One of the perks of fiction reviewing is that it often forcibly exposes me to books that might not organically enter my sphere of attention. Like many, I suspect, I not-so-intentionally choose culture that reinforces rather than challenges my pre-conceived ideas about the world in which I live, though I do wish to stretch beyond the safe, boring familiarity of my comfort zone. Samuel R. Delany’s new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (Magnus Books) is certainly a book capable of assisting with that goal.
The novel begins in 2007, as 16-year-old Eric Jeffers prepares to move from his father’s Atlanta home to live with his mother in Diamond Harbor, a fictional small town on the Georgia coast. Before he’s even had breakfast on his day of departure, he has sex with a number of homeless men under an elevated freeway, sex that is described in graphic detail and features many circumstances that even some of the raunchiest of sex pigs might consider icky. Later the same afternoon, en route to his new home, he convinces his dad to pull in to a truck stop just a few miles from their destination, where much more of the same takes place in a crowded public toilet and where he meets many of the men with whom he will share the rest of his life (not to mention every bodily excretion imaginable), including a 19-year-old called Shit, who will become his life partner.
Yes, there is a lot of sex in this novel. 150 pages in, I recalled the old Film Classification Board tag in newspaper cinema listings that warned “Completely concerned with sex,” a caution that had unintended appeal to horny, 14-year-old me but that in 2012 left me wondering whether I’d have the patience for the 650+ pages that remained. It was a peculiar dynamic: I was not offended by the sex being described, it was the intensity of it that I found startling. It began to seem like a particularly dramatic traffic accident at which I know I should not stare, as my bus slowly passes the twisted wreckage leaking under a bloody sheet, but I just couldn’t look away, either. Familiar enough with Delany’s reputation to recognize that this reading experience was probably an important component of the text, I pushed through, resisting the urge to skim. It was a good decision.
Delany clearly wants to push buttons, intellectually and emotionally, but he doesn’t restrict that to those buttons relating to sex. He also challenges us to think about race, class, morality, and literature itself, and what preconceptions we bring to those subjects. Central to this are Eric, the child of white parents (the father unknown), who was raised by a black stepfather and seems to think of himself as black, despite his lineage and blond hair, and Shit, mixed race and illiterate, who was raised by his white father, Dynamite, after his black mother died. The novel covers their entire lives together.
The very liberal use of the problematic word “nigger” by characters both black and white (Eric is sexually aroused by being called “nigger” by his partners) is at first startling, though its frequency and relatively positive playful use curiously ease the reader’s discomfort, as if Delany somehow manages to temporarily suspend the historical significance of the word as a slur. (This occasion marks the first time this polite, white Canadian has ever written the word, and does so with some unease.) While Delany is obviously very deliberate and aware in his use of racial language pertaining to black and white, his references to the relatively few Asian characters seem less thoughtful. Generally, the use of “nigger” appears in dialogue, but Asian characters are often referred to as “the Asian” in narrative passages, even after the characters have been named, which lends them the characteristics of two-dimensional props.
Squeamishness about the sharing of unpopular bodily excretions (incidents of which the book is rife with) aside, the most controversial sex-related subject is undoubtedly that which would, at worst, be labelled child abuse, at best “intergenerational incest.” Dynamite – and other men in the community – engaged in sex with his son Shit from as early as infancy, and both Shit and Eric sleep and fuck with Dynamite frequently throughout their lives together. Initially, it feels troubling that Delany seems to be presenting the subject in an implausibly positive light—Shit seems far happier and better-adjusted than we would expect (demand?) someone raised in such circumstances be. The characters (and therefore Delany) do address the subject: Eric asks both Shit and Dynamite, without accusation or judgement, how they think they were affected by that early sexual activity, inferentially raising the question of harm without directly suggesting harm’s existence. Delany seems to be challenging us—not to concede that such behavior isn’t of necessity undesirable or harmful, or to change our views on the subject—but to imagine reacting to the real human outcomes of such behavior in uncommon ways that do not continue to victimize those we label as victims, and that offers full opportunity for humanity to all regardless of how we feel about their circumstances of origin.
