samuel r. delany, “through the valley of the nest of spiders”

through-the-valleySamuel R. Delany
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
(Magnus Books, 2012)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is Delany’s biggest book (bigger than Dhalgren), and seems to have attracted relatively little attention, as might be the case with most of Delany’s late fiction. The barriers to critical attention are clear: much as in The Mad Man, there’s a lot of gay sex in this book described in minute detail which many reviewers seem to have found offensive. There’s more science fiction here than in The Mad Man or Dark Reflections, probably not enough to keep a sci-fi audience happy, but enough to leave a “literary fiction” audience, should such a thing exist, unsettled. And it’s a big book, at 800 pages.

Towards the end of The Mad Man, the protagonist’s lover describes his rural upbringing in some detail; that vignette, a hypersexual male society outside of the realm of conventional morality might form the basis for this book. Incest and pedophilia, both presented as consensual, figure strongly, as do lovingly applied racial epithets. But again, Delany’s attempt is not to shock; rather, it’s to present a modern version of the pastoral. (Guy Davenport’s stories of young Danish philosophers living according to Fourier are the clear antecedent.) Instead of shepherds, Delany’s protagonists are garbage men, and their Arcadia is a place on the coast of Georgia called Diamond Harbor; the novel starts in 2007 and goes forward seventy years.

The title refers to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: early, a minor character advises the protagonist that

“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. . . .” (p. 20)

There’s no Valley of the Nest of Spiders in the “Proverbs of Hell,” of course. Delany’s referring more directly to another section of Blake’s book, “A Memorable Fancy”:

An Angel came to me and said: ‘O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.’

I said: ‘perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot & we will contemplate together upon it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.’ . . . .

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swum in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption, & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them; these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, between the black & white spiders.

But now, from between the black & white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled thro’ the deep, blackning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea & rolled with a terrible noise . . . (p. 18)

Blake’s protagonist justifying his way of life to the Angel is mirrored in Eric’s explanation to his Shit, his faun-like partner, of what he wants to do with himself now that he has left conventional society and suddenly found himself living in a place where all his desires have been satisfied:

“You know what I’d like to do?”

“What?”

“I wanna try bein’ a really good person – ’cause I’m so happy and get to fuck and suck so much.” He glanced over. “I didn’t tell her about the sex part and what that had to do with it. But that seems like a good reason.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. So that’s what I’m gonna start doin’.”

“I think you’re a pretty good fella already. You make our fuckin food damn near every night. Howw much better you got to be?”

“As good as I can. I mean, I’m gonna have to put a little thought into it. But I’ll think of somethin’. You be as satisfied as I am, and it’s just a shame to waste it all on yourself and get too lazy . . .”

“Well, that’s gonna be interestin’. A really good person, huh? Am I supposed to give you a hand?”

“I’m serious, Shit.” (pp. 253–4)

What’s left is to concentrate on living ethically. Note the order: personal improvement only becomes possible after a better society is achieved. Diamond Harbor, it is worth noting, is meant to exist in the present: the largess of the Kyle Foundation, a millionaire’s project to better the lives of the gay black men he loves, has shaped the area into a paradise; the area is rural enough that it attracts little attention from the outside world. (Eric and his friends find out about Obama’s election the next day in a call from his mother; porn theaters still operate and find a clientele as described in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.) New technology appears, but its intrusions and effects are minimal.

Near the end of his life, Eric thinks to himself:

With the Kyle Foundation to fight for us, we never had to fight for anything, really. Everything was arranged, from salary to security. It did a good job of taking care of us – and we all thought that was good. Did that allow us to be good or just .nbsp;.nbsp;. superfluous? (p. 749)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is almost entirely free of conflict. Eric spends much of the second half of the book re-reading Spinoza’s Ethica, almost the only book mentioned here; Shit is pointedly illiterate. Time speeds up as the book progresses; a love story between two boys becomes a love story between two old men. Society as a whole isn’t utopian: near the end of the book, a few scenes make it clear that while society is more progressive than it was, it’s still imperfect. The reader’s left thinking of the end of Candide.

edmund white, “caracole”

Edmund White
Caracole
(Plume, 1986)


