MAY 21, 2012
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 about memory, loss, aging, and ordinary life. And as the book goes on, it becomes, at least obliquely, science fiction, set in a near-future America increasingly unlike our own; the decades following the present slowly unfold in the margins, as the half-ignored background to the events in Eric and Shit’s life at the Dump.
But the first half of TVNS is above all else a work in two other genres, neither of which is quite SF: it’s both utopia and pornography, indeed a utopia of pornography. Porn is a genre Delany has worked in before, in stories like Hogg and Equinox, and one that suits his predilection for the avowedly marginal status of “paraliterary” genres; but despite the abundance of sex TVNS shares with those previous works, it is quite unlike them — in its cheerful, universal horniness above all else. Neither the disturbing sexual excess of Hogg nor the painful emotional aftermath of rape that Delany has explored in stories like “Citre et Trans” (in Atlantis) are anywhere to be found here. Of Delany’s sex-centric work, the closest precedent is The Mad Man — a self-described “pornotopia,” as we might also call TVNS. Among the settled residents of the Dump and the habitués of the Opera House porn theater, a blissful polymorphous perversity reigns. No one ever seems not to want sex; consent is universal, but more than that, everyone seems to find his way straight to the kind of sex he wants, and to want exactly the kind and quantity of sex he gets. A laundry list of sex acts we’d usually think of as transgressive, boundary-pushing, or kinky are indulged in, with only the happiest consequences: from the consumption of any and all bodily fluids through S&M and bestiality all the way to incest and sex with children, sexual pleasure in the Dump is simply a good thing for everyone involved.
It’s a weirdly familiar utopia, though not one we usually recognize as a utopia: that is, it’s the world of pornography — a place where sex is always wanted and always found, where every truck-stop restroom is full of exactly the people you hoped it would be, and who have all been waiting for you to get there so they can do just what you’d been hoping they’d do. Even in the moment of his arrival at the truck-stop restroom, the moment of his induction into Dump society and his first encounter with the man who will become his beloved, Eric realizes that he’s been waiting for, and also that he’s found his way into, the porn he wanted to be in:
Beyond the kid’s [Shit’s] smell was the odor of wet stone and moist cinderblock and what seeped through cracked cellar walls from the damp — a smell that, at sixteen, Eric already associated with a half hour here or an hour there, sitting in some basement john stall … because some guy finishing at the urinal had flashed him, then hurried out, and he’d waited to see if anyone else would come —
Waiting for men…
Waiting for men like these…?
The kid was strong, as strong as Eric, and — both arms around Eric’s chest — his grip was tight with bone and a desperation Eric recognized.
Eric slid one hand between the boy’s and his own belly, to grip his cock, an inch longer than Eric’s — a little thicker. Holding it, Eric realized, made his own feel bigger — as, between them, the boy squeezed Eric’s with his rough hand. Eric thought: I wonder why he likes holding mine?
As an exploration of the politics of non-monogamy and public sex, this novel also recalls some of Delany’s prior SF work, which has featured spaces devoted to public sex — for example, the “runs” of Velm in Stars in my Pocket or the “Bridge of Lost Desire” in the Nevèrÿon series. But there is nothing here like those books’ abiding concern with power, their working through of the ways that positions of dominance and subjection, or lover and desired, can be inverted and rearranged by sex among strangers and in groups. Though the book’s title refers, at some remove, to Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, nothing here seems very hellish; there’s no two-sided irony to this embrace of what might seem, elsewhere, like sexual transgressions.
The sex here is a simple, affirmative embrace of pleasure, though it might seem frightening; and this turns out to be the title’s oblique meaning as well. Early in the book, one of young Eric’s mentors tells him to embrace the chance at sex and happiness, when it’s offered, by modifying Blake with a reference to Peter Jackson’s interspecies-romance remake of King Kong: “To be sure, the Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom, even when it takes you through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.” The remade Kong reimagined in CGI a lost spider-pit sequence from the original, and while making the 2005 film Jackson also filmed, and included among the DVD extras, a new “original” version of the scene, in lovingly detailed black-and-white stop-motion animation, as though it had just been rediscovered. In TVNS this serves as an example, a long-held fantasy come true for Jackson — just as Eric’s will. But it’s also, implicitly, a metaphor for the novel’s own project of historical imagination, which inserts its utopian vision into our own historical world, as though it might have been there all along.
