binding in order to spread them out on a table or, better yet, the floor for a God’s-eye view of the story. Either way, you’ll be back.

Chris Fletcher is a writer of book reviews and essays who lives in the interstice between the Twin Cities of Minnesota. His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. He blogs intermittently at http://minnesotapocketjournal.wordpress.com.


  1. “The Ocean” is the achingly sad short story of a man (Professor Tenrod) who wades out into the surf, only to find that he lacks the ability (or is it drive?) to overcome the tide’s desire to pull him out to sea. It is ostensibly the first work Arce produced after declaring that one ought to only write what one would be comfortable having on one’s gravestone, and it contains all of the thematic threads that run through Arce’s other stories: Death, Life, Art, and Language. During Tenrod’s time in the ocean he sees words written in sand on the distant beach and longs to read them. He muses that only someone with the vantage point of God could be assured of being able to read the letters. He then imagines “a flawed someone” watching him from above. In each of Arce’s three works that have survived, characters wonder about the existence of God, and all seem to conclude as Tenrod does, that “whether there is someone up above . . . is a form of speculation.” Tenrod never does get to read what was written on the sand. The words are washed away before the end of the story.

  2. The echo here is of Melville’s opening line of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” In Adam’s case, the name recalls not an outcast but the Biblical figure who stands metonymically for all of humanity. Unlike Ishmael, Adam does not choose his own name; rather, it is thrust upon him by other people who seem uninterested in hearing anything other than what they want to hear. Just before this point in the text, Adam is wheeled into a room with four occupants who have a tenuous grasp on when they arrived in the room and in what order—a premise that immediately calls to mind Beckett’s Endgame and Sartre’s No Exit.

  3. Although "Personae" skirts the Theater of the Absurd, reveling in the indeterminacy of language, Arce’s play leaves the reader feeling that if only the characters had had more time, they could have worked out the who, what, where, when, why, and how of their situation. If Endgame leaves us feeling that existence in the face of absurdity is all we can ask for, "Personae" leaves us feeling that some people make things needlessly difficult for other people. (Which is a bit like *No Exit*, I guess.)

  4. "Energeias" tells the story of Manuel (who may actually be Arce himself, as many of the events in the two men’s lives parallel each other), alternating between his life in Columbia and his life in New York. The Columbia sections are further broken down into the time before his wife and daughter were kidnapped and the time just after their kidnapping as Manuel runs through the forest on their trail.

  5. In this scene, Manuel is conversing with Death or Satan, who says “best way to say it is I differ depending on the observer.” After a long, philosophical discussion about the existence of God and the problem of evil (a discussion spurred on by Death/Satan long after Manuel seems done with it), Manuel accuses Death/Satan of “trying to get me to think like my dimwitted ancestors who openly wondered when the kingdom of God would arrive instead of recognizing it within themselves and exporting it in the form of actions based on Love.” Manuel’s name comes from the Hebrew name “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” Make of that what you will.

  6. This passage makes one wonder whether the characters of Arce’s "Personae" could have found a way to exist within their limited world if only they’d had access to music.