Saturday, 18 October 2008

Samuel Delany!

I was sick in bed all day yesterday, the kind of want-to-puke-but-can't sick that makes you acutely aware of your own mucous membranes and the fact that you're wrapped up in skin and its pores and its byproducts. This, combined with the fact that there was a strong odour of used diapers in the room (there was likely a used diaper or two to account for this), made for a toxic sort of sensory overload. I was grossed out and awed and overawed and overwhelmed and struck dumb and exhausted and, somewhere in all that, I was reminded of Samuel Delany.

I came by the writing of Samuel 'Chip' Delany (b. 1942, last name often spelt Delaney) in quite a different way than most out there do - which is to say that he is known foremost as a SF writer and I rarely read any SF and haven't read any of Delany's. No, I became aware of Mr. Delany as a writer of books said to be 'out there' and 'extreme' and 'transgressive' (because I like that sort of thing). Frankly though, most 'transgressive literature' ends up not being terribly transgressive after all, but more about how much physical pain can be inflicted on some (preferably innocuous) type in as exotic a manner as possible. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I've read two of Delany's novels - Hogg and The Mad Man - books which, I think it is fair to say, are the real deal.

From a November 2000 interview with the author, by Rudi Dornemann and Eric Loberer, for Rain Taxi:

RT: As you have added more autobiographical works to your oeuvre, you've also brought to the forefront matters of race and sexual preference, yet often in the most unpolitically correct ways--your books are unlikely to be accused of being "identity art." What does the culture at large need to do to more adequately discuss these most basic of subject-positions?

SRD: Fantasize--and fantasize in modes that allow our most cherished and forbidden inner worlds to peak out (and speak out) here and there. Fantasize. Analyze. The two are related by much more than the slant-rhyme. In order to negotiate the unknown with any precision and intelligence, analysis has to become speculative. That's where fantasy's roll grows inescapable.

It's scary to talk about your own fantasies--to plumb that part of one's inner autobiography: the part we return to to initiate masturbation, the part that centers our reveries of anger or tenderness. Bring analysis--rather than blanket acceptance or rank dismissal--to those thoughts, and you'll find out how the world, dark or light, might figure itself under passion's stress.

A comment on the Urth List email discussion group puts it thus: "most sexual things that freak out men in my demographic don't bother me, but there was stuff in 'The Mad Man' that bothered me". I concur, it is the rare book that has painted lasting, disturbing pictures in my own mind, things I had truly never imagined other people doing, pictures which I doubt will ever completely go away; this is a pretty fearless novel, featuring a protagonist driven to go to places most people strenuously avoid.

What am I talking about? Extended sex and piss orgies with dirty homeless guys, largely - but given a texture and a richness that may shock you (if the dirty bum piss sex doesn't). If you stick with 'The Mad Man', and it is a long read, it will take you to some very strange places; it will almost certainly transgress many notions the average reader will have about life: about sex, about class, about race, about what constitutes a day, or indeed a night.

Hogg I enjoyed less so than The Mad Man. Though the material in Hogg is just as strong, The Mad Man has a depth and scope that Hogg lacks; in addition, the (underaged) protagonist in Hogg speaks less than a dozen words of dialogue in all, and basically serves as a combination blowjob machine/human toilet for a revolving cast of hired rapists and piss fetishists, sucking along on their madcap adventures. Suffice it to say, this was difficult to relate to.

By contrast, the protagonist of The Mad Man is someone we can at least recognize as a fellow human being, a person with sometimes complicated thoughts and desires; as Forrest L. Norvell notes in comparing the two novels, "The Mad Man is a much more subtle work, seeking to subvert our preconceptions about sexuality by having a sympathetic character go through the motions for us". The protagonist in this case is obsessed with the mysterious death of another man; this mystery element propels the novel forward and, as the answers begin to come together, so does the cast of characters, in an ever-spiralling, ever-intensifying clusterfuck. Like the ride up Kurtz's river, the further you go, the weirder it gets, the weirder it seems.

From the lengthy article 'The Importance of Precision: Samuel Delany's Pornographic Writing', by Laura Chernaik:

Delany writes, in precise detail, about the pleasures of each partner in each act: in fact, he evokes these perverse pleasures by describing clearly what each partner does in order to be aroused to orgasm. 'Positive perversion' versions of the 'cum shot' of heterosexual mainstream pornography become not an end but a means. In in Hogg and even more in The Mad Man, the salty warmth of smegma, cum, and piss is described far more fully than are the localized genital sensations of orgasm. The 'component instincts' are engaged as Delany writes about all of the tastes, smells, and sensations, his characters experience, as he brings in all of the relevant parts of the body are there: hands, bellies and legs, for example, as well as genitals. The novel is carefully written to arouse: the physical and spatial descriptions are precise, the descriptions of the perversions, and of the polymorphous erotogenic sites are vivid. These scenes are easily visualized, tasted, smelled, kinesthetically and proprioceptively sensed.

Yummy stuff!


Anonymous said...

The Mad Man is a great book. Thanks for linking to "The Importance of Precision: Samuel Delany's Pornographic Writing" -- I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Pius said...

I would also highly recommend Ray Davis' essay "Delany's Dirt". I have the "Mad Man" section of this essay linked under the phrase 'lasting, disturbing pictures', just after the interview fragment.

Happy reading.

SexToyRick said...

Great post on a great book :) Much thanks :)