September 2015

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Smells Like Delany Spirit

It's been almost two years since I wrote here about the first book in Samuel R. Delany's Return to Nevčr˙on. Two years of life distractions (including a cross-country move), and dealing with the limitations of library catalogs, a shortness of cash, and forgetfulness; two years of other books before I read Neveryóna, the second volume in the series.

In Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities, Pryn travels from Ellamon, a rural hold in the mountains of Nevčr˙on, to the big city of Kolhari, and from there into the south, to the edges of the "civilized" world. Like many novels about a journey, she encounters much that is strange to her, and discovers how she is strange to the people she meets. The prominent characters of the previous volume recur: she is launched on her journey by Norema (the viewpoint character of "The Tale of Old Venn"); she is told about Norema's old travel companion, Raven, and follows Raven's shadows through Nevčr˙on; she meets Gorgik and, briefly, Small Sarg. Old Venn and Belham the inventor haunt her travels. Questions of sexuality, civilization, and power are rephrased and deepened.

Delany is a dense writer, his novels and stories constructed of intertwining questions matched by the intricate structures he uses to frame his plots. With any volume in Return to Nevčr˙on, one could start with the epigraphs, with the appendices, with the metafictional moves, or with the sign-posted similarities and differences between the civilization of Nevčr˙on and the US in the 1980s. One could discuss slavery and mastery, power, economics, sex, discovery, or dragons. One could discuss plot. What I want to talk about is a sliver of Neveryóna -- the ninth chapter, titled "Of Night, Noon, Time, and Transition."

This chapter begins like the others in the novel. An epigraph is followed by events that continue directly on those that ended chapter eight. Pryn leaves the Kolhari residents she has come to know, however uncomfortably. Over a few pages, we travel with her through those first hours of being alone again in the big city. Then there is a line break and when the narrative resumes, we are addressed by the narrator:

Were this another story, what we have told of Pryn's adventures till now might well have been elided or omitted altogether as unbelievable or, at any rate, as uncharacteristic. In that other story, Pryn's next few weeks might easily have filled the bulk of these pages.

The rest of the chapter is, in a sense, an extended summary of that other story, which the narrator insists at beginning and end is not this one.

What is Delany up to here? The question is multi-part: Why include these pages if they are so different from the rest of the story, why point out their difference to the reader, and why include so much of this other story -- nearly fifty pages? A comprehensive answer would take more time and space than I have here. Parts of it would have to do with the importance of storytelling to the Nevčr˙on books, both within their events and in their structures, as becomes even more apparent in the third volume, Flight from Nevčr˙on. By pointing out the differences in this chapter, he is engaging our expectations around what kind of story this is -- fantasy, perhaps even a story of a quest -- and the supposedly contrary expectations of what kind of story Neveryóna is not. The difference between the two types of stories is slyly indicated at the end of chapter nine, as follows: "But in those weeks Pryn did not once think of dragons. Thus, we review them briefly." On one hand, this implies, we have a story about dragons. On the other, in these fifty pages, we have a story in which dragons are not thought of, not even once. What's interesting is that much of the rest of the novel doesn't deal directly with dragons either. Pryn rides a dragon in the opening, is told a story about a drowned city guarded by a dragon, and follows this story through Nevčr˙on. When frightened, she draws courage from her ride on the wild dragon. And dragons echo in the political discussions of the characters, since the dragon and the eagle represent two politically warring factions in Nevčr˙on. As imbedded as these moments are in the story, though, you could easily offer a summary of the book without mentioning dragons at all (see my second paragraph above).

What if we turn the narrator's statement around? Rather than focusing on the lack of dragons in the fifty pages of this other story, we might instead ask, what does Pryn think of in the ninth chapter that she doesn't think of throughout the rest of the novel, before or after? The answer is simple: she thinks about being pregnant. She believes she is pregnant. At first, we are told, pregnancy contributes to a pleasant dream about settling down with the young smuggler boy she has been sleeping with, and then becomes a nightmare when she realizes that (a) he won't settle down with her and (b) he's lazy. She leaves the smuggler and ends up in another village, not so different in some ways from where she grew up, despite the southern Nevčr˙on food, which is alternately delicious and inedible. Conversations are had, as they are throughout the book, about Venn and Belham, about economics and power, and about the spread of ideas. But when it comes time to find a place for her in the village, she is taken to a few abandoned hovels, which are primarily passed by men. It is expected she might earn her money off these men as a prostitute, while raising her child (or, potentially, children). The crux of the chapter is the question she asks when faced with this future: "This is not where I want to be, she thought. Why has everything conspired to put me here?"

This is the question, isn't it? "Why has everything conspired to put me here?" It is especially the question of those whose choices are so often constrained by the diffuse forces of class, race, gender, ability, and disability -- and it's even the question of those who have the resources to make different choices but still feel constrained by expectation and imagination. Unsurprisingly, given that this is Delany, this is not a morality tale about the dangers of sleeping with young, lazy smugglers. Neither is it a story about the hatefulness of small town folk. After all, Pryn's friends in the village are "good people, kind people, generous people." And the work they have picked for her is not necessarily bad, she admits. But she understands as well that they have selected this work precisely because they don't know what else to do with a foreign girl who is pregnant and alone. Those characterizations define her, and once she starts the work, that too will come to define her. She remembers how those forces would act on her and others in her own village: "They'd been cut into her the way so many small droplets running along the same path cut a ravine to the sea, so that once within it -- as if caught in a wound slashed across one's body -- there was no leaving."

For all that the narrator marks this chapter as separate, it is here that several of the novel's percolating ideas come to the fore. In particular, the question of leaving was barely discussed in the novel's opening pages, but leaving is the essential prelude to a journey, and it is especially important for Pryn, whose desire is caught up with her ideas about the father who left her village and died. A place that one cannot leave is terrifying to her. One day she may settle in a place like this southern village, but not now. Not so soon. Of course, she realizes, she is different from her father -- instead of leaving a child behind, she will be taking one with her. With that thought the forces close in on her again; she can't think how she might leave and survive. But then another recurring image from the novel catches her eye: for a moment, the shadow of a knife stuck in the side of a tree looks like a double-bladed sword, the weapon of those matriarchal soldier women whose appearances dot the series. The soldier women come from a different society and a different set of social forces than those constraining Pryn. They offer an alternative. The shadow of the double-blades cuts through her indecision and she is free to leave, the chapter slowly coming to an end and the next chapter taking up her journey in the south, where poisonous and corroded power sits beside a drowned city guarded by a dragon.