Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review of Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders

I want to say better things about this novel, because Delany is a hero of mine (and should be to all LGBT writers)...but it's bad.
Firstly, I understand the theoretical underpinnings--this is moral, theoretically sound, pornography.* I get that Delany's point is that it is ridiculous for us to say it is okay for someone to lust after one body part and yet feel disgust about others. So, in this novel, as with others he's written, he leans heavy on the extreme sex, playing on disgust to force us in to a situation where we have to see that. Transgressive fiction, it seems to me, works best when it engages in literary minimalism. While the prose itself exhibits characteristics of the minimalilst style that the best transgressive works of the last 15 years have had, the novel clocks in at 804 pages in paperback. That was not a typo: 804 pages. The worst part about that is that we know that Delany can bring a novel in much shorter. After all, Hogg is brilliant, contains all the same transgressive messages that ...Nest.. does, but is F A R shorter.
Ultimately? The bulk of the novel, I'd say a good 60 - 75% of it, is made up of sex scenes. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for sex scenes written transgressively. The problem is that the endless scenes of sex go from being titilating to tedious, and they never stop. This is the problem of a character like Morgan Haskell--after a while, the reader comes to recognize that Haskell has nothing useful to contribute to any scene he's in, and that all he ever does is initiate sex or try to provoke other characters with sexual language. I get that Haskell is supposed to represent a primal force in male sexuality, but I found myself dreading any scene he was in, because all the character does is ask someone for sex. That's it. The character never broadens, or changes. Eric is subtle, nuanced, and interesting, but Morgan Haskell is flat. Normally, that might not even be a problem, but Morgan dominates the dialogue in the novel. Which means that 90% of the dialogue is bad pornospeak. Even that might be forgivable in a lesser writer, but this is Samuel R. Delany, and I expect so much more from him than I do from any other writer (and maybe that means that this is my problem, in the end).
Another major problem is that the evolution of the world around the two characters is part of the main point of the book...which is fine, except that Eric and Morgan pay so little attention to the world outside. The march of time becomes merely background noise rather than an interesting study for us as readers. I found myself constantly interested in the minor characters, and the cultural and technological advancements...but the second we start to get detail on them, Morgan Haskell starts up, and whatever we were learning about disappears into another tedious sex scene. This might be okay, except that the audience that is going to read Delany, for the most part, is a science fiction audience. We come to the show specifically because of Delany's deft hand at producing nuanced characters interacting with a science fiction world. Instead, here, we get two characters who have no interest in the world around them living in a world that seems fascinating. It's been a long time since I've had a literary experience that frustrating.
Lastly, and most disappointingly, we've already seen this relationship in Delany's work before. Eric and Morgan are Marq Dyeth and Rat without any of the subtlety and interesting explorations of being-ness that Dyeth and Rat dealt with. I think that this novel would have been much, much better at a third of the length--cuts that would have been no problem, had he only kept 1 out of every 5 sex scenes.
I wish I could recommend this, especially seeing how long we had to wait for it, but I can't--go read The Stars In My Pockets Like Grains Of Sand, instead. It hits all the same points about relationships, bodily-ness and how those things relate to being-ness, but does it so much better. Try not to think too badly of Delany as a writer because of what I've written here, either: he's a genius, and paved the way for everything that is happening in transgressive lit these days. This novel was just a misstep, is all.

* = See the work of Angela Carter, specifically 1978's The Sadeian Woman

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