Edmund White’s narrative works might be divided into four categories: first, the obliquely fabulist early novels which are relatively forgotten (Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples); second, the autobiographical fiction he’s best known for (A Boy’s Own Story on); third, the memoirs (My Lives, City Boy); and fourth, the historical fiction (Fannie: A Fiction, Hotel de Dream). There’s a rough chronological progression across these forms: autobiographical novels lead fairly naturally to memoirs. His biographies might be lumped in that third category; and it’s a small jump to go from writing biography to fictionalizing biography in his historical fiction. This isn’t a straight progression, of course: not everything fits into this rough schema. Caracole came out in 1985, after White had moved into autobiographical fiction; however, it hews much more closely to the mould of his first two novels. After reading White’s other works, however, one finds the autobiographical elements in this book can’t entirely be ignored. In City Boy, for example, White notes that his portrayal of Susan Sontag and her son in this book led to a break with them: reading it now, in the light of White’s subsequent autobiographical work, it’s hard to avoid this element of the book. A cosmopolitan uncle who rescues a nephew from an intractable home situation clearly has parallels in White’s own life in the 1970s; but most of the other characters in this book resist immediate identification.

This is not a roman à clef: this is the straightest of White’s books, and pseudoreality prevails, as it does in Proust’s The Captive and The Fugitive. At the same time, one understands, reading this book, why White would have shared an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction with Samuel R. Delany, as this isn’t a world away from the spirit of Delany’s Nevèrÿon fantasies. The setting is a city: White’s description of the book in City Boy suggests that it’s nineteenth-century Venice, but abundant indirection makes it clear that the city is not entirely a resurrected version of that city, though it is marine, does have carnivals, and many of its characters sport Italian names. Bits of Rome’s geography are recognizable, and there’s a distinction between a lazy South and an industrious North. The first chapter begins in a crumbling rural villa, a setting almost Southern gothic; mention of conquerers suggests empire, but not quite a recognizable one. Christianity doesn’t seem to exist, perhaps a nod to Carlo Levi’s “Christ stopped at Eboli”; those outside the city are described as living in tribes, and there are other kingdoms. Courtliness is emphasized inside the city; but the interactions of the characters might be those of New York in the 1970s. This is an imagined world: though one that, like all fiction, takes the outside world with it.

The first chapter depicts the novel’s young protagonist, Gabriel, in his decaying home in the countryside; he lives with his corpulent mother and feral younger siblings, visited occasionally by a distant father. In the woods, he finds a girl, Angelica; he marries her in her tribe’s ceremonies, but is discovered by his father, who, in cahoots with his mistress, confines him in a cage. Angelica summons his powerful uncle in the city to rescue him; Mateo, a senator, brings Gabriel to the city and teaches him the ways of the court. White’s defamiliarization of the world goes down to the level of language. Here, for example, Gabriel’s early playmates (“sons of the old rural gentry”) are described:

One of them had a clay pig, small enough to fit into his pocket; it whistled one dry, low note when blown on the snout. The other knew the names of stones but he was the hardest to understand. Someone’s youngest brother he called “the Least One.” If he doubted a story, he said, “I don’t confidence you.” Windows he called “lights” and their hiding place in an oak bole he spoke of as the “plunder room.” Where the creek fanned out into a hundred rivulets, this child said, “That’s where it turkey-tailed,” and if a grown-up showed him special attention he’d ask later, “Why did he much me?” Both of Gabriel’s companions spoke in doubled nouns (“biscuit-bread,” “ham-meat,” sulfur-match”). Nor did they grasp what Gabriel meant when he said once, “Have a nice weekend.” After a while it turned out their families worked every day and the notion of a weekend was beyond their means. (p. 7)

This linguistic slipperiness carries into the courtly world, where it is carefully cultivated and put to use:

When Mathilda asked Mateo to bring Gabriel to his very first reception at her house, Mateo assumed she was merely being polite out of consideration for him, Mateo. More than once she’d assured him she knew what it was like to be stuck with a child in their nearly childless world of artists and intellectuals; after all she (with Mateo’s distant if affectionate assistance) had raised a child, Daniel, who was now thirty and looked so nearly as though he were her brother that her maternity would have been suspect had not their celebrated, even infamous past together been so well documented. Nevertheless Mathilda was delighted when naïve or provincial people mistook Daniel for her brother or lover, and to increase the confusion she often referred to him coyly as “the darling.” This coyness was so unlike her that people expected to catch a sardonic smile and were shocked to see instead the sort of smile people wear when they speak of their pets. What few people knew was that an older child, a girl, had died when she was four. This loss had poisoned Mathilda’s joy in motherhood at the same time it had intensified her love for – no longer “my son” but “the darling.” (p. 93)

The civilization that White depicts is a mannerist one: this is a book less baroque than rococo. Cultivating relationships is important, but most important is to find a language in which that relationship might be depicted. In the first chapter, Gabriel’s relationship with Angelica jumps from animalic sex to a declaration to his mother that he intends to marry her (whatever that might mean to the two of them) to a marriage in her tribe’s rites, which he does not understand; then he is taken away from Angelica entirely and begins to desire her while building fantasies around an invented woman. On Mateo’s unrequited love for an actress:

