I am a huge fan of Samuel R. Delany’s early Science Fiction novels, Nova and Dhalgren in particular, but up until now I had only ever ventured as far as Triton and never had read anything of his later work (although I do own a copy of most of it, I just had not gotten around to read any of it). With Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (his first novel in five years) just having been released, it seemed like a good start, and a nice complement to read his latest after having finished one of his earliest only a few months ago.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is markedly different from Delany’s early work (which is only to expected, considering that several decades have passed since then), the most surprising divergence being (for me at least) as how much of a comparatively subdued affair the later novel comes across. Books like Babel-17, Nova or The Einstein Intersection are like bright, shiny jewels that dazzle with the brilliance of Delany’s writing and vibrate with a sense of adventure. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, by contrast, although longer than those other novels put together (I was reading the Kindle version, but Amazon gives 804 pages for the paperback), appears on first sight almost pedestrian – there is no plot at all and the prose seems serviceable but not particularly impressiveon first look. And while the new novel marks in some way a return of Delany to Science Fiction, that aspect remains weirdly understated – events begin in 2007 and then continue for about seventy years from there, but as a the novel takes place almost exclusively in a small rural Utopian community barely touched by greater events or even technological progress, the SFnal aspect only takes place at the margins of the narrative, momentous events are merely reported second hand by visitors or auctorial commentary, new technologies are only used by minor characters, often to some bewilderment of the protagonists.
Not at all understated, but very much in the reader’s face for much of the novel, is the other genre Delany has been writing in, namely pornography. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders has a lot of sex, and subastantial parts of it are likely to be unsavoury to many – in fact, the narrative seems explicitely designed to contain at least one thing for each individual reader that would gross him or her out. If snot-eating does not do it for you, Delany’s fetish for dirt might (which, something I found rather interesting, he consistently seems to associate with masculinity, while cleanliness is considered feminine), or the piss-drinking, or the bestiality, or the incest, or the liberal use of the n-word…. truly, there is something for everyone here.
This might sound as if reading the novel was a slog, and I have to admit that is what I was afraid of during the first few chapters – somewhat to my surprise, though, those fears turned out to be entirely unfounded. Yes, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is a novel that is entirely without a plot, and yes, a large part of it consists of very explicit sex scenes, many of them describing things in loving detail that I am at best indifferent about and at worst disgusted by… and yet, and yet…
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders grows on you, its sequence of everyday non-events and promiscuous sex scenes develops a certain lilting rhythm that lulls you and draws you in, until you find yourself hanging on every detail, accentuated by the dim, but intensely glowing light of the novel’s prose. Delany’s writing, though less flashy than in his early works, is still a marvel to behold, quite visceral when he describes a piece of a snot at a level of detail I do not think it has ever been described at before, and achingly beautiful when he describes the sun setting on the ocean. And as you read on, you find yourself actually enjoying the sex scenes even if you don’t share a single kink, you start feeling comfortable among the denizens of the Dump, and, most important of all, you come to like the novel’s weird, misfit protagonists, even to love them. And love, when everything is said and done, is what Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is all about.
The novel consists roughly of three parts (the transitions somewhat concealed by their slowly blending into each other) – youth / maturity / old age or sex / love/ death. Love is very much at its centre, the roughly seven decades it describes are the time its protagonist Eric Jeffers and his lover Morgan Haskell (commonly known as Shit) spend together as a couple. That is a very long time, and the book is very good at making the reader feel the way time flows, how it extends and contracts, and how Eric’s and Shit’s relationship changes through the years. It is doing a particularly excellent job at differentiating how the passing of time is experienced differently at various stages throughout life, having a tendency to go by faster as one ages. (And as an aside, here and in other cases Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders shows a depth and nuance of psychological insight that Delany’s earlier novels – that were more interested in exploring archetypes than in describing real humans – did not possess.)
Everything that happens in this novel is set in relation to, cast in the light of Eric’s and Shit’s love, and this is particularly important in regard to those elements that will appear revolting to most readers. I have read several reviews whose authors advise readers to hang on through the first, pornographic part of the novel in order to reap the rewards for their endurance in the form of emotional payoff during the second half (and in particular the ending, which it has to be said, is indeed one of the most moving pieces of literature you are ever likely to read). I do not think that is quite true, though, or rather it short-changes what this amazing novel does, which is to appropriate disgusting or otherwise questionable acts and even the hate speech of racial slurs, pulling them in and weaving them into the strands of a language of love and desire. The acts and words are given a new meaning, are transformed into expressions of deep affection when done or uttered in a context of profound love.
Then it is a measure of the strength of that love just how heterogenous the elements it incorporates are, and it takes a love that lasts over more than seventy years to transmute disgust into desire, hate into love. And of course it takes a great writer to be able to pull this off which Delany has proven himself once again to be with this novel. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders asks the reader to share in this language of love, but it does not put it as a demand, it rather extends it as an invitation, for among everything else this is a very gracious novel. It might also very well turn out to be one of the greatest love novels of the 21st century.
ETA: And here’s a video of Delany reading from the novel: