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THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE NEST OF SPIDERS Or, What The Hell Did I just Read? - Nick Mamatas [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE NEST OF SPIDERS Or, What The Hell Did I just Read? [Jul. 10th, 2012|02:27 am]
Nick Mamatas
Well, it took some time—and interruptions of half a dozen other novels, partially because I needed breaks, and partially because 800 pages of racial slurs and shit-eating isn't amenable to air travel in these days of paying for bags and nosy seatmates—but I finally finished Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany. It's rough sledding, or the first 500 pages of it is. Jo Walton was pleased to find out that she was not herself excessively squeamish when I mentioned that I was having some trouble with the book. (It makes Nick gag too, it's not just me, she writes.)

This book is full of snot.

This was odd because I utterly loved Delany's The Mad Man, which also features extensive piss-sex scenes, paeans to smegma, etc. There were some differences here though. One is the length—Spiders is nearly twice the size of The Mad Man. (I almost entitled this review IT'S SO BIG!) Second is the mucophilia, which I don't remember being a major theme of TMM. But the memory is imperfect... as this novel always reminds us. And also in this novel:

...the friendly smell of his own crap reassuring him as he raised them—he dug into his nose with his forefinger, hooking out as much as possible, while, in the mirror, his narrow nostril bent and bulged. He pulled loose, then, as he sucked the yellow-green crust from his forefinger, watched his cheeks cave.

That's one of the milder introductory snot passages. There's an early scene in which our hero Eric is fucking with a bunch of very dirty homeless guys who love piss and cultivating dick cheese within their foreskins and being smelly and all that and when Eric picks his nose one of them objects, saying that that's nasty.

I spent three hundred pages wondering when that guy was coming back.

Because virtually everyone else Eric meets is into snot as well as into piss and shit and fucking their own son or own father, and calling one another niggers and crackers, and giant balls, and all that stuff, but really, it's the snot. It's the snot. I wanted someone to say, "You foul cocksucking niggers and crackers, stop messing around with your noses and get back to tongue-fucking my crusty asshole," because that would have been okay.

A second issue is a certain level of sameness throughout the first few hundred pages of the book. The Mad Man had major philosophical asides, the bones of a mystery, and the like. In Spiders, there's Eric, and then there is his main partner, the toothless illiterate sex maniac Shit, and Shit's father/lover Dynamite—so named for his ability to hit the ceiling with his ejaculate—and Jay with his giant testicles, and mute Mex, and the rambunctious Big Bull and his slave Whiteboy and except for Big Bull who sometimes speaks in all-caps (eventually he is "taken away", presumably because he's just a bit too nuts) and Mex, who signs in italics, pretty much everyone sounds exactly the same—they all sound like slightly less enthusiastic versions of Shit. They all like the same thing, speak in the same Delanyesque eye dialect of lengthy monologues and dropped g's, and all are very pleased to see Eric. A little later Delany mixes things up with the queeny Mama Grace, and with a character named Big Man, who is handicapped (he pees into a bag, and is a little person) who also has a secondary interest—science fiction and the sciences. There's also the white pisswhore who is drinking himself to death in order to supply piss for the area's black population, whom he worships and despises.

(An aside: eye dialect is out of fashion, as is describing the skin color of blacks via comparisons to food products, coal, and other elements of the natural world. Hell, ask the would-be social justice warriors in Tumblr and they'll say it's not just out of fashion, but it's racist! Delany is pleased to to be out of fashion on both counts, though. Who shall be the first to denounce Spiders as a racist tract?)

Now, The Mad Man also had some characters that blended in to one another. I'm not even sure I was supposed to be able to easily differentiate between, say, Big Nigg and Blacky, but those were minor characters in that book. I learned a lot more about Jay and Mex after their deaths than during their lives, when I was directly observing them through the prose.

Other than that, not much happens for quite a while. Eric, Shit, and Dynamite fuck a lot. Eric cooks some, and those sentences are as well-rendered as anything else, and so made me hungry instead of either turned on (by some things) or grossed out (by a lot of the rest). Then Mex and Jay spike some chili with their semen and foot-scrapings and whatnot. Thanks guys. Eric, Shit, and Dynamite are garbage men, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of garbage to be picked up, as they have plenty of time to just sit around servicing one another and fucking the dog as well. Eric occasionally visits his mother Barb, who is inoffensive to a fault. The boys go to a pissbar called The Slide (the urinals are right at the bar!), to Big Man's Christmas/Space Program Celebration party, to a porn theater called The Opera. Uncut men sit in Gorgonzola Alley with their smegma-stuffed penises; shit-eaters are down below in The Breakfast Club. Later, Eric and Shit take over the day-to-day operations of the theater, which mostly involves letting people in for free and then mopping up after them.

