FEBRUARY 22, 2020
IN SAMUEL R. DELANY’S best-selling masterpiece Dhalgren, the amnesiac protagonist known only as “the Kid” arrives in the strange, dystopian American city of Bellona, finds a notebook, and begins to add his own writing to it. Dhalgren eventually splinters into a metafictional narrative in which the Kid appears to be composing the very novel itself in the notebook, which he also uses to sketch poems and journal entries. Describing this notebook, the Kid writes:
The falsification of this journal: first off, it doesn’t reflect my daily life. Most of what happens hour by hour here is quiet and dull. We sit most of the time, watch the dull sky slipping. Frankly, that is too stupid to write about. When something really involving, violent, or important happens, it occupies too much of my time, my physical energy, and my thought to be able to write about. I can think of four things that have happened in the nest I would like to have described when they occurred, but they so completed themselves in the happening that even to refer to them seems superfluous.
What is down, then, is a chronicle of incidents with a potential for wholeness they did not have when they occurred, a false picture, again, because they show neither the general spread of our life’s fabric, nor the most significant pattern points.
Thanks to the work of independent scholar Kenneth James, editor of In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957–1969, we can now see how this passage in Dhalgren illuminates the Kid’s artistic process, and also functions as an autobiographical commentary on Delany’s own writing practices. It is a defining theoretical statement about the possibilities and limitations of the mimetic representation of life from an artist who has meticulously documented his own life experiences and transposed them into an impressive bibliography of writing across genres from science fiction to pornography to literary criticism. In Search of Silence helps us to see how the Kid’s notebook exemplifies Delany’s composition methods, and how it explains the reflexive autobiography that permeates all of the author’s work.
Today there is much more public information available about Delany’s life than in 1975 when Dhalgren first appeared. The 1979 memoir Heavenly Breakfast reveals some of the inspiration for Dhalgren in Delany’s experiences living in a rock-band commune in the East Village in 1967. Delany’s award-winning 1988 memoir The Motion of Light in Water covers his childhood in Harlem and the early years of his writing career. In the 2007 documentary film The Polymath, Or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman we see Delany (known to his friends and family as “Chip”) as the hyper-intellectual flâneur who seems to be everywhere at once, meeting everyone at once, reading everything at once, and who somehow spins all of these experiences into the beautiful sentences flowing through his ever-present, spiral-bound notebook.
In the introduction to In Search of Silence, James explains the formidable task of curating the notebooks. In this volume (and the forthcoming Autumnal City, Volume II), James has sifted through Delany’s papers — once housed at Boston University’s Mugar Memorial Library, and now housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library — to produce a representative record of Delany’s note-taking and drafting practices. As James notes, Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water is an essential companion text to In Search of Silence. Both books cover the writer’s formative years, growing up in Harlem where he was born in 1942, his brief stint in college at City College of New York, his development as a prodigious writer of science fiction novels, and his young marriage to the brilliant poet Marilyn Hacker. While it may be possible to read In Search of Silence without having read The Motion of Light in Water, it certainly helps to know about these early years, and about the novels that he produced during a terrific run of science fiction writing from 1962 to 1968 that included The Jewels of Aptor, The Fall of the Towers, The Einstein Intersection, Babel-17, Empire Star, and Nova, all of which are represented in the notebooks of In Search of Silence.
