Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Samuel R. Delany’s new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is over 800 pages, which makes it the longest book he has ever written (even longer than Dhalgren). It is also one of the best novels by anyone that I have read in quite a long time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say (as I already put it on Twitter) that it is the best English-language novel that I know of, of the 21st century so far.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tells the story of Eric Jeffers and his life partner Morgan “Shit” Haskell. Eric is white, though he has been brought up mostly by his black stepfather; Shit is black, though he has been brought up mostly by his white father. We meet Eric and Shit when they first meet, as teenagers; and we follow them for seventy years, until extreme old age. The location is a kind of backwater, a (fictional) small town on the Georgia coast, with little going on economically except for the summer tourist trade. The novel starts more or less in the present, in 2007 when Eric is just a few days shy of his 17th birthday; and it ends in the 2080s, when Eric is in his nineties. To a degree, the novel is science-fictional; we hear of future cultural ferment (the 2030s sound a lot like a freer and more advanced 1960s), of changes in social mores (though homophobia hasn’t disappeared, same-sex marriages are legal everywhere, and pretty much taken for granted); of terrorist nuclear attacks, of colonies on the Moon and Mars, of gas-free automobiles, of new telepresence and virtual reality technologies, and so on. But all of this happens in the background, and only affects the main characters at second hand (as they live their lives in a backwater, and are largely unconcerned with contemporary media). The emphasis remains firmly on the uneventful happenings of everyday life.

There’s an enormous amount of sex in the book — on a level that at least equals that of The Mad Man, and that is only matched within Delany’s oeuvre by his early “pornographic” novels, Hogg and Equinox. The book is therefore very much of a hybrid — between what might be called mainstream literary ambitions, and those of the two “paraliterary” genres (as Delany has called them in his critical writing) pronography and science fiction. It remains to be seen how this will affect the book’s overall reception. Its ambitions, and its achievements, are immense in ways that recall, and equal, the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries; but it differs from these because, most notably, its pages are filled with so much gay sex.

Delany’s writing of sex is itself one of the most noteworthy, powerful, and original things about the novel. There is a stylistics to it that already appeared in The Mad Man, but that is brought to a pitch of perfection here. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that Delany is the most materialist fiction writer I have ever encountered. His evocation of sex is very much of a piece with his evocation of other sorts of sensuous details of life and experience. Delany’s autobiography is called The Motion of Light in Water, and descriptions of shimmerings and shadings, of delicate preceptual differentiations, and indeed specifically of sunlight reflecting off the waves at the seashore, are quite prevalent in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, as in many of Delany’s texts. And these are not so different from his descriptions of bodily/sexual sensations. In the present book, Delany gives us an intensely vivid, sensual  and materially thick description of “bodies and pleasures” (to use a phrase from Foucault). A wide range of sexual acts among men are described: from sucking and penetration to snot-eating and piss-drinking, to masturbation and nail-biting (something that comes up in many of Delany’s novels), to various sorts of voyeuristic arousal, to the enjoyment of funky body odors, to just plain cuddling. The only thing uniting them is that they are all exclusively among males, and that they are all consensual.

Although the explicitness of the sexual descriptions in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders certainly qualifies as “pornographic”, the ethos of Delany’s sex-writing is vastly different from what is commonly understood either about “pornography” or about its more respectable upscale cousin “erotica.” Some readers will find parts of Delany’s descriptions arousing, and others will not — there is no way to assume just who the “reader” is, after all; but in either case the point is much more to describe the arousal of the characters undergoing these acts, than it is to produce arousal in the (ideal or actual) reader. Another way to put this is to say that — even if the sheer plethora of available sexual acts in the world of the novel is something of a fantasy (or better, a fairy tale) — the orientation of the sex-writing is towards desire-fulfilled-as-bodily-pleasure, rather than towards the fantasy of desire-projected-beyond, or desire-that-exceeds-any-possibility-of-fulfillment. It’s desire as concrete production of affects, as in Spinoza, rather than desire as “lack” (as in Hegel and Lacan). We have multiple, concretely- and bodily-rooted arousals and satisfactions, rather than some furious drive towards some infinitude (whether of repletion or of self-annihilation). The characters often speak of doing “nasty” stuff, but there is no sense of (say) Bataille’s transgression or Genet’s willed abjection. I myself regard Bataille and Genet as among the greatest writers of the old past century; but I think it’s important to see that Delany is doing something new and different here, something that is as far from such 20th century art pornography as it is from more commercial (straight or gay) pornography.

