University of Chicago Press, October 2013
Sergio De La Pava's Personae is not so much a novel as it is an amalgamation of ideas. This is a difficult, disjointed book but one that maintains its ability captivates despite its construction. De La Pava is certainly not at fault, though, as the disjointed nature of Personae appears to be finely tuned and meticulously calculated: he floats his readers through a detective story, an existential drama, and even a short jaunt through musical theory all in the name of challenging the conventions of a novel.
The book opens with a detective named Helen Tame; she was called to a crime scene to investigate the circumstances of a 116 year-old man's death. The situation is not particularly mysterious, but Tame's presence somehow makes it so. She zeroes in, almost psychically, to a selection of passed-over clues: she finds an odd bloodstain and a box of the deceased's personal effects.
By revealing that the dead man was a writer, Personae begins to take its shape. The following sections of the book are transcriptions of the man's texts, interspersed with excerpts of an essay on music theory, written by Tame before she committed to police work.
Tame's essays focus on Glenn Gould's historic recordings of Bach's "Goldberg Variations". Gould made two recordings of Bach's aria and thirty variations, once in his twenties and the second nearly thirty years later (the year before his death in 1982). They're two completely distinct experiences, and one can almost feel the age, wisdom, and emptying hourglass humming through the elder recordings. It's an astonishing piece of music, and a great anecdote, but De La Pava's re-telling doesn't accentuate this story with anything new (Richard Powers's The Goldbug Variations used the Gould story with much greater effect in 1991). But, it seems something "new" is not quite the point.
What we're supposed to do is position this snippet of musical history next to the other incongruous parts of Personae and see what sticks. In the book's opening section, Helen Tame explains a theory about coincidence:
"The average person greatly underestimates the frequency of what they term coincidence and often the unscrupulous profit as a result. Thus the frequent discoveries that the Bible, for example, has a hidden code that prospectively details the precise unfolding of the Franco-Prussian War or whatever until someone, one hopes, points out that the real shock would be if the comparison of two immeasurably rich entities like the Bible and all of human history failed to produce any matching patterns whatsoever."
In fact, all the parts of Personae seem to ask their readers to cup their ears and listen for an echo, to seek out an underlying pattern. De La Pava lines these vignettes up along the precipice of a hundred-page, two-act play that lurks in the center of Personae. "Players at Play on the Stage that Is the World" reads like a hole torn through a spacecraft: the fragile pieces of Personae hurtle towards that wound, mercilessly sucked into the abyss.
This abyss quickly turns abysmal and readers will find whatever confused pleasure and wonderment they had in reading the first fifty pages absent, gone into the same vacuum that consumed De La Pava's renderings of Glenn Gould, a suspicious death, and literary convention. Their stories are gone, but perhaps their meanings remain. As "Players at Play on the Stage that Is the World" progresses, It quickly becomes clear that Personae is not some pulpy post-modern detective novel but a philosophical work of feuding ideas. De La Pava absorbs Beckett's conundrums with wordplay fit for a Shel Silverstein poem and creates an aggravatingly verbose work of abstract theatre.
Among the dramatis personae is a man named Nestor, who echoes the persuasive and wise Nestor of Greek myth. While the rest of the cast argues over the appearance of a nameless man they decide to call Adam, Nestor elevates the ideas of the play into something more global, and perhaps relevant to the rest of De La Pava's book. At the end of the first act, Nestor takes possession of a gun that had been prominently displayed in the corner of the stage. Naturally, this new power results in strife amongst the cast:
ADAM: Let me frank, Nestor.
NESTOR: No problem Frank.
ADAM: But being that you have our only gun you are in a wholly different position than the rest of us.
NESTOR: I'm upright like the rest of you.
LINDA: And don't think we're unaware of the rule that says that thing has to go off soon either.
NESTOR: Rules, conventions, norms! I feel such great envy right now. I fervently wish I had your collective astigmatism. Could see only the minutiae as the cosmic nears.
Amidst the dry humor and literary self-awareness, one can find confounding moments of clarity like Nestor's rally against conventions. Could any frustration with Personae be explained away in the name of literary astigmatism? Looking solely at its pieces, Personae does not settle well, but perhaps a more "cosmic" reading would be more forgiving.
Unsurprisingly, the last fifty pages of Personae mark another dramatic shift in the book's tone and read like an entirely different book. And it's here that De La Pava's technique really succeeds. Three threads from drastically different realms intertwine in alternating sections, creating a devastating counterpoint between disparate melodious themes. We watch the owner of a sandwich shop court a female customer, only paragraphs later to find ourselves amidst machetes and guerilleros in the Colombian jungle. And somehow, these threads harmonize together. It's almost as if the first three-quarters of Personae were training for the book's final fifty pages. If you spend a hundred and fifty pages of Personae learning to imagine connections that may or may not be there, to absorb a book as a whole, not as a novel but as whatever the author wants it to be, perhaps you'll hear that harmony, humming along at some uncharted frequency.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.