Delany is known for his sharp attention to genre and its functions. In Search of Silence is not just the published detritus of the writer’s archive, but a book which explores “the notebook” as a specific genre of writing with its own literary history and artistic conventions. Throughout the notebooks, Delany displays a keen awareness of himself as an artist, and an important artist at that. He writes, “Like Joyce, like Chaucer, like Rimbaud — I wish to do something to my language from which it will never recover: because there will be no need of recovery, because it will be far healthier because of me.” On one level, this is a ridiculously pretentious statement coming from a teenager. There are many moments in this book where Delany comes off as an insufferable smartass. But the importance of his writing is undeniable, and those early novels, full of intelligence and complexity, prove these statements to be more than just youthful folly. At one point, he says about his journal writing: “Edited forms of the constant commentary that I make upon my life constitute my art. What conceit to think that someone else might be interested in this commentary. And yet the editing is done strictly with that in mind.” To read In Search of Silence is to read the thoughts of a young writer with authoritative critical opinions which clearly come from serious reading. Seeing his commentary on various literary works I began to wonder: How in the hell did this guy manage to read and absorb so much, so soon?! If these notebooks existed on their own, I imagine them as something akin to the fragmentary writings of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet, except in this case the narrator is not a boring, reclusive clerk in Lisbon, but rather a precocious, promiscuous young New Yorker. The dailyness, and the ventures into the metaphysical, are what make me think of Pessoa. As James writes about the notebooks, “[T]his quality of obliqueness and partialness, of falling somewhere between the momentous and the everyday, is the key ingredient of the pleasure and meaning of the text.” These are notes after all. There are passages of piercing insight. There are also passages of half-baked ideas which, quite honestly, are probably better read in their finished book forms than here. There are several places in the notebooks of In Search of Silence where Delany narrates his own biography and career highlights, as if he is composing “about the author” blurbs while trying to make sense of his own life story. We see him playing with the metacritical voice that would later develop into the critical alter egos K. Leslie Steiner and S. L. Kermit. This ability, this courage, to take a clear-eyed look at his writing, to stand outside of his own work and assess it ruthlessly, has something to do with his literary greatness.
Delany has always featured poetry in his work, from characters like the poet/cryptologist Rydra Wong in Babel-17, to excerpts of poetry as epigraphs in his novels, stories, and essays. Much of his interest in poetry can be attributed to his relationship with Marilyn Hacker, who is an essential secondary character in the notebooks. Hacker composed some of the poetry in his early novels, including excerpts in the recovered and newly published Voyage, Orestes!. Delany has written eloquently about poetry as a critic (a highlight is “Atlantis Rose,” a lengthy essay on Hart Crane in Longer Views). He’s occasionally been mislabeled as a poet himself. However, with Voyage, Orestes! and In Search of Silence we now have some rare Delany poetry in print. Among the standouts is “The Talking Inverted Blues,” a playful bit of doggerel from April 1959 in which Delany addresses the plight of the homosexual as a marginal social figure, an idea he would return to often in his fiction. Another example of Delany’s poetry appears in Voyage, Orestes! where the poet Geo composes an elegy for Jimmy’s father. Delany mentions the first line of that poem, “They told me you were not in any pain…” in The Motion of Light in Water.
Voyage, Orestes! is another one of Delany’s fictional works represented in the notebooks of In Search of Silence. Thanks to Bamberger Books, the same boutique press that brought us Heavenly Breakfast, we now have a published fragment of this lost early novel. In his informative introduction to the fragment, James provides some hints of what the ambitious project was supposed to be in its complete form: a long, unwieldy novel on the order of Dhalgren. The manuscript was originally composed between 1960 to 1963, and initially clocked in at over 1,000 pages. The manuscript was lost after Delany left the United States for a trip to Europe in 1966, and the East Village building in which he had stored his papers in the basement was demolished, destroying the only full copy of the novel that was left. The present text was assembled from drafts recovered from the author’s notebooks.
James points to the main character Jimmy Calvin, and the novel’s inscription, “Then Voyage, Orestes, till / Thou canst come home.” About this inscription, James writes: “The City constantly apostrophizes Jimmy; the novel’s title itself can be taken as an apostrophe.” The refrain to “come home” appears throughout the novel, particularly as an admonition from Jimmy’s mother. Much of the novel’s tension arises from Jimmy Calvin’s desire to strike off on his own and leave the difficult emotional situation at home where his father is sick and dying from lung cancer. Voyage, Orestes! is an early example of how young Delany would go on to employ the autobiographical in much of his work. He gives Jimmy Calvin many details from his own life (the father is an undertaker, like Samuel R. Delany Sr., the proprietor of Levy and Delany Funeral Home in Harlem), yet he builds that character into a fictive world that exists with its own internal logic. One wonders what this text might have looked like had Delany been willing (or able) to reconstruct the narrative of Voyage, Orestes!, as he did with the early novel They Fly at Çiron, which was first completed in the 1960s, then republished in a radically edited and expanded version in 1993. That said, it is valuable to see Voyage, Orestes! preserved in something close to its original form, to see this fragment as a document of a particular time and place when the young writer was trying to find his way.