The novel also references class and culture at a point in American (and Canadian) history in which a sort of “redneck pride” and the celebration of anti-intellectualism among the working and middle classes often seems depressingly ascendant and to be manifesting in unprecedented political upheaval. Delany’s characters, however—even the willfully illiterate Shit—often express philosophical wisdom with a clarity that sometimes seems implausible. Is the author using his characters to editorialize, or is he reminding us that we tend to sequester people into class boxes and expect them to meet our low expectations, and are startled when they do not? Our hearts are routinely warmed by stories with talking animals that tell us how to interpret our lives, but our ability to suspend disbelief often seems to evaporate when wisdom comes from the mouth of someone who wears unfashionable clothes and lives in a trailer.
Time is an important theme throughout the book. Delany has constructed the story so that time passes slowly in the beginning—the whole first half of the book covers only five of the novel’s seventy years—and then accelerates as the main characters age, structurally reflecting the human experience of time. This theme is addressed directly by the characters, especially Eric, who is quite philosophically introspective, despite limited education (he invests a great deal of effort throughout his life struggling to read and comprehend Spinoza’s Ethica). The slow pace and the quantity and repetition of sex in the first half of the book is undoubtedly a technique Delany employs in order to force the reader to viscerally experience this theme.
The need to have the reader experience time in this way is perhaps one of the reasons that Delany wrote an 804-page book (809 if you download* chapter 90, which was submitted to the publishers by Delaney after the book’s production). But I wondered occasionally, especially in the novel’s first half, whether the story could not have been told in fewer words. For instance, when Eric makes toast for his mother during an early morning conversation about his soon-to-be abandoned schooling, Delany writes:
He put two slices into the bright, stainless cube, then pushed the handle. The slices wobbled into the slots. As he looked down, horizontal threads and reflector plates inside turned orange, glowing against the bread.
Though this passage is certainly among the best descriptions of toastmaking that I’ve encountered, this detail didn’t seem to do much to advance what was taking place in the scene. Might the manuscript have benefited from a little more time under an editor’s gaze? On the other hand, the passage is kind of pleasing anyway, and the accumulation of such passages, perhaps, serves to construct the feeling of the slowness of time for the reader.
There are also examples in the narrative of pleasingly poetic prose in dialogue, more noticeable still when the subject is carnal in nature, such as when porn theater regular Joady waxes eloquently about Eric and Shit, who take over the running of the theater:
But if you’re feelin’ around in there, lookin’ for a seat in the darkness, and off in the corner you hear the fall of fresh waters, the hot flood that slops and flushes down, that’s gonna be Mr. Jeffers in a squat and Mr. Haskell standin’ over him, looking fondly down on the fjords of his face, pouring his soul out into Mr. Jeffers’ maw.
The novel spans a time period of about seventy years, about sixty-five of which take place in the future (until the late 2070s). Science fiction fans, however, should not expect to be immersed in intricate details of futuristic technologies. There are certainly references to futuristic forms of communications, locomotion, and nanotechnology, but these references largely take the form of incidental facts enveloped within the characters’ lives.
The novel transitions from the past/present to the future roughly in the middle of the book, after which the frequency of sex starts to decline (if not the conversation about sex), rather mimicking the sexual lives of men after middle age. In a way, it’s like reading two books—or, perhaps more accurately, reading a book with a 400 page prologue.
I feel that I’ve emphasized sex a great deal in this review, and given the quantity—and nature—of sex in the book, that’s perfectly understandable. It would be a mistake, however, to say that this novel is “completely concerned with sex,” for there is so much more going on, more than one could hope to describe in a single short review. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is a story of love. A love that dare not speak its gory details in the mainstream literary canon, perhaps, but a story of love just the same. When I was on page 250, I wasn’t at all certain that I was going to find the effort sufficiently rewarding, but now that I’ve finished it and let it rumble around in my head for a spell, I think I’d happily read it again.
*Correction, June 28, 2012: This review initially stated that a chapter of this novel was omitted during production. While there is an additional chapter written by the author for this publication, it was not inadvertently omitted by the publisher. View the extra chapter here @ http://www.oneringcircus.com/
Originally published on LambdaLiterary.org