SAMUEL R. DELANY's writing confounds all expectations. As a young writer he turned out a range of gloriously pulpy science fiction, often at lightning speed; but thereafter, in a series of masterworks produced in the 1970s and 1980s, he reshaped every genre he touched. He produced works of philosophical fiction in the guise of pulp, from sword-and-sorcery stories (the Nevèrÿon series) to space opera (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand) — not to mention the sprawling, fragmentary, borderline-SF/postmodern Dhalgren. All the while, he dealt with queer life and the politics of sex: the Nevèrÿon series includes what is probably the first novel explicitly about the AIDS epidemic. And alongside his science-fictional works, he wrote and (eventually, after much resistance) published several works of self-proclaimed pornography, most prominently the uncomfortable Hogg. In the 1990s and 2000s he has been less prolific but even more various, producing a number of works of realism and near-realism, including most recently the lovely and unaccountably neglected Dark Reflections. Any follower of the wayward trajectory of Delany's genius might, then, already be expecting a surprise: his enormous new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, might fit into most of the previous genres he's worked in — it might, you'd guess, be science fiction, or pornography, or a work of psychological realism, perhaps a novel about queer experience.
The surprise this time is that it's all of them.
In a 1989 interview, Delany observed that
sex is often an older man's or woman's preoccupation, if only because of the pressing problems it brings to the fore through aphanisis ... [T]he older person knows most of what she or he does about sex through the holes and absences in the personality its increasing failure begins to highlight. Those absences are the site of pure desire — sometimes the most painful of states, which the young, by and large, simply do not have to contend with.
This is a good map of the path a patient reader will follow Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and indeed "Aphanisis" could've been the book's title: we are carried from desire to loss, as the book itself begins with an overflow of sex and ends, by then surprisingly, as a work of nuanced, deeply novelistic psychology.
When the novel begins, Eric Jeffers is sixteen, already more or less out of the closet, and (extremely) sexually active. He is about to leave his adoptive father's house in Atlanta and move to the place where he will spend the rest of his life — first in, and then in the region around, a colony for gay black men called "the Dump," on the Georgia coast. By the time the book ends, Eric and his life partner, "Shit" Haskell (whom no one ever calls by his birth name, Morgan), have spent more than seventy years together. It is not so much an 800-page novel as two 400-page novels in a row: the first one, covering roughly the first forty years of Eric and Shit's lives, is an almost uninterrupted catalogue of sex acts; the second, covering the next forty years, is a moving, even sometimes wrenching, psychological novel abo...read more