Rough Notes on Delany

There’s nothing “fabulous” about Samuel Delany’s Through the Nest of the Valley of Spiders. Its fictional rural setting removes it from the urban gloss celebrated in so much gay cultural production; its dirt-encrusted, dirt-loving, teeth-missing, semi-literate and illiterate characters remove it from a lot of gay body aesthetics, be they muscle clones, bears, twinks, or androgenes; its conversations around the mundanity of appetite, be it for sex or food, remove it from the witty repartee that, in a post-Wildean world, ostensibly defines gay speech; its slow unfolding and repetitions remove it from the worlds of coming-out-epiphanies and irrecoverable traumas that define much gay writing and queer imaginations. This list of what it is not can be continued. I start with it to suggest that Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is largely illegible within dominant gay and queer frames.

This illegibility hinges, I think, on two elements of the novel. First, the novel, as with the Robert Kyle Foundation that supports its imagination, is written from the perspective of “black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” These are not (to re-use a word) the upwardly mobile gay black men imagined by E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy, nor are they the isolated trauma-bearing figures imagined by James Baldwin and Melvin Dixon. These are not men who “struggle to survive against the odds.” Rather, these are men whose possibilities for livability have been multiplied in materials ways: they have steady, if unglamorous, jobs; ready access to food—the repeated mentions of cooking and eating are central to this book; healthcare that is attentive to their “benign perversions”; practices and communities of sociality anchored in being “good” to one another; and a lot of “fun” and “affection” (one could write about the significance of hugs in this novel).

Works anchored in and tethered to black gay livability are so rare as to be unrecognizable—in fact, they remain largely invisible even in black queer scholarship. And, perhaps, what is so surprising (even difficult to comprehend) about Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is that it does not begin with or ever engage in the exceptionalism that would make black gay characters acceptable within mainstream white aesthetics. Black gay men, black men, are simply desirable in their variety and availability, in their willingness to “have fun” and “get off,” to seek pleasure and comfort. (Here, Delany avoids the too-common “he was so beautiful that it didn’t matter that he was black” track, even as he retains the roles of fetishism and objectification in desire—there’s a lot of shorthand here.)

I am insisting on black gay livability as a frame for the novel because too many of the online reviews I’ve seen completely overlook this element of the book or deem it irrelevant. It remains unthinkable that a book should construct a world—the Dump—centered around black gay male lives and desires. It is a world where, as Shit claims, he can walk into any house in the Dump and have sex with the resident (as long as the resident is not otherwise occupied). (Perhaps, one needs to have spent many hours online looking at ads that say “no blacks” or gone to many gay clubs that implicitly say “no blacks” to understand how radical it is to take desire for black bodies for granted.)

Along with black gay livability, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is also a black southern novel and, in this, it departs from Delany’s fiction and non-fiction works set primarily in urban spaces. This “turn” to the black south shifts the range of references through which the novel can be read. The tangled histories of incest suggest Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, for instance (also Gayl Jones’s Corregidora); the notion of a “utopic” town invokes Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville; the desire that suffuses the novel gestures to Jean Toomer’s Cane. (I’m an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, so I hope those who are more expert in the history of black southern literature will fill in all the other books that can be drawn into conversation with Delany.) That the black southern novel has always been deeply invested in desire is undeniable. Most often—or, rather, with the books I know best—this desire is “impossible” or “killing.”

In a conversational aside, I once told a student that a lot of black writing could be considered “speculative,” as only “speculative” writing could make the “jump” from thinghood to personhood. In the same spirit, I would speculate that Through the Valley inhabits a speculative world where black gay livability is possible and prized. (To borrow from Fred Moten, I’d argue that much black writing “anarranges” genre classifications precisely because black life has so often been considered “impossible.”)

At best, these are very rough notes on the novel, in part because Lavelle Porter and Steven Shaviro have more detailed, more complex takes (which I’ve drawn on liberally). In emphasizing black gay livability and the black southern tradition, I hope to push against the deracination that would domesticate this novel, refusing it traveling companions and predecessors.

Finally: I have written nothing about the sex in the novel. There’s a lot of it. Also a lot of what the novel terms “benign perversion.” Perhaps I might write about “benign perversion” later—I’m not sure this novel is interested in “transgressiveness” or “shock.” Perhaps I’m simply tired of “transgression” as a frame through which to approach sex. Also, I’m really tired of the “speaker’s benefit” (see Foucault). So, like Shit, I want to think of sex in the novel as a form of pleasant sociality (“pleasantness” is one of Delany’s key words in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue). And, with Shit, I’m interested in amplifying pleasant sociality.