On its own, this published version of Voyage, Orestes! is a short, resonant novel about a young black New Yorker grieving over his father’s death, who drifts toward the artists and bohemians in Greenwich Village of the 1960s. In “Sentences,” the brilliant introduction to The Motion of Light in Water, Delany recounts how he misremembered the date of his father’s death, and how the researchers who were compiling a bibliography of his work corrected him. He ruminates on what that correction tells us about the slippery nature of memory and memoir writing. Voyage, Orestes! can be viewed as a companion text to other Delany works about his family’s history, including The Motion of Light in Water, Atlantis: Three Tales, and the documentary The Polymath. The thinly veiled fictional form of Voyage, Orestes! is reminiscent of “Atlantis: Model 1924,” the novella in Atlantis: Three Tales about his father’s first months in New York after leaving the family’s home in North Carolina in 1923. Voyage, Orestes! provides even deeper insight into what young Chip Delany must have felt about this time in his life, even beyond what is already available in Motion of Light in Water. This is a fictional tale with novelistic effects, but Delany gives the protagonist Jimmy Calvin a healthy portion of his experiences and feelings, including his father’s last days, his strained relationship with his mother, and his close relationship with his sister Margaret (who shares a name with the author’s real-life mother). We see how Jimmy Calvin reacts to his father’s sickness by wandering off with his friends to spend as much time away from the tensions of the household as possible. We also see the stubborn, scared father who refuses to admit the gravity of his illness, and didn’t even want to know about his bleak prospects for survival.
Beyond the family drama, Voyage, Orestes! mostly revolves around Jimmy’s friendship with the eccentric downtown poet Geo Keller, a character through which Delany explores the myth of the artist, which is a common theme in his early novels. This novel bears many points of contact with The Jewels of Aptor, which Ken James explains was originally conceived as a novel-within-a-novel inside of Voyage, Orestes!. Characters named Iimmi, Geo, and Snake also appear in The Jewels of Aptor.
As a New York novel, Voyage, Orestes! displays Delany’s signature gifts for describing the city, as he does during one of Jimmy’s first jaunts down to the Village:
We drifted down that night through the gut of the City into the nest of lights that was the Village. Tourists, characters, green woolen sweaters, black silk blouses, all this moved by the yellow windows of coffee houses, under orange bulbs on the street lamps or in the red fire from the tail lights of gleaming cars. The streets are dirty, the fountain off at night: the great concrete circle is dry and dark, and the trees shimmer under the floods from mercury illumination. People moved through a net of muted colors under a night which draped between buildings, smoky, and rouged with haze from the traffic lights.
The novel mythologizes the Village as a bohemian enclave, name-checking locations like MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane, and depicting the musicians, poets, and venues that defined the era. Jimmy is a quintessential flâneur, taking long walks through the city, observing people and places, and going off on random, mischievous adventures around the city with his friends, from crashing a church service downtown, to goofing off at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan.
James ends his introduction to In Search of Silence by quoting from Delany’s journal when he travels to Newport, Rhode Island, for its legendary folk festival. It is worth reproducing a part of that passage here:
But these journals are not to remember things I record, but for all the things that pass un-written and forgotten. That is [by] far the majority of the trip. For all the single drop of blood at Newport, or anyplace. For shadow configurations on the sand, to Pete’s wet hair, dark and filamental, to all the things — the million un-recorded thoughts I have over Eurydice. That’s what these journals are for.
The million unrecorded thoughts, the things that pass unwritten and unremembered. These are constants in Delany’s work in which he attempts to corral those elusive experiences and transcribe them into art, all the while knowing that the limitations of form, and the mandate of aesthetics, means that so many of these experiences must be left out of one’s art. For readers who are interested in a deeper look into the work of this brilliant, precocious writer, who want to see at least one author’s attempt to capture these fugitive, fragmentary human experiences and render them beautifully, that is what In Search of Silence and Voyage, Orestes! are for.