Delany’s descriptions/evocations of multiple bodily arousals and pleasures also shade into descriptions or evocations of interpersonal relations, or of what is sometimes called “community” (a word I resist, because it has censorious implications in many contexts; but I cannot find a better word here). The sexual acts that Delany describes also involve, and create, forms of affiliation between people. These affiliations are grounded in bodily pleasures, in the pleasures of sharing, and in the multiple ways that people can find mutually enabling forms of contact. It’s a vision of both bodily desire, and human sympathy or being-together, that seems to me in an odd way more reminiscent of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier than it is of Freud. Each person’s particular twists of desire are what enlivens him or her, without having to be “accounted for,” or matched to any norms—so that they are entirely singular and autonomous to but also with the open, outward-looking potentiality of creating affinities with other people who have similar and/or complementary desires (someone who likes to drink piss meets someone who likes to piss in other people’s mouths; and in turn they meet someone else who likes to watch this . . .). With all these singularities of desire, nobody is ever drearily “the same” as anybody else; but also, with the widening circles of these singularities, everyone is likely to find at least some other people with whom to share at least something that moves, excites, or arouses them. It is in the midst of such continual fluctuating action that Eric and Shit, and also some of the other couples or threesomes (or more-than-threesomes) that we meet in the course of the novel must negotiate, both their primary emotional relationships with one another, and their sexual-emotional engagements, of various longer or shorter durations, with other people as well.

With all this, I don’t mean to imply that the novel is only about sex. It is about sex overwhelmingly, but it is also about lots of other things. The key point is that sex is part of the everydayness of Eric’s and Shit’s lives, and of the world they share. What really makes the novel so powerful is the sheer accumulation of incidents and everyday habits in Eric’s and Shit’s lives, over some 800 pages, or over the 70 years that they live together. There is lots of repetition, but also all sorts of subtle modulations of perception, habit, interest, and desire. As the characters get older, the sex diminishes, and also our sense of time gets changed — so that longer periods of time seem to pass more quickly. Reading the novel, we come to live and feel along with Eric and Shit, just because so much of their lives are given to us in the course of those 800 pages — we get the motifs and endless variations which are at the heart of what it means, for anyone, to “have a life.” It’s amazing to have this sort of feeling in a long book where, in a sense, “nothing happens” — there are no great deeds, no striving against mighty dangers, no special adventures — just the adventure which is the stuff of living itself, no matter how quietly and uneventfully. Eric and Shit are not important players in the history of the world, and they know that they are not. They spend twenty years as garbagemen, then thirteen years as managers of a porno movie theater, and finally forty-odd years as handymen on an island off the coast that has found semi-prosperity as a lesbian artists’ colony.

In all these settings, Eric and Shit do their work; they find both sexual (with other men) and simply social (with women) ways to associate with others and feel some sense of community; they have lots of fun (or sexual/sensual enjoyment); and also they strive to help other people when necessary, and to be kind to others, as much as possible. As Spinoza might put it, they work toward ever-greater compositions of positive affects. Indeed, Spinoza is something like the tutelary spirit of the novel. Around the middle of the book (or around the middle of Eric’s life), an older gay man gives Eric a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics; and for the rest of his life (or the rest of the novel), Eric reads this text over and over again. He originally finds it incomprehensible; but gradually he comes to make sense of it. We aren’t directly given Eric’s thoughts about Spinoza; but gradually we discern that the whole impulse and organization of Eric’s life, with his cultivation of positive affects, of widespread generosity, and of ever-widening affiliations with others, is very much a Spinozistic one.

