Delany’s Atheist in the Attic


The Atheist in the Attic
Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the work of Samuel Delany and I’m convinced that a hundred years from now, he’ll be one of the most studied writers of our time. This is a minor work made of two pieces, a short novella that imagines the conversations between two great rationalists at the dawn of the enlightenment, the polymath scientific genius, Gottfried Leibniz and the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The book imagines the conversations that occurred between these two luminaries from very different worlds and is, in the intellectual tradition of some of Delany’s other non-science fiction works.

Its not his best work, perhaps because it seems unpolished, more a thought experiment than a fully formed work, but the for the fan like myself it illuminates an aspect of Delany too often overlooked – the historian of philosophy and western thought.

This little book is rounded out by an interview Delany did about his recent work, including the monumental Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders. As always, Delany is a careful, elucidating interview subject and for the fan, this book is worth picking up just for this.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Delany

Review: Delany’s Straits of Messina

Straits of Messina

Samuel Delany

A now out of print and dearly priced collection of Samuel Delany* writing about his own works, including detailed essays on Dhalgren, the controversial (and at the time of publication of this book, unpublished) Hogg, Nova, the Tales of Nevryon series, and more.

If you’re a fan of Delany, (and I most definitely am) this is well worth tracking down. While Delany is a wildly prolific author, he doesn’t tend to write much in the way of self-criticism. Straight up memoir, sure, but sustained self-assessments of his work are rare and this book, while it is almost entirely made up of pieces of self-assessment, barely scratches the surface of Delany’s major works. Yes, we get some insight into Delany’s process. He also discusses the works that influence him — Delany’s deep interest in continental philosophy is well know, I however wasn’t aware of how serious he follows poetry. All of which is informative.

But at times, especially when he is writing about my favorite, Dhalgren, I get the sense that Delany is either being coy about what he was up to, or he himself may not understand the magic he was working.

Still, some of the insights here are illuminating, and some of the vignettes (including that time Auden came over for dinner at the tiny lower east side apartment Delany shared with his then wife, Marilyn Hacker) are wonderful.

Well worth the effort of tracking down if you’re a fan, less so if Delany isn’t your thing.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*Often under the nom de plume K. Leslie Steiner

Influences on Delany’s Dhalgren

The largest influences on the book that I am aware of, at any rate, were Michel Foucault (primarily Madness and Civilization, secondarily The Order of Things), John Ashbery’s poems The Instruction Manual (and the Richard Howard essay on Ashbery in Alone with America) and These Lacustrine Cities, G. Spencer Brown’s Laws f Form (given me as a birthday present, months after its publication, by a young Harvard student when I lived in San Francisco), Frank Kermonde’s Sense of an Ending (bits and pieces of Dhalgren were worked on in Kermonde’s old office at Wesleyan University’s Center for Humanities, where I was a guest for a couple of weeks in 1971) and, of course, the works of Jack Spicer, whose memory and whose poems haunted San Francisco the years I lived there, where much of Dhalgren’s first draft was written, as Cavafy’s hovered over Durrell’s Alexandria.

 

Taken from “Of Sex, Objects, Signs, Systems, Sales, SF”, Samuel Delany, 1975. This essay was to appear in S-Forum, a zine published by the University of New Hampshire’s Science Fiction society, Tesseract. The relevant issue of S-Forum never appears and “Sex, Objects…” eventually appears in the Australian Science Fiction Review and subsequently in the collection Straights of Messina.

The classic Bantam cover of Samuel Delany's seminal Dhalgren.

The classic Bantam cover of Samuel Delany’s seminal Dhalgren.

Review: Delany’s The Mad Man

The Mad Man

The first Delany book I read, and what an introduction. There’s no point in starting this review off with anything other than the obvious  – this book is full of detailed sexual adventures of men with other men. It is graphic, and there are portions (including accounts of corporphila and more) that are likely to turn off most readers. But, while large portions are given over to descriptions of gay male sex, the book is much more that.

Ostensibly, it’s a sort of supernatural literary thriller / journey of self discovery/self destruction in which the narrator, researching the murder of a philosopher, finds himself engaging in more and more risker and risker sex as the age of AIDS dawns.

