Long version. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel Delany (author of Dhalgren one of my favorite books) begins with young Eric Jeffers, a gay, white kid from Atlanta, raised by his black step-father, about to turn 17, moving in with his white mother in a rural, coastal Georgia town. On the way, Eric meets Morgan “Shit” Haskell, a black, 19 year old, illiterate, self-described pervert, and Shit’s white father, Dynamite, a meeting that changes Eric’s life. Soon he begins working with Shit and Dynamite as the town’s garbage men, at the same time becoming their lover and friend. I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers to say the rest of the 800 pages takes you through Eric and Shit’s lives together on into old age, beginning in the year Obama was elected, and finishing in our future, some time in the late 21st century.
The scope of the book is astonishing. The subjects it tackles—racism, sexuality, morality, aging, religion, memory, being marginalized, I could go on—are hard and deeply explored. After 800 pages I was left with a feeling that, as a whole, the book is about what it really means to live a human life: the tragedy of it, of aging, of living through the changing times, changing technology, changing cultural expectations, of seeing everything and everyone around you passing away, of day to day life through wave after wave of change. But especially, the beauty of it.
Honestly, it’s also one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. I sobbed at the end. Real, ugly crying for the last fifty pages that made it hard to see the words, and then for a good while after I just threw my head down on the table and wept. For the next few days I walked around feeling like I was a different person. No, I am a different person.
That’s damn hard to pull off. That’s rare.
But look, before I can recommend this book (which I do!) you have to sign this informed consent. You need to know: there is a ton of sex in this book (however much you just imagined, times it by a factor of ten), that’s tons of gay sex, and that’s fine, but then it starts to get…weird. Sexualized mutual nose picking, piss drinking, shit eating, incest, beastiality, taboo language, nail biting—
Therein lies one of the primary tensions of this book. Yes, I can say unreservedly, that this book is one of the most beautiful I’ve read. Even as the language alternates between sublimely beautiful and gaggingly difficult to read. It eases up, changes significantly in the second half, but it’s there all the way through. There is something to gross out everyone here.
I’ve read Dhalgren over and over, I love it, each reading gives me more. So I was stoked to learn Delany had written another monster-sized novel. But after TVNS came out and I had read a few reviews…it took me months to work up the courage to read it. Nose picking? I thought. Shit eating? Seriously?! Why they hell would Delany put that in a book? And then…he must have his reasons…? And then, to hell with it, if Samuel Freaking Delany wants to write about nose-picking and all the rest of it, I want to know why. So in I dove.
I think TVNS is aware of this difficulty.
In the second half of Eric’s life, he is given a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, and proceeds to spend the next forty years reading it over and over. His early attempts are comical and recognizable (to me, anyway) the way my eye will slide off sentences in difficult books, sentences that I can see are written in English words, but for which I have zero comprehension. Eric says it took the first decade of struggling with Spinoza just to learn how to read it. I think that’s true for TVNS, too—well, not the decade part, maybe, but the first hundred pages or so. For example, in that first encounter between 16 year old Eric and 19 year old Shit in the Turpens truck stop restroom, the vocabulary, the group sex, whoa, it’s shocking. (Me: he’s doing what? They said that? And now he’s doing what?!) and I had to keep rearranging what I thought was happening because the Standard Narrative for those sorts of events is, well, A BAD THING IS HAPPENING. But TVNS refuses every standard narrative. That’s the point.
The first fifty pages were the hardest for me. It got easier (although the book keeps upping the ante all the way through) as I went. Probably I just got better at reading it. The last pages are like light.
Try this. When I was maybe thirteen, I was at a friend’s house, hanging out, bored, and in a giggly, showing-off fit of “let’s do something,” she showed me a copy of one of her older brother’s porn mags (an actual paper porn magazine! I’m getting old.). It was “Jugs,” an issue devoted to especially large breasts and wow, it kind of freaked me out, even as it fascinated. I remembering feeling shocked and kind of dirty and intensely curious, as in, Is this for real? Guys like this? Why?