Love is a progressive illness, one that starts as self-hallucination, an act of parody, and ends as a wholly real, involuntary malady that kills us or something vital in us. Mateo could never quite understand when or why he’d fallen so terminally in love with Edwige, but he suspected that whereas when could be answered, as least theoretically, why could not. Nevertheless he speculated at such length on his own condition he sometimes imagined that the function of love was to be a point de repère, an enigma so bright it distracted attentions from bigger fears. (p. 84)

The novel proceeds in a spiral fashion, jumping back on itself as it moves between its characters – or more precisely, between the relationships between its characters. Among its other meanings, caracole is “snail” in Spanish and Portuguese; in architecture in English, it may mean a spiral staircase. The most common English meaning is a half-turn on a horse; the OED qualifies this by noting that “Many writers have used the word without any clear notion of its meaning”.

delany/reading

“KLS: What you’re saying suggests that, in much the same way as ‘writing,’ for Derrida, has come to mean something more complicated and broader than sitting down to scrawl a pro forma note to the landlord accompanying the rent check, so ‘reading’ for you has become a more complicated and broader process than running an eye over the list of contents on the back of the cereal box while waiting for the morning coffee to drip through.

SRD:Yes – or rather: for me, reading has expanded to include all we do in such a situation, from taking in the fact that it’s a cereal box at all and not a novel by Coover or Perec; that it’s breakfast time; that we pay a certain kind of attention to what’s written on that cereal box and not another kind; the ways we might put that information to use, in terms of diet or medical situations; how we remember those contents for so long and not longer – indeed, the set of material forces that constitutes, finally, ‘the contents listed on the back of the box’ as we read them.”

(K. Leslie Steiner, “An Interview with Samuel Delany”, pp. 98–99, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1996.)

delany explains things

“One person’s fantasy is another’s reality. The difference between fantasy and the real, however, is that the ethical and moral implications the fantasy has for the person who indulges in it are always ones brought to it from a prior reality. The ethical and moral implications for those who live through what might once have been for them a fantasy situation can come from the reality of the situation; and so may be very different.”

(Samuel R. Delany, Heavenly Breakfast: an essay on the winter of love, p. 22)

naming things

“Text and textus? Text, of course, comes from the Latin textus, which means ‘web.’ In modern printing, the “web” is that great ribbon of paper which, in many presses, takes upwards of an hour to thread from roller to roller throughout the huge machine that embeds ranked rows of inked graphemes upon the ‘web,’ rendering it a text. All the uses of the words ‘web,’ ‘weave,’ ‘net,’ ‘matrix’ and more, by this circular ‘etymology’ become entrance points into a textus, which is ordered from all language and language-functions, and upon which the text itself is embedded.

The technological innovations in printing at the beginning of the Sixties, which produced the present ‘paperback revolution,’ are probably the single most important factor contouring the modern science-fiction text. But the name ‘science fiction’ in its various avatars – s-f, speculative fiction, sci-fi, scientifiction – goes back to those earlier technological advances in printing that resulted in the proliferation of ‘pulp magazines’ during the Teens and Twenties.

Naming is always a metonymic process. Sometimes it is the pure metonymy of associating an abstract group of letters (or numbers) with a person (or thing), so that it can be recalled (or listed in a metonymic order with other entity names). Frequently, however, it is a more complicated metonymy: Old words are drawn from the cultural lexicon to name the new entity (or to rename an old one), as well as to render it (whether old or new) part of the present culture. The relations between entities so named are woven together in patterns far more complicated than any alphabetic or numeric listing can suggest: and the encounter between objects-that-are-words (e.g., the name ‘science fiction,’ a critical text on science fiction, a science-fiction text) and processes-made-manifest-by-words (another science-fiction text, another critical text, another name) is as complex as the constantly dissolving interface between culture and language itself. . . .”

(Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: an ambiguous heterotopia, pp. 282–283)

circumference reading

There’s a Circumference reading this Sunday, September 17th at 4pm. Hosted by the Bowery Poetry Club‘s World of Poetry bilingual poetry series. Anne Twitty reads translations of Maria Negroni; Ilya Bernstein reads Osip Mandelstam; and Anita Naegeli reads Raphael Urweider. 308 Bowery (at Bleaker), NY, NY. $7. Eventually we’ll have Issue 5 out, but that’s taking a while.

(Also noteworthy: Ron Silliman, Debra di Blasi, and Samuel R. Delany at KGB on Friday at 7pm.)