It's all very well-written, better than The Newsroom, but also claustrophobic. Two of my eight or so break books were Kate Zambreno's Green Girl and Leni Zumas's The Listeners, which I read partially just to get a bit more female energy back into my head. (Lesbians do start showing up around page 600 of Spiders. They travel in packs.) The sheer density of gay maleness in the region, and thus in the lives of Eric and Shit, is explained via the machinations of The Kyle Foundation, which created housing for gay males (mostly black, some white), and funded business ventures like The Opera and the scow to a nearby island. Kyle is a minor character, entirely beneficent and free with his fortune, but an important one. He's also the least believable as he seems to exist only to actualize the setting. And being the least believable person in this book is a triumph, of sorts.

Spiders is oddly told. It is apparently omniscient—we can hear Eric's thoughts occasionally, but also see what other characters do when he's asleep. We also get peeks into the minds of others. Eric and Shit make parenthetical asides about the telling of the story, as if they are being recorded in the midst of its telling. Around page 600, a first-person narrator is revealed: readers are addressed directly, and a reference is made to "my account." Still later, Eric and Shit—now very old men with faulty memories—are interviewed by a woman getting her PhD and studying the gay community known as The Dump. Spiders doesn't appear to be this report though, but rather an experiment in memory and recall—something Delany has been interested in since at least his own memoir The Motion of Light in Water. It's engaging despite its fetishistic need to recount endless minor variations on the same sex acts. Quantity never quite becomes quality, but that's okay because the philosophical father of this book isn't Engels but Spinoza. We're all one, everything is natural. Eric and Shit are in love. It works, it works. It could have worked in 200 pages just as well.

Around page 500, the book picks up the pace. Decades fly by in a sentence or two. The 2030s were a "wonder decade" along the lines of the 1960s—the major end result is that everyone gets to go naked if they like. Group marriages become a political issue, but the nature of queer politics and the politics of desire don't change much. There's a moon colony and people on Mars, but Eric still goes down to a local office to pay taxes. Life passes Eric by. Shit is illiterate, willfully so, and Eric only has eyes for Shit and for his repeated attempts to read Ethics. But Eric is already a paragon of Spinozan virtues—he wants to be a good person who spreads joy, and he becomes one. With his cocksucking mouth and his tight asshole and his talent in the kitchen and his generally pleasant demeanor. Shit's a little nastier, and a little testier, but as a being of near pure libido it hardly matters. For both, Spinoza is ultimately redundant. The future world they grow old in doesn't shock them, because it isn't much different than the present they grow up in: ignorant right-wingers are still cranky about gays, the wonder decade collapses into a period of reaction when "science" isn't spoken of in polite company and where academics testily declare that sexual activity is "physically impossible" prior to puberty, which happens in one's teen years. What else is new under the sun, except pants with transparent crotch panels worn almost exclusively by people with small dicks?

So, Spiders is gross. As a sentence-lover, I can read a well-written sentence about anything. And I'm pretty sure I spent the last two months doing just that. Spiders is sometimes funny. Spiders is largely glacial—and the glacier is made of snot and smegma and semen. And after a long long while, the glacier melts. Did I like this book? I don't know. I certainly didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it. I had a fair amount of fun tweeting some of the grosser bits. Eric never became very interesting—he's the sort of the affable guy who tends to wander through life just hanging out. Shit's a variation on the highly sexed anti-intellectual seen elsewhere in Delany's books. He even spends his life referring to Eric's tattoos as "pictures." Is there anyone in the US over the age of six that still does that?

In the end I suppose I read it for the same reason one of the minor characters, Joady, drank cups full of horse semen. So I could say that I did. Because it makes a good story. But I suppose what I really wanted was to be reading The Mad Man back when that book, a superior one with much of the same set pieces, first came out, so I could talk to people about it, and not about this.

[User Picture]From: spitphyre
2012-07-10 12:12 pm (UTC)
Well I've been looking for a book to make me throw up for a while now...
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[User Picture]From: etcet
2012-07-10 12:25 pm (UTC)
My despair for publishing deepens to know that this exists, and I wonder why I bother trying to write well because of it.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-07-10 04:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, it's certainly a million times better written than most anything you'd ever read, or write, and was published by a small press dedicated to LGBT after bouncing around at least two others. (Alyson was to publish it, but the publisher fell apart.)

If you want to indict publishing, check out the speed at which FIFTY SHADES OF ___ birthed any number of imitators and parodies.
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[User Picture]From: etcet
2012-07-11 01:33 pm (UTC)
The best thing to come of the 50 Shades phenomena was Gilbert Gottfried's faux audiobook take. *twitch*
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[User Picture]From: livia_llewellyn
2012-07-10 12:39 pm (UTC)
You really took one for the team. I feel like we all owe you a dollar now!
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[User Picture]From: witchchild
2012-07-10 12:47 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: griffinwords
2