Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

I just finished reading Samuel R. Delany’s new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. It is his longest fictional work (beating the classic Dhalgren by three pages and a much larger word count), and includes many themes which will be familiar to Delany fans (characters with nailbiting fetishes and/or massive penises, graphic descriptions of literally dirty sex, descriptions of the elusiveness of history, keen observations about geographical space, and so on).

Delany is my favorite writer, thus I deeply wanted to love this book. While I enjoyed it overall, it has its flaws. The first 100 pages will be virtually impossible to get through for most readers who are not either devoted Delany fans or who have a very high gross-out threshold because they include numerous vivid descriptions of coprophilia, urophilia, and intercourse between characters who bathe once a week at most (also, new to Delany’s work, snot-eating and mutual-consent father-son incest. Whew.). Delany travels these waters much more skillfully in The Mad Man, which is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. The Mad Man describes these acts more poetically, and does a better job of explaining why their description is important, whereas Through the Valley‘s sex scenes are simply pornographic. At least four of Delany’s previous novels (Equinox [The Tides of Lust], Hogg, The Mad Man, and Phallos) are usually described by critics as pornographic, a designation which I strongly disagree with because they are actually about pornography rather than being pornography themselves, but Through the Valley fits this label. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the novel’s message of openness toward all forms of sexual expression and its insistence that sex be treated in literature as a normal, unremarkable part of everyday life like any other activity instead of having a false facade of taboo placed around it is blunted by the placement of the pornographic scenes right at the beginning of the novel when the reader has no context for them. The sex scenes later in the book are more comprehensible and powerful once we know the characters and have a  better sense for the ethic which the novel espouses.

The novel gets much more engaging and less sexually intense throughout its last two-thirds. It is vintage Delany–thought-provoking and difficult to put down. One neat thing about the book is that it includes a few elements that can be considered science fiction, which makes Through the Valley Delany’s first foray into SF since Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in 1984. Delany does a nice job of integrating the early events of the novel, which take place in the  present and recent past (e.g., there is discussion of the 2008 election and what it will mean if Obama gets elected. No prediction on whether or not he wins a second term, though.) with developments such as holographic houses, nanotechnology house-building materials, and flying cars by the 2070s.

If this is Delany’s last novel–I hope it isn’t, but he is 70, so it is a possibility–it is a good note to go out on. It’s not his strongest work, but it is respectable and important. It is not the first Delany book you should read, but it is worth reading once you have some familiarity with him.

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