In and around the Dump, public sex seems too uniformly happy and healthy to be called subversion, or transgression, or a carnivalesque revaluation of social values; but it’s still more than “just” sex. In fact, it’s just sex in another sense — sex as a form of ethics: all the sex here serves as a kind of community outreach, reaffirmation of friendship, and shared recreation. The most important places in the book’s landscape are the truck-stop bathroom in which Eric is initiated into the community and the Opera House (porn) movie theater that he and Shit later live in and manage: these places are maintained as sexual community centers and tourist attractions, later even as virtual museums of gay life. They have explicit social contracts, and though most are negotiable (apart from the Dump’s HIV testing regime), they do involve a certain ethical obligation to put out for the common good:
“Now, we keep a friendly place. People are real friendly here — that’s how we like it. I don’t mean you got to say yes to everybody who grabs after your nuts.” The man nodded down toward Eric’s crotch. “But I don’t want to hear no reports that you’re barkin’ at our customers and tellin’ them to get the fuck outta your face, either. Understand what I’m sayin’?”
“Yes, sir,” Eric said for the third time.
To the wall was fixed a plaque, darkened with patina, where Eric read:
If Gay Activity Offends You, Please:
Take Your Business into a Stall,
Lock the Door — and
Eric laughed. “I never seen a sign like that in a john before.”
“Just remember, this here is for public sex — not private. If either one of you gets upset by people sittin’ around and watchin, pullin’ on their dicks, even coppin’ a feel now and then, that just means yall in the wrong place — understand?”
And these negotiations are, of course, followed by a lot of action.
As Delany has argued before about science fiction, a genre is at least as much a way of reading as it is a type of content to be read. If the first few hundred pages of this book are undeniably pornography, we might assume that would mean the book is meant for a specific kind of audience (aroused) and a particular way of reading (masturbatory). The trouble with this idea is that an audience that would really be aroused by most or all of the sex in TVNS is hard to imagine, given the tiny overlapping center of the Venn diagram of kinks the reader would need to occupy. To be turned on by what happens in TVNS, a reader would need to be not just attracted to men — as the novel’s publication by Magnus, an LGBTQ publishing house, implies (there are a few female characters in the novel, but the sex is all between men). No, he or she would also have to be into piss drinking and shit eating, aroused by stench and filth and grime of all sorts (from toe sucking to unwashed armpit huffing to used condom sharing), as unbothered by a lifelong sexual relationship between father and son as by the constant if affectionate use of racial slurs, willing to ponder the relative merits of pig fucking and horse fellatio. For most of its actual readers, then, the experience of reading the sex in TVNS — at least for the majority of the novel, especially its first half — will surely be at least sometimes the difficult experience of reading someone else’s pornography, rather than their own.
“You pissin’ in that boy enough?”
“I’ll get out and give ‘im some right now, if you dry —”
“I’m pissin’ in ‘im now,” Dynamite said. Though he hadn’t been, the cock head in Eric’s throat erupted hot urine, as it pulled forward in Eric’s mouth. It pushed forward again. Eric gulped.
On his third gulp, Eric thought: Jesus, why the fuck am I so happy doing this…?
Because, in every glittering extremity of Eric’s body, he was.
It is certainly possible to find worthwhile the effort it takes to attempt the broadening of one’s libidinal sympathies — the way a psychologically realistic novel can demand our sympathy with someone else’s life and thoughts, this one demands our sympathy with his sexual desires. If science fiction, in Darko Suvin’s definition, is the genre of “cognitive estrangement,” then the pornographic first half of TVNS is a work of libidinal estrangement: the novel’s alienating effect bears on its reader’s desires, not his rational mind. But reading it can still be a dull, mind-numbing experience: all the characters’ pleasures, all their “glittering extremities,” are decidedly not shared by their reader, and the sheer quantity of verbiage devoted to bare descriptions of who drank or ate what, while who else put his penis where, might strain the limits of anyone’s patience. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not really the perversity that repels — even the “nastiest” of the Dump residents’ excess is far too funny, cheerful, and healthy to disturb anyone but a committed prude — but the repetition. Pornotopia, it turns out, has the same narrative problem all utopias do — a perfectly happy place is more fun to live in than it is to read about.
