sabotabby: raccoon anarchy symbol (motherfucking books)
[personal profile] sabotabby
I finally finished reading Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, a.k.a. the rather large brick that’s taken up residency on my nightstand for the past few months. With some caveats, I’d say that it was worth slogging through and that some of you might want to read it (though I think that the handful of people on my friends list who would want to read it most already have).

I’m going to put all my other thoughts under the cut. I don’t believe in trigger warnings and don’t generally employ them on LJ, but if you’re triggered by something, it’s probably somewhere in this book.

Okay, so this is a book that requires a lot of buy-in. I was warned, I got 20 pages or so in, put it down, went, “Oh fuck,” and then kept going a few days later. As befits an epic tome written by a sci-fi great, there’s suspension of disbelief involved. There’s also quite a bit more suspension of your gag reflex.

The first half of the book is pretty much straight-up porn, and unless you lurk in the sketchier parts of the Supernatural fandom, it’s probably not porn that’s going to turn you on. If you find a particular act squicksome, you will almost certainly find it here, along with some others that you probably hadn’t considered because we’re all too innocent. I find it amusing that most people seem to be most shocked by the snot fetish, but maybe they didn’t get to the dog sex or the father-son sex or the baby blowjobs. Or the racially charged vocabulary. Or the coprophagia. Or or or.

This said, you won’t find rape, exactly. I mean, for the definition of rape that makes for a functional society and that we’d all probably accept, which is that children and animals can’t consent to sex, yes, there’s rape. But this is all happening within the bizarre context of a utopia where the concept of enthusiastic consent exists but the concept of rape doesn’t. Like I said, suspension of disbelief. You have to sort of buy that a father has a sexual relationship with his son that’s loving and consensual, if recognized by both of them as potentially problematic. Do I have issues with it? Yes, of course. Does it make sense for the characters? Yep.

So there’s about 500 pages of that, before the book takes a sharp turn into sci-fi and gives us a look at a dizzyingly changing world through the eyes of characters on its periphery. And then there’s the other sharp turn into Proper Literature, where Eric, the main character, ponders Spinoza as he struggles to understand what it means to be a good person. It’s also a surprisingly touching love story, albeit one that begins with snot-eating, and a powerful meditation on aging and death.

Things that really struck me, beyond that I can still read something and get shocked by it, though it does take a considerable amount to shock me (as evidenced by the fact that I finished it at all):

1. Delany’s ability to sell a love that lasts seventy or eighty years, and that he captures the initial sparks of youthful lust and infatuation as well as the depth and disappointment and familiarity of old age. Probably my favourite passage (context: Shit, Eric’s life partner—balding, toothless, and illiterate—is worried that he’s going to leave for someone more exciting):

”Shit—” and the breeze rose outside the glassless window—“that’s not gonna happen. That’s kind of what I was tryin’ to say before. You’re too much of what I want—and what I always wanted. You look too much like I want a feller I live with to look like. You act too much like that feller. Your farts and your burps and your B.O. and your asshole when you ain’t wiped yourself too good, and—hell, your damned snot—taste and smell too much like what I wanted it to taste and smell like. So do your damned feet—when you wear shoes long enough to work up a stink. And you treat me too much like I want to be treated. Your piss and your nostrils and your asshole all taste too much like his were supposed to taste like. That’s ‘cause you are…him. You, I mean. That’s all. You’re stuck with me Shit. Like when you’d be walkin’ outside the cabin barefoot and step on some turd Dog-Dog left out by the deck in the Dump.” (When they’d gone to the Opera, Dog-Dog had returned to Sam Quasha and immediately impregnated all his female relatives.) “You know how you can’t get that stuff off your foot for so goddamn long? Well, I’m the piece of dog shit you stepped in.”

Delany revels in the human, the base, the specific, and it’s highly compelling stuff.

2. The elevation of the ordinary, which is seldom seen in genre fiction or indeed in Proper Literature at all. Early on, Eric is castigated by his mother’s boyfriend for choosing to drop out of high school and become a garbage collector in a subsidized utopian community for gay black men, a decision he’s never shown to regret. To position menial labour as something worthy of literary dignity is unusual, and I daresay radical—again, especially in genre fiction with its proliferation of geniuses, heroes, and super special snowflakes.

3. The vision of the future as seen by those relatively unaffected by it. The second half of the book is a story about technological, cultural, and political changes—from the point of view of someone who’s never seen why they should need to own a TV or a computer. It lends a sense of realism to the sci-fi elements that make the universe seem lived-in. Change comes, but not in a linear way, and its benefits and drawbacks are far from evenly distributed. You know, like actual history works.

4. There comes a point in one’s life—a point that I fear I’m almost at—where change happens at such a rapid pace around you that it’s impossible to keep up or participate. I don’t remember the last time I read something that so accurately captured that shift.

5. Oh yes, and the prose is impressive. When it’s not describing snot-eating or dick cheese. Well, even when it is, but that’s when you’d probably like Delany to be a little less vivid with his descriptions.

Apparently Delany was inspired, in part, by a Nabokov quote:

there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.

This book is almost the former and definitely the latter. Other reviewers have pointed out the challenge in writing what’s essentially a utopian novel without much in the way of conflict—this is the story of people who essentially strive to lead good lives, and succeed at it—but Delany’s managed to do it compellingly enough that I did read the whole damned thing, snot-eating and all.

Hat-tip to [ profile] nihilistic_kid for sending me a copy since for some reason it wasn't at the library. You can read his much more detailed review here. Jo Walton's is also worth reading.
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