But really, this is a book about the AIDS crisis and, I think, a way for Delany to deal with his guilt about surviving it. Delany has spoken repeatedly ( and most directly in 1984) about his own unprotected sex during the AIDS crisis and I think this book was, in part, a way of explaining what is was like in those days, when a whole community thought it might be headed for death. Some fought back, some took precautions, and some dove headlong into risk. This is a story of a man diving headlong into risk and possible death. It isn’t always an easy read, but its worth the time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Samuel Delany

Delany’s memoir/ examination of 1970s era Times Square through the lens of late 1990s Times Square gentrification. This is a memoir of a young man exploring his sexuality in the in the porn theaters and sex shops of Times Square. It is also more than that. It is a clear refutation of the Giuliani idea that these spaces were of no social value. Indeed, for many mostly gay, mostly closeted, men Times Square in the 70s was one of the few places where they could be themselves.

Not that Rudy would have cared.

As always when Delany discusses sex, this book is graphic — really graphic. And like 1984, it is shocking how unsafe his sexual practices were.  But this book is about more than sex. It’s about the various relationships he built through that world, some transactional and anonymous, some deeply fulfilling. As a straight man whose first exposure to Times Square was just as the “clean up” began, this book was illuminating and, like much of Delany’s work, challenging.

Does he gloss over the darker aspects of sex work? Perhaps. And is the rampant unsafe sex as the specter of AIDS was rising alarming? Yes. But its still a helpful anecdote to the rhetoric of the revitalization of Times Square.

Reading this made me wonder, do we in our progressive present no longer need a place like Times Square? I doubt it. More likely, instead of allowing people to experiment and share with others, we’ve forced sexual discovery to take place online, and alone.

I think that must be some kind of loss.

Recommended.

Review: Delany’s Dhalgren

Dhalgren
Samuel Delany

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I generally demure. Does anyone have a single favorite? I know I do not.

But as I hem and haw about what it means for a book to be my “favorite” I almost always end up discussing Dhalgren. It isn’t my favorite book, per se, but it is certainly among my favorites.

Why? I’m not entirely sure.

I’m taken by the “plot” such as it is – man walks into post-apocalyptic city in which time is nonlinear and the geography keeps changing. He has weird adventures, meets people living strange lives, has kinky sex, writes obsessively, gets involved in gang wars, and in small town politics gone bizarro.

Besides it’s plot, the book also features unconventional plot structure (are these the same characters as before? Is time moving forward, backward, randomly?), and formal experiments in style, including unconventional punctuation and grammar and parallel texts on the novels last 100 pages.

It’s a hell of a ride. And all of this may make it seem that Dhalgren is tough sledding, but it’s not. At least it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t put it down. If you’re willing to go along with the flow of the work, take in and appreciate its eccentricities while forgiving its flaws*, it can be a hallucinatory ride.*

I’ve maintained for years that when we look back at the height of post-modernist fiction of the 1970s and 80s, Dahlgren will be viewed as a masterwork of postmodern fiction. Read it and see if you agree.

This is my favorite cover of Dhalgren.

*Its too long. The writing can be uneven — some sections are stunning, others feel overwrought.

**Indeed, I have a friend who claimed whenever he looked up from the book he felt “funny”.

Recommended.

Review: Delany’s About Writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews

Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the writer Samuel Delany. A writer at the heart of what I think the best of “new wave” science fiction, Delany has gone on to write memoirs, literary fiction, pornography, comics books and much else in between. Though not all of his works are good, in the aggregate all of it is important. Delany  is, overall, one of the most interesting and important writers alive today.

This book collects Delany’s writings on the craft of writing. It isn’t particularly good. Books of this sort are notoriously difficult and often bad. Unfortunately, this is one of the not very good ones. Delany is an at times inspired writer (there are passages in Dhalgren, his masterwork, which are straight up gorgeous) but he also has a bit of logorrhea and can be hopelessly long winded and circular. Sometimes, this works to his advantage, at other times, it doesn’t. When discussing his early years in the East Village in the Motion of Light in Water, his penchant for the detail brings light to the world; but his circuitous, at times free form, style doesn’t play well as an instructional manual on writing. If you’re going to read Delany, and you should, this isn’t the book to read. For brilliant Delany, read Dhalgren. For a good book on the craft of writing, surprisingly (since I’ve never read one of his books), I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.

Not recommended.

(ok, ok, recommended for the Delany completist, i.e. me).