Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R Delany
Desensitization is a hot topic these days. There is the much-discussed barrage of sex and violence in media and whether or not it eventually refuses to move us after various degrees of shock and discomfort. Good news. There are still things that will shock you regardless of how many times you are confronted by them. And that "you" is the non-prudish, not easily shocked amongst us. We aren't talking Heartland here. Samuel R. Delany's latest book, the egregiously disappointing and overwrought, not to mention virtually pornographic, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is the perfect example of such a phenomenon. For instance, regardless of how many times I encountered the phrases, I in no way moved past disgust when reading "cock cheese" or "piss cage." Fair warning: This is a novel that thrives on presenting, repeatedly and graphically, as many sexual proclivities, both popular and alternative, as possible. Titillation is most certainly not its goal. Men are abused, beaten, raped, urinated on, defecated on -- and that's about the extent one can go to without quoting some truly stomach-churning incidents. You could open the book at virtually any page, place a finger anywhere on a page, and highlight a minutely depicted fetish of some sort. Actually, it's the same three or four minutely described fetishes repeated over 600-some odd pages. As a novel, it's so clumsily put together and annoyingly repetitive that it seems almost like an homage to Delany from the hands of a lesser, and certainly unedited, author. That's just one of the many reasons it's so frustrating.
Samuel Delany is one of the most interesting sci-fi writers working within the genre. In fact, aside from Spiders, his most recent work is a book subtitled "Notes on the Language of Science Fiction" -- his second on the specific nature of the science-fiction genre, where he keeps his feet wet as both critic and author. Last summer, The Paris Review interviewed him. That was three years after his documentary, Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany. In essence, this guy is a big deal. He knows what game he's playing, and has been playing, since his first published work in 1962. His is a unique talent that, like the best of genre writers, supersedes any sort of stigma or limitation associated with it. Delany's work is complex, thoughtful, philosophical, political, and, yes, sexual. These are pretty consistent elements in all of his novels and stories, and that is more than fine. Accordingly, one could greatly anticipate the new 625-page science-fiction behemoth from Delany. One did. What one did not anticipate, however, was that approximately 600 of those pages would just be a catalog of the same graphically depicted sex acts with occasional trite reminders, occurring even more often in the last hundred or so pages, that it's difficult to be gay, that black people are mistreated and love is love, regardless of color or organ.
It's almost comical how the authorial tone switches from unsparing depictions of sex acts to needlepoint-worthy themes. Part of the latter, and all of the former, stems from the novel's main locale -- The Dump. "See, it's like a welfare neighborhood -- social assistance or somethin'." It's a community for gay, black men and founded by one whose presence is loosely involved in the lives of the Dump's citizens whether as childhood friend, lover, or protector. That reminds me -- speaking of characters, it's difficult to empathize with a father and son named Dynamite and Shit who frequent bathhouses together and are lovers. Along with their abusive friend Black Bull and his sex partner whom he keeps in a collar and beats. Again, characterization takes a back seat to boundary pushing and descriptions that would make the Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller, and even E.L. James blush. Eventually, even Delany remembers what type of genre he's writing in and tosses in a terrorist attack (which takes place in the future, making it sci-fi!), following the lives of Shit, Dynamite, and the nearly faceless cipher that is Eric Jeffers, somehow the protagonist, toward the last couple decades of the twenty-first century. Little changes. This isn't dystopian, or utopian, either. The Dump is just that... a place where garbage haulers and other blue-collar workers can live and practice sex acts of any kind without discrimination. The commune is a place that holds Delany's interest. The Dump echoes the community in the park found in Dhalgren, Delany's most famous novel. It's also an easy out. There's so little location, or even few places of interest within the novel, why not retread old territory?
Dhalgren dealt plenty with sex of all stripes, but Bellona was such a fantastic city, such an interesting approach to world-building in a science-fiction novel that ably captured the unrest of its times. That's the glaring absence in this latest work. It's so didactic and assaultive in its sexual depictions and sexual politics. The outrageously gratuitous sex, the sex which does nothing to further the thin contrivances of plot, it's just repetitive. Circle jerks, sharing condoms (and then drinking out of them), nude nose picking, incest, and glory holes do not a science-fiction novel make. They don't make an interesting novel, genre or otherwise. Just because hundreds of pages go by from the novel's beginning in 2007, with stops briefly to banter comments about whether Obama will or will not become president, and finally grind to a halt in the last third of the twenty-first century does not make it a science-fiction novel. The mention of cell phones, pick-up trucks, Facebook, acts of terrorism and again, presidential elections, do not make for mind-bending or prescient reading. Referring to the President as "that Obama nigger in Washington" and evaluating his "cocksucking" abilities is just the apex in the triangle of provocation Delany seems intent on continually building through the novel's loathsome, seemingly unending, hundreds of pages. By the time the book ends, and Eric is grateful for having "a bit more time," the reader has long given up on him. And Delany. Stick to Dhalgren, maybe even read his two books on the genre, but steer clear of this one. It's tough to think of a more self-serving, isolating, and generally uninteresting novel from a well-established author.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany