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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Sergio De La Pava

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To purchase Personae

Title: Personae
Author: Sergio De La Pava
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 201 pages
Availability: Personae - US
Personae - UK
Personae - Canada
Personae - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often stunning writing; intriguingly twisted story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 22/11/2013 Edward Docx
Publishers Weekly . 19/8/2013 .
The Times . 26/10/2013 Chris Power
TLS . 15/11/2013 Sean O'Brien
Wall Street Journal . 4/10/2013 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 10/12/2013 Scott Esposito

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a tricky novel to review. I'm not even sure it is a novel. And I'm not certain as to whether its fragmentary nature belies an organic structure of astutely sewn intention or is merely a disingenuous device to conceal a let's-get-something-out cobbling together of unpublished material lying around the writer's desk. What I can tell you is this: I was powerfully engaged and richly entertained by Personae. (...) Page after page of superbly alive and intelligent writing that circles the deep and proper subjects of human nature, which are the deep and proper subjects of any writer who takes their work seriously." - Edward Docx, The Guardian

  • "Game readers should have as much fun with this clever experiment as the author seems to have had inventing it, and be challenged by his more serious and troubling questions." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The true object of De La Pava's scrutiny here seems to be the literary thriller, which he serves up in eviscerated form in this series of essays, reflections and travesties of crime novels and television series, as well as the central eighty-page play, Personae." - Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement

  • "There's a lot of grinning playfulness in this undermining of mystery-novel conventions, but one of Mr. De La Pava's most arresting traits is his ability to bind his whimsical impulses to philosophical seriousness. (...) Unsurprisingly, the answers Tame seeks are elusive, as Personae emphasizes the puzzle above any expectation of resolution. Yet in this willfully cryptic book, Mr. De La Pava's sense of moral urgency is ever-present." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "The play is the strangest and most difficult part of this book. (...) De La Pava presents characters widely separated by time and space and then shows us how they become drawn into one anotherís lives, despite the odds. Most of all, he inquires into why people fight to comprehend others they barely know. But Personae is not completely successful." - Scott Esposito, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Personae appears to begin as a mystery -- a police procedural (complete with, as a footnote almost immediately acknowledges, the: "tortured locutions often found in official law enforcement documents" -- and hence also in police procedurals).
       It's opening line is:

     The ensuing is the report of one Detective Helen Tame.
       She is called to the scene of a possibly suspicious death -- called to it because that very day officers had been instructed to call Tame:
if attendant circumstances suggest that a high degree of notoriety will attach to the case or resolution of the matter will prove particularly thorny
       There is a body -- that of a very old man (over a hundred, as it eventually turns out). Although it appears to be his apartment, he remains (rather surprisingly) unidentified -- a John Doe -- for a while. Death by natural causes appears to be the obvious best guess, but the scene suggests there may be more to it. And there are certainly open questions, beginning with that of the man's identity.
       Tame is not your usual homicide detective, and Personae is not your usual mystery -- indeed, arguably its mysteries are of a very different sort than what one might expect in a police-procedural, even as it does nominally follow a few traditional procedural steps. But Tame's approach and interests are of an entirely different order than the rest of the NYPD, and the way she goes about her investigation is definitely not by the (official) book. Since she gets results, she's mostly allowed to have her way -- and go her unusual ways.
       Tame discovers some of the dead man's writings, and these are also presented here (three works: The Ocean, Personae, and Energeias). In addition, there are excerpts from Tame's introduction to an article on 'Bach, Gould, and Aconspiratorial Silence' (Tame turns out to have been a musical prodigy, too), as well as two obituaries (one of which sums up the deceased centenarian's life).
       As the initial death (and the investigation into it) might suggest, existential questions come into play here. So, notably, in 'Personae'-within-Personae, a play within the novel that takes up over eighty pages.
       The now-dead author is reputed to have destroyed everything he wrote when he turned ninety, to only then begin anew with an even tighter focus:
saying a man should only write that which he'd be willing to see engraved on his grave marker
       The three re-printed pieces are presumably that legacy he willingly left behind; not surprisingly, they're existentially probing, through and through. The 'Personae'-play is a wordplay-filled back and forth, verging on the absurdist, but with enough of a plot (as character after character is dispatched) to give it a bit of a mystery-thriller feel, too. Energeias is more of a summing up -- not entirely straightforward, but providing much of the biographical detail about the (by then identified) deceased centenarian, filling in details beyond what the obituary provided.
       Personae is about life, and death -- and also about writing. Familiar stuff, but ingeniously dressed up; it also helps that Pava writes exceptionally well. The dialogue in the 'Personae'-play is exceptionally strong, and carried off well at surprising length (and that without getting tiresome).
       With its two strands -- in essence: who is/was the dead man, and who is Tame (with cause of death -- what triggered the investigation -- ultimately presented as essentially incidental) -- Pava's novel advances very differently than the usual police-procedural: jumping back on the tracks just enough to give a sense of an investigation unfolding, most of it seems to go sidelong, leaving much for the reader to infer and piece together.
       Occasionally it can feel that Pava is trying to wrongfoot the reader too obviously (with chapters such as those essay-introduction-excerpts), but as a whole the novel does work surprisingly well, validating Pava's approach (though arguably only, at least in part, in hindsight). Even at its most puzzling -- as it intermittently becomes -- Personae is a pleasure to read: Pava tells good stories, presents good scenes, and has an impressive way with words.
       A stylish, twisted novel -- appealingly unlike most others.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 September 2013

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Personae: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Sergio De La Pava was born in 1971.

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© 2013 the complete review

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