“Benign Perversion”

I was convinced that Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders uses “benign perversion.” A quick search on kindle (e-books are good for this) reveals that I made this up. The closest the novel comes to this formulation is when it describes Eric and Shit’s shared snot-eating as “a lazy, even a gentle perversion.” The first appearance of the word “perversion” (using the kindle app) is about a third of the way into the book, and it appears in quotation marks, a nod to the psycho-social origins of the term and its social circulation—part of the novel’s “realism” stems from repeated assertions that certain sexualized acts are “disgusting.” Instead of “benign perversion,” Through the Valley insists, repeatedly, “different people liked different things.” (Those familiar with Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet might recall the difficult clarity of her first axiom: “People are different from each other.” Sedgwick also reminds me that “benign sexual variation” is Gayle Rubin’s phrasing.)

There is something comically Foucauldian about the many reviews of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: sexology’s taxonomies emerge in the repetition of “coprophagia,” remarked upon by so many, even as the “speaker’s benefit” also recurs in the many declarations of, “none of this bothers me.” It’s odd reading reviews that circle around whether or not one is “down” with reading about “mutual snot-eating” and “incest” and “bestiality” and racialized sex. (A too-delicate reviewer writes, “This occasion marks the first time this polite, white Canadian has ever written the word [nigger], and does so with some unease.”) At the same time, I’m not sure one can get away with disclaiming the “speaker’s benefit” when it comes to this novel, even as I think this is a “post-trangressive” novel.

In claiming this is a “post-transgressive” novel, I hope to extend—and depart from—the many readers who insist that Delany wants to “push buttons.” Perhaps he does. I’m still Barthesian enough to kill my authors. Three moments in the novel demonstrate what I’m trying to suggest by “post-transgressive.” In the first, a young Eric meets Jay at Turpens Truck Stop, and Jay invites Eric to join the sex sociality. The invitation includes an extended description of what Eric might experience:

“Yeah, we got a good reputation around here. Hey, they got a stainless steel pee trough where we can spring us a leak. Or, if you can find one that still flushes, you can climb up on the rim, squat on one of them shitters— none of ’em got doors no more— and drop a big ol’ turd. That what you mean?” Between beard and hair, both curly, he winked an amber eye. “My partner’s in there now. Probably that’s what he’s doin’… if he ain’t suckin’ off some nigger what come in to relieve hisself whatever way he can.
But I got to warn you: ain’t me or Mex got the time— or the inclination— to be what you call clean dudes. When’s the last time you took you a shower?” “Uh… this… mornin’.” The man’s hand muffled Eric’s voice. “Yeah? Well, with me—” he moved closer. Without getting stronger, the odor became disorienting, as though, at Eric’s next breath, it penetrated another level—“ it’s more like a couple of weeks. And I wouldn’t waste time speculatin’ about Mex.” Then he was closer, hip, thigh, flank pressed into, and moving against, Eric. “Though we got one planned for tonight— if we get back to Gilead in time. I’ll wash him; he’ll wash me; probably piss all over each other. He likes that, and—” he squinted, looking friendly—“ I like it, too.”
“You know, spics and Injins and redneck guys from around here, we ain’t cut and skinned like you fellas up there in the city. We still got everything we come with, and inside that skin, boy, the fuckin’ cheese builds up sumpin’ terrible. Me, I don’t ever hardly remember to run a finger around in there and scrape that stuff out. Most of the time, I don’t have to, though, ’cause Mex’ll do it for me . . . with his tongue.”

It might not be wrong to read this “invitation” as a series of warnings: there will be shit and piss and dirt in embodied and affective and ideological ways. And, as we learn later in the novel, Turpens has a different, more sanitized sex scene. Eric is offered the chance to choose, to accept this particular sex sociality. (I might be romanticizing this, but Robert Reid-Pharr has made me think about choice.)

Choice is emphasized again when Dynamite tells Eric, “You gotta speak out and say what you want, boy. Nobody gonna read your mind,” a point emphasized by Jay after Eric spends a (surprising to him) sex-less night with Jay and Mex:

As nonchalantly as he could, Eric said, “I thought maybe me and you and Mex were gonna… you know, fuck around out here. The way me and Dynamite and Shit do in the Dump.” Even Eric could hear that he sounded petulant— the tone he’d wanted to avoid. Stepping down onto the scow’s deck under the light from the boat house ceiling, then looking back, Jay raised a hempen brow. “Yeah? You did? Now, what made you think that? Nobody said nothin’ about fuckin’— you sure didn’t.”
“Now, you ain’t eighteen yet. You’re still seventeen. What did you think? We was gonna jump on you, bring you down, and rape you in our own guest bed?”