But then, somewhere around the halfway point of this long book, the endless sex recedes and a magnificent, sprawling, deeply felt novel steals into view. The leisurely plotting and characterization deepen by accumulation as Eric and Shit age, and the book’s few science-fictional elements begin to pay off as the years pass into the future. A book that began as a litany of sex acts in a recognizable, present-day America becomes another book entirely: a novel about a couple growing old together in a place whose marginality and poverty turn out to be almost as important as its utopian dimension — because, in either case, while somewhat insulated from history (literally so, as the aging Eric and Shit move across the harbor from the Dump onto Gilead Island, a lesbian-founded artists’ colony), it’s far from unaffected by it. Rather than just cataloguing its protagonists’ sex acts, TVNS gradually becomes a psychologically complicated novel about what they’ve learned from them — a reflection, through a host of little narrated daily incidents, on the ethical lessons that a life of joyous perversion has taught Eric and Shit. Sometimes it almost, implicitly, seems like a manifesto for a broad and catholic vision of queer politics; and the novel’s real utopia might, finally, have less to do with the imagined community of the Dump than it does with the people themselves, and the practice of loving each other that they’ve discovered and worked out. We hear about this practical ethics in uncharacteristically explicit terms toward the end of the book, as Eric dreams he and Shit, old men now, are describing their lives to schoolchildren:
“But you never got married…?” one of the boys asked.
“That’s right,” Shit said. “We didn’t want to.”
A girl frowned at them. “You didn’t know if you were going to stay together…?”
“Both my moms are married,” another girl said. “Only not to each other.”
“Naw.” Eric smiled. “That wasn’t it.”
“Hell,” Shit said, “I knew I wanted him the rest of my life —” he pointed a blunt thumb at Eric — “soon as I saw the fucker…. I guess because my daddy never married nobody, it didn’t occur to me that maybe we should be doin’ that kind of thing.” He shrugged. “So I never thought of it.”
“Besides, it’s more fun.” Eric chuckled. “And more interestin’ — to figure out all that stuff for yourself, between you, as you go along. See, back when we got together, a lot of gay men and women didn’t get married. In a lot of places, it was still illegal, like here in Georgia”….
“Well —” Eric looked back up and put his hand on Shit’s warm shoulder — “state supported marriage comes with a whole lot of assumptions about how it’s gonna be, a history of who has to obey who, when you’re justified in callin’ it quits, all sorts of things like that. Now, you could agree with each other to change some of those things or do ’em differently, but for thousands and thousands of years gay men and women didn’t have even that…. For us, decidin’ to be with someone else wasn’t a matter of acceptin’ a ready-made set of assumptions. You had to work ’em all out from the bottom up, every time — whether you was gonna be monogamous or open; and if you was gonna be open, how was you gonna do it so that it didn’t bother the other person and even helped the relationship along. Workin’ all that stuff out for yourselves was half the reason you went into a relationship with somebody else.”
This is the real heart of the novel — not the explicit explanation of the sex politics (their discussing the issue at such length surprises Eric and Shit at least as much as it does us), but its working out in practice across the length of their adult lives. Eric, who spends his last forty years continually re-reading Spinoza’s Ethics, and Shit, who is illiterate, both occupy this ethical stance together — and the novel is, first and foremost, the record of how they worked it out for themselves. Even apart from the sex, this is not a heavily plotted story but an assemblage of revealing incidents — a range of quotidian moments across seventy-odd years that add up to a pair of fully realized human lives. “They have stories. (I guess other people mostly do.) I just have a life,” Eric reflects, as an old man, upon meeting an exciting, adventurous group marriage made up of younger people, some of whom have been to Mars and others who have made works of art. In Eric’s slightly narrow sense of the word, this is a novel without a “story” — that is, at least apart from the sex, it’s a novel about ordinary life as most of us live it — though lived in a place and a time that none of us have lived through.
In the SF backdrop to the book, mainland America outside the Dump and Gilead Island follows a complex trajectory of its own. But it does so in the book’s margins, as history happens largely outside the lived experience of those within its relatively isolated setting. The “wonder decade” of the 2030s is curtailed by terrorist nuclear bombings; in response, a resurgence of homegrown fundamentalism leads to hate campaigns smearing both science and “group marriage” as perversions, even after gay marriage has long been thoroughly normalized. But we only learn all of this obliquely, in passing mentions and narratorial asides, as backdrop to a few scenes that might otherwise be hard to understand.
Meanwhile, our protagonists palpably grow up, becoming rich and rounded characters as they age and reflect on their lives and losses; and by the time the novel concludes, quite unexpectedly, putting the book down comes to feel more like leaving old friends behind than like putting aside a skin mag. Somewhere along the way, between and among the sex scenes, a minor miracle of characterization has quietly taken place. What seemed at first a book-length catalog of lusts, albeit decorated with a few scraps of intellectual and political experiment, ends up as a novel that demands both sympathy and contemplation, deep feeling and serious thought. Though it shouldn’t be most readers’ first exposure to Delany, this is nonetheless a book worthy of his career full of masterpieces — and a book that no one else could have written.