Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany

I bought this book blindly because of the title and the author. I have loved some of Samuel R. Delany’s past science fiction novels, and that’s how I thought of him – a Science Fiction writer and only a Science Fiction writer. Combine that with the title and I thought I couldn’t go wrong with a blind buy like this.

You know what they say about assumptions.

I’m still puzzling over what I think of this novel. When I first started it, I was immediately plunged into a lake of hardcore gay erotica. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself, but I think it’s true to say that within this book everyone will find some graphically-described sexual practice that is guaranteed to push the reader right out of his or her sexual comfort zone and right into what-the-hell territory. In fairly rapid order, without warning, I was introduced to coprophilia, mucophilia, mysophilia, pedophilia, salirophilia, zoophilia, and urolagnia. (I’m pretty sure that isn’t a complete list, either; I got tired of looking at the ‘philia’ page of Wikipedia.) I believe with all my heart in consenting adults doing whatever the hell they want sexually, but I quickly reached the point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about it. That’s part of why it took me so long to finish the book, along with the fact that it’s 800+ pages long.

Eric, the main character of the book, moves to a small seaside town (Diamond Harbor) in Georgia in 2007, just before his 17th birthday. He immediately meets the love of his life, Morgan Haskell, who prefers to go by the nickname ‘Shit.’ They live in an area called The Dump, which is financed by a wealthy gay African American who grew up on the island that is part of the town. In this little piece of Diamond Harbor, black gay men (with the occasional white man, of which Eric is one) are encouraged to live, work, and love without worrying about being judged.

At first I thought the wrapping for all this unfettered (and for me, eye-opening, as far as the fetishes went) homosexual activity was going to be a sort of bildungsroman for the main character, Eric, since the book essentially follows his life from the age of 17 in 2007 all the way through the 2060s, but I changed my mind. While the sexual activity (and variety) was a constant thing and written about often, it never descended to outright porn. This is just my uneducated point of view, of course, but while the sex was there, and was certainly a cementing factor in the relationships among people, it also escaped being – (I’m hunting for a word here, and failing). Let me try another way – the sex was there for a reason other than the fact that it was sex. Yes, it was graphic. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it was, at times, gross. But, despite the amount of sex and the type of sex and the often long-winded descriptions of the sex, this book was never just about the sex. It was about the people. It was this conclusion that kept me reading.

The book follows Eric throughout his entire life as he lives in Diamond Harbor with his partner Shit, and they remain (along with other inhabitants of The Dump and the island) in their own sort of isolation bubble. This was actually a little bit harder to take than the sex. The sex I understood, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea, but this book covers DECADES of life, and while the rest of the country (and world) is going through its political and technological and sociological upheavals, they remain calmly oblivious of it all. No TV, no radio, no newspaper, no gossip, even, really. The occasional item trickles through from other people who aren’t part of the Dump culture and who are more tuned in, but Eric and Shit and their compatriots remain in their own little world, with their rituals and jobs and sex and community. Things do change, obviously. Everything changes. But Eric and Shit handled it all with aplomb that was probably assisted by the ignorance of outside factors. They took their slice of the world as it came, changes and all.

I think, though, with emphasis on the think part, that what Delany was getting at was there are people out there leading lives completely alien to what you yourself are familiar with, and they aren’t at the center of things that you or I might consider every day fodder, and that despite differences people are people, and important.

It was also a long and unusual love story between Eric and Shit.

That all said, I feel sure I’m missing a lot of the layering that Delany did. This was not a gratuitous book in any fashion at all. There was a point to everything that happened and that was focused on within the book, and I think if I had a Cliff’s Notes right now, I’d weep from shame at how obtuse I am about this book. But I don’t have a Cliff’s Note, so here’s the review in all its glory.

I would really love it if other people would read this book and give me their thoughts.

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  1. Here’s a review from Jo Walton, if you haven’t seen it already:

    Because it’s, the comments are also worth reading.

    I haven’t read any Delany that’s longer than short-story length, and I don’t think I’m going to start with this one. But I did have it in mind to read some of his novels now-ish, at long last.

    1. I’m pleased that I hit some of the same points as Jo Walton. I respect her enormously, and now I feel like I did the book at least some justice. It really is an enormously complicated novel.

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