Parts of reading TVNS were not un-like my thirteen-year-old-self looking through that issue of “Jugs”…somebody else’s porn. Sexual, sort of, but not a turn on, a little disturbing, strange, interesting as the shock wears off. Only TVNS doesn’t stop there. Next came compassion, humor, questioning. Love.
Jo Walton did a thoughtful review (of TVNS, not Jugs) over at Tor that I highly recommend, and in the comments, someone wrote, “It’s odd that people are resistant to reading about characters who engage in sex practices they would not themselves indulge in, and perhaps even find discomfiting, when they would not balk at reading a book with a character who murders or violently destroys whole planets.” Yeah, good point, why is that? Delany himself has happily called TVNS a book at the intersection of sci-fi, literary fiction, and pornography. One of its main themes is something like there is no normal. Maybe it’s desensitization, maybe its just how much I came to love Eric and Shit. But yeah, the weird became less weird for me as I went along. So Delany keeps adding more, new weird….
I think that uneasy feeling is another part of the point. Whether it is the sex, or the language (the swearing is intense but even more so, the regular (and rather fond) use of the word nigger), or the incest, or the shit/mucous/piss consumption…getting through that material is part of what changed me and made the ending so powerful.
Because I do feel changed. My perspective, my perception, my self-acceptance. This is a life changing book. And the ending is amazing. The pay off in those last 50 pages is profound.
Man, that sounds like hyperbole. Sorry.
Interestingly, this morning I picked up my old copy of Delany’s essays, About Writing, many of which I have been unable to penetrate before—that eye sliding thing. I found them very easy to read this morning. Have I taught myself how to read Delany? At least a little?
Sidenote: everything, every weird sex act in TVNS is consensual. There is no non-con, no rape, and consent is taken seriously by everyone, especially around the younger people. This isn’t a book about mean people doing mean things to each other. That’s another part of the point.
And here’s the thing: At the end of the book, none of my thoughts were about the fetish-y sex. All of that had ceased to be important in any of the ways those parts of Eric’s story were so loud and overwhelming in the beginning. By the end, the particulars of what got them hard had become fairly inconsequential to me. Maybe being in relationship with Eric and Shit for 800 pages, exactly as they are, and coming to accept them—and they are wonderful people!—is part of the book’s transformative power.
Switching gears now away from the loud and “nasty” parts (Shit’s word)….
A “normal” novel, meaning, the vast majority of the novels I’ve read, has a certain shape: an inciting event propels a protagonist with wants and needs into confronting (or running from) a problem she has with meeting those wants and needs, often in the form of an antagonist. There are a few try-cycles where the character does different things to solve her problem, these succeed and the problem gets bigger, or the character fails and tries again, the stakes increase, right up into the final showdown where the problem is finally resolved (in some fashion) and the character gets (some of) what she wanted (or possibly doesn’t, if its a darker book), growing and changing in the process.
TVNS does not follow this shape. Eric says it right out at one point. He says about some young people he meets who have been to Mars and back (I haven’t talked about it much here, but this IS science fiction, and the world-building of our near-future is fascinating), “They have stories. (I guess other people mostly do. I just have a life….”
Right. There is no plot here. This is Eric’s life. Instead of plot and try-cycles you get layers upon layers of moments, building up like sediment. Someone reading the first one or two hundred pages might give up in frustration saying, nothing happens! But the emotional whammy, the textured experience of all those layered memories by the end, it’s tremendous. A totally different way to shape this thing we call a “novel.” And that whammy couldn’t have been achieved, I think, any other way. Because life isn’t a story.
And unlike stories, even in a good life, which Eric has, there isn’t a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, Eric IS happy. He has a great relationship with someone he loves, he has work he enjoys, he’s part of a vibrant community. The world happens around him (much of it in our future), sometimes to him, and he makes choices, but nothing bad really happens here, no major events, beyond the death of friends as he get older, or aging itself. That’s what I mean: the best possible human life still ends in the loss of everything you love, and then you die. Full stop. Living a long and happy life, with people you love, and dying of old age, that’s the best outcome we wish for as humans, right? (Unless, maybe, you’re Achilles and you wish for fame and honor, instead…) But the best we can hope for…and it has this shitty, terrifying, sad end!
Who invented this system?? What a stupid ride! I want off!
This is the material of this book. Not a story. A life.
And believe me when I say I can’t tell you about the book—I mean, I AM telling you about the book, but you have to read it, experience the effect of the words, to get what it is offering. It’s experiential, not informational. That’s why there aren’t any spoilers.
TVNS took Delany seven years to write. When most writers I know are working hard to create multiple novels a year, to create stories that draw in a reader and hold them tight, with likable characters and compelling events (all of which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to go about writing), Delany is doing something different, a hard book that puts up obstacles the reader has to overcome in order to become the person that can receive the nuanced and powerful impact of the end.
Delany works masterfully with time—Eric really feels like a 17 year old kid in the beginning, and a 90 year old man in the end, plus all the stages in between. Plus the way time goes so slowly when we’re young and so slippery-fast as we age. How the world around us changes, in sometimes bewildering ways—technology’s advance, the falling down of buildings, the passing of businesses and structures that once were part of our daily life, all of that is in here in such a visceral way—oh and the crazy-making part of the passage of time: that all we have to go on is our memories, and those are fleeting and subject to significant erosion.
And what’s it like inside a 70 year relationship? Having read this I feel like I understand things about my Grandma and how she faded so quickly after the death of Granddaddy after nearly 70 years of marriage. I wish I had read it years ago, wish I could have known these things earlier, for her. So many stories are written about the beginnings of relationships, the first times, and TVNS is that, too. But what about what it’s like after forty, fifty, sixty years? My husband and I are at twenty years now, and I saw us in Eric and Shit as they hit their forties. I liked that; there aren’t many stories about twenty-year marriages that aren’t boring, depressing as hell, divorce stories.
One of the biggest experiences of the book is what it’s like to grow old—not just to be old, but to be young and to gradually become old. To be surrounded by people who weren’t alive when you were doing your thing, who see the era of your childhood as “history” and somewhat mythical, people who get it all wrong, but think they know better. The physicality of it. The way thinking processes change. The wisdom and the foolishness.
Another one: FOOD. So much food! And described with such detail and direct experience.
I was struck on this reading (when I got to the end, I turned it around and started reading it again, how strange to return to those early shocking scenes with nostalgia this time) by the parts about long-term marriage, the parts about aging, and even the parts about living in a Southern, coastal town. I grew up on the North Carolina’s Outer Banks, very similar in look, feel, and culture to the Georgia island that Eric and Shit live on. The way Delany describes the change of one of those thin islands from dunes and trees to a developed town sooo matches my experience of watching my childhood island change over the last forty years!
Other readers (or me, in later readings?) might draw more from the explorations of race, or the parts about being a gay man. Or the philosophy of Spinoza. Or the near-future technology, which is drawn so believably it feels like reading history. Or other facets that just went over my head. There is a lot here.
Delany’s descriptions of the sky and sea are gorgeous.
Eric says, “So little of life is direct experience…Only an instant of it at a time. That’s all. No more. The rest is memory. And expectation…and memory is what so much of time’s failings had struck away.”
So. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Beautiful and terrifying. A masterful piece of fiction. Not for people who just won’t be able to get past the “nasty” parts (that’s Shit’s word). Difficult going at times, in different ways for different people who will be squicked by different things, but SO WORTH IT. Huge payoff in the end.
Thank you so much, Mr. Delany, for writing this, and for Magnus Books for publishing it. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been moved to thank a publisher before! But I can imagine this book was not an easy one to publish. Not a slam dunk, best-selling, airport reading book. I hope it stays in print.
Thinking of that, hmm, I bought it as an $9.99 ebook (a steal!) but maybe I should get a paper version, in case of the zombie apocalypse. I don’t want to risk losing my copy.
I’ll leave you with Shit, a hilarious, wonderful, kind person: “Would you at least call me a goddam motherfuckin’ piece of mule shit, so I’ll know you care?”
The missing chapter 90, inadvertently left out of the book can be found here.
A great interview with Delany, lots of spoilery discussion of the text.
And another interesting interview with Delany about the book….