The OF Blog: Samuel Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Samuel Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

The quotes I use to illustrate representative passages may be disturbing to some readers, so for maybe the only time ever, I'll use "spoiler" tags. Content can be deduced from my commentary on them.

Samuel Delany's 2012 novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is as difficult of a work to sum up in a pithy review as it might be for many readers to read it at length.  Is it a "pornographic" novel, whatever that work might mean beyond the graphic exposition of detailed sexual acts?  Is it a story of community, in which those bound by common desires congregate to fulfill those yearnings?  Is it a tale of society and the changes enacted over time?  Is it a love story in which the seeming transgressions of sex ultimately serve to affirm the ties that bind one to another in love?  At various points in this 804 page novel, Delany moves from theme to theme, as his characters fuck, piss, and shit their way through 70 years, from 2007 to the end of the 2070s.  Perhaps "protean" is the best descriptor for the novel, although it too fails to encompass its totality.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is told through the perspective of Eric Jeffers, a white Georgian who is 17 when the novel opens in 2007.  Openly gay and with quirks (fetishes?) of his own (booger/snot eating at the beginning, urophagia as the novel progresses), Eric moves down to the Georgia coast to stay with his mother when he comes into contact with a community of African American gays who, through the help and financial support of the homophile Robert Kyle and his Kyle Foundation, have set up a community in which the working men in that rural area can meet at places such as "The Dump" and partake freely in whatever sexual desires that they might have with each other.  Eric is quickly drawn into this sexual milieu, in which he encounters a father and son couple, Dynamite and his biracial son, Morgan (nicknamed "Shit" for reasons that quickly become obvious to the reader), as well as others in the community.

Here, sexual desire is actualized, with a catalog of acts described in unsentimental, unrestrained fashion.  At first, it seems the novel is little more than a laundry list of sexual acts, many of which are transgressive to social mores:  incest, bestiality, coprophagia, etc.  Yet Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is not pornography; there is no titillation here, at least not for most readers.  We are confronted with acts that might make the seemingly more "open-minded" of us recoil with prurient shock.  That, I suspect, is precisely the point.  Delany is careful with these scenes, as these moments of shock and perhaps revulsion are intended to overlap with more poignant scenes, such as this one between Eric and Shit 25 years into the future:

Below is the second quoted passage, dealing with a key scene from the novel.

Those who dismissed Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders for being merely graphic descriptions of men enacting various sexual fantasies (including BDSM) on each other may need to consider the novel's second half, which roughly covers the 2030s to Eric and Shit's doddering old age in the 2070s.  Here there are passages wondering about the passage of desire and its wake being filled with memories and regrets, of lust transformed (transmogrified?) into something more familiar, more poignant for readers whose youthful flush has long faded.  It is here, with the descriptions of near-future life, of the open couple's increasing bewilderment with a world in which technological advances have done little more than alienate them from the larger society outside their isolated rural (although increasingly populated) harbor, that the novel yields a new, different side for consideration.  Delany does not go into detail as to what is transpiring in this future society; Eric and Shit's indifference to new terrorist attacks, projection screens, and economic precariousness is as "real" as our own fleeting concerns with "the big issues" of our current lives.

Delany's characters are non-orthodox in their development.  Eric in particular, as the portal through which the readers can view this setting, is not defined by his particular talents; outside of the occasional description of his good looks, he might as well be a cypher to the reader, a passive participant in most of the scenes.  Yet by novel's end, he and Shit are defined by their actions:  who and how they have sex with, how they interact with each other, and how their desires and fears are reflected in each other.  What easily could have been a Sadist catalog of socially-unacceptable sexual acts becomes by novel's end a means through which two souls connect and form a bond that transcends the earthy, physical acts.  Delany does not telegraph any of this; instead it is embedded within acts that force readers to react to them.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders was an exhausting read.  Throughout, I had to struggle against taboos regarding most of the acts that Eric and Shit engage in.  There were times that I had to put the book aside for weeks, or even months, before I could resume, because something disturbing that I read.  Yet ultimately, I came to appreciate what Delany accomplishes here.  Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is not meant to titillate readers, but to provoke them, to make them unsettled, before launching into a reflective tale of memory and loss, of waxing love and waning lust, of what it means to belong to something larger than your own self.  It is not a perfect novel, as the repetitive scenes can be wearisome to read even though they also serve to create a semblance of rhythm to the couple's lives.  Yet it is a work that will linger with the reader long after the final page is read and its themes regarding personal and social connections finally take precedence over the explicit sexual excess of the novel's first half.  It is not a novel for many readers, but for those who do soldier through, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders may be one of those original fictions that one is glad to have read, even though words like "enjoyment" or "liked it" may not be employed. 


Juan Manuel Pazos said...

"804 pages". "Soldier through". I don't think so. For whatever reason I systematically find sex in literature extremely boring except when it's played for laughs in a respectful manner. I'm gay myself and I want to think I wouldn't be scandalized or outraged by the acts described. But I'm not sure I wouldn't be unsettled by some. I became an activist in the 90's with a lot of awareness for safe sex and in a context where I took a lot from feminist perspective and the fact is some fetishes, kinks, or whatever you want to call them, make me a little uncomfortable,particularly those where dominance plays a role. So.... no, I don't think so.

Larry Nolen said...

It's not for everyone, certainly. I'm straight and the acts were a bit more graphic than I've seen them described before, but it's what lies beyond the graphic, sometimes unsettling nature of those acts is what drew me in. It starts out almost as fetish pornography, but turns into something tender and memorable.

After all, are we defined by the acts we do, or are the acts themselves transformed by who is doing them? That's one question that this novel left with me when I finished reading it a week ago. After all, a man who loves being whipped and being pissed on can be a fine, upstanding citizen, after all and I think that's part of what Delany is getting at here.

But it certainly isn't an "easy" novel to read.

Juan Manuel Pazos said...

I've often thought about what can be the reason for some people to engage in certain sexual practices and why they would find them attractive. The idea of blood and/or feces as part of sex is absolutely alien to me, for instance. I just can't wrap my head around that, can't find a state of mind within myself that would make me need that. Do our acts define us? I would say not univocally. Are the acts transformed or redeemed depending on who is performing them or the reason behind them? I honestly can't say. In a consensual relationship you could say everything is allowed but sometimes I just get the feeling that some self esteem issues are on the basis of some urges and that, to some extent, qualifies "consensual" in my opinion.

Larry Nolen said...

Good point on the self esteem issue. I didn't discuss it, but the bounds of "consensual" are stretched here in Delany's book. The actors choose to partake in the acts they do, but the amounts to which they are constrained in how they act really isn't shown here. It's almost unrealistic and I could see someone critiquing this novel based on this unrealistic communal agreement when it comes to active/passive participation.

Then again, even this leads to some interesting questions regarding the novel and our reactions to it that might make it a worthy cultural studies seminar-type work to break down for analysis.

Juan Manuel Pazos said...

And now I kind of wish I had read it so I could discuss the book itself. My last comment was more of a general thought I've had from having known people who are into BDSM and acknowledge they do have guilt or self esteem issues and that those were in part responsible for their behaviour. But yes, the topic bears discussion and the book is interesting as a starting point.

Larry Nolen said...

I seem to recall reading or hearing somewhere that there is a fine line between love and lust for inflicting pain. Not that this is truly accurate for this book, but it could apply to certain relationships that on the outside look to be dangerous/unequal ones, yet which on the inside might be as loving as those between two prudish types. It's not a novel that'll leave any preconceptions on the issues I've mentioned unharmed, but sometimes it's worth having them dinged up a bit?

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