And this leads me to the one major aspect of the novel that could be called “utopian,” or a “fantasy,” in the sense that (even more than wide general acceptance of the sexual acts portrayed throughout the book) it is something that, unfortunately, is scarcely imaginable in America today. Eric and Shit and their friends are able to lead the sorts of lives they do because they receive the discreet backing of the Kyle Foundation, an organization set up by a black gay millionaire, in order to give support to the lives of gay men of color. Because of the Foundation’s backing, Eric and Shit and their entire community have access, even when they are most poor and deprived, to living space and food and good medical care. Also, they encounter & suffer from far less homophobia and racism (though it of course remains present, and comes up at several points in the course of the novel) than would be the case in the “real” world as we know it today. In this way I think the novel suggests that the possibility of a humane life for all really depends upon at least this minimum of protection from the vagaries, not just of bigotry, but of “the market” as well. In effect, this makes the novel into an argument for socialism, as well as for the humane pleasures of nonprocreative sex. And this has something to do, in turn, with the kindness or generosity which is so big a feature of Eric’s life and actions, and is the ethos of the book as a whole.

By the end of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I found my reading experience to be pretty much overwhelming. Over the course of the book, we get to know Eric and Shit as intimately, and as well, as we have ever gotten to know any of the great characters in the history of modern Western literature. I mean this less in the sense of “depth” than in that of breadth. (“Depth psychology” I think is overrated — and it is far rarer a thing to encounter, whether in “real life” or in novelistic and cinematic narratives, than we often suppose. Neither Hamlet, nor Raskolnikov, nor Leopold Bloom, nor Proust’s narrator have anything to do with depth psychology. They are all defined as rich characters by the range of the discourses and affiliations associated with them, as well as by the absence of any master key to who they are. This is what makes them so, well, lifelike). As we read Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, we gradually accumulate, around Eric and Shit, a wealth of perceptions and sensory impressions and likes and dislikes; of habits and wishes and preferences and physical inclinations; and also of affiliations and alliances, and points of both contact and distance — and it’s often hard (and not really relevant) to discern which of these are internal and which external, which are private, which are shared by the two of them, and which are shared more widely. And with this wealth of connections, with this broad web of feelings and meanings, particular new facts or meetings or happenings or encounters often take on a weight that they could not have just by themselves. Memories surprisingly return in full intensity; but they also weaken, wear away, become general instead of specific, fade or get confused. The latter parts of the novel are rich because of how they follow from, and draw upon, everything that has come before. But they also register a powerful poignancy that comes from people dying, from changes that cannot be reversed, and finally from the very experience of aging, with the gradual lessening of physical vigor and of sexual excitement; the novel goes into great detail on the facts of how getting old changes our relationship to the past, and even to what we most vividly remember.

I don’t know how to conclude this brief account except by reiterating how rich the novel is, and also how generous — in the sheer profusion of what it offers us as readers, and allows us to share. Conservative critics (I mean this both politically and aesthetically) often like to go on about universal values that great works of art are supposed to inculcate. But Delany confirms what Proust and Deleuze already knew: that the only “universality” worthy of the name is one that rejects bland generalities, and instead affirms and passes through the most singular of passions. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is not a book about capital-L Love, but rather one about two boys who fall in love with one another at least in part because they both so greatly enjoy chewing on their own, and each other’s, snot. Something like that might seem disconcerting for those of us (myself included) who are not snot-eaters — or simply for those of us who are not accustomed to talk about such things. But such are the details, or the singular affects, that are composed together to make up an actual life, as well as the fictional depiction of such a life. And it is this sense of actual life — not of something special or heroic or earthshattering, but just of a life — that Delany’s novel brings us.