“I don’t know…” Eric swallowed, looking around for something to do. If he could help, he knew he’d feel better. “It was a little… funny.” Eric didn’t shrug. He didn’t feel like shrugging. “Well, yeah,” Jay said. “A good fuck is nice sometimes— especially with your friends.”

“I guess… maybe you don’t think you should do nothin’ with kids under eighteen…?” It was more than petulant. It was plaintive.

“I didn’t say that. But I do think that if you’re under eighteen, you got to be able to ask for it, clear and direct— especially if you want it from older guys. You know, this sex business ain’t about mind readin’. It’s about sayin’ what you want, gettin’ an answer— yes, no— and acceptin’ it.”

(I realize, this is not quite what I had intended to focus on as “post-transgressive,” even as I think “choosing” is central to counter what feels like the coercive force of “transgression,” but this is a barely-formed thought.) I think what gets me here is precisely what is non-coercive about this framing of sex as sociality, or about grasping the particular intimacies and violations entailed in accepting sex as sociality.

A final example, and this from the famed “coprophagia” passages. Here is Shit discussing it:

“The thing about eatin’ shit is, it’s a group thing. You gotta get a bunch of guys together, see. And most of it’s gonna be all nasty talk, gettin’ up to it— a couple of yall lay some nice big ones there in the middle for everybody, and you can go around and around them things for forty minutes, pickin’ up and passin’ around and sniffin’ at it, and puttin’ down again. But by the end, two or three of yall got to get in there an’ eat some of it for real.”

(I should add a note here on citing Delany: the taxonomic impulse-urge in so many reviews is a “turn away,” a swerve, if you will, from the “funk” of citing Delany when he discusses sex. After all, to cite such a passage is to implicate oneself in an economy of sex acts that “polite people” should know only by their scientific names—I’m not sure I’m delicate enough to abide by this convention.) What grabs me about this description is the “group thing” aspect of it, the building and sustaining of togetherness around sex practices. Here, Shit is describing the so-called Breakfast Club, and while time is relatively difficult to map in the novel, it’s clear that the club existed for many years (if not decades). And this makes me think of what sexual cultures sustain. (Another half-thought.)
It might seem odd—and even silly—to describe as “post-transgressive” a novel that is so clearly aware that it delves into “taboo.” When Eric first moves to the Dump, Dynamite and Jay spend a lot of time coaching him in discretion—no need to “announce” your business. This is not the confessional world of gay pride and coming out, even as it is a fully realized world saturated (even over-saturated) with desire and sex. And, of course, it might seem odd—and even silly—to describe as “post-transgressive” a novel that theorizes sex acts as “barriers”: “You know pleasure is a funny thing. It always comes on the other side of some barrier or other.” To live in a pleasure economy is always to be “aware” of the “barrier” one encounters—and it might be that pleasure is always this crossing of a barrier, that the “safety” promised by romance novels fails to reckon with self-shattering. (Shit would sneer at this description.)

And, certainly, this is not a careless novel. It “exists,” and the Dump “exists” because a black tycoon decided in 1986 or 1987 that black gay men should be tested for HIV; provided free healthcare to ensure this testing; and created a community whose rules are explicit about sexual health (no penetrative anal sex without appropriate documentation or rubbers). That is: the Dump “avoids” the “many thousands gone” who haunt black gay cultural production (and its absence). And it’s a curious novel because it “saves” the black gay homeless and poor. One is confronted with the question of whose lives are worth saving. And what it means to imagine that the black gay homeless and poor are worth saving.

It is a “post-transgressive” novel because it seems relatively uninterested in whether or not its bourgeois readers and critics will “conquer” their disgust. And, also, I think, because it is so invested in “fun” and “affection.” Whereas the “transgressive” novel is invested in a big “fuck you” to the world, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is interested in what a livable world might be, especially a world in which a Shit can thrive. (And, here, it’s striking how much easier it seems for reviewers to focus on Eric to the exclusion of Shit.)

This is a post-transgressive novel precisely because it imagines a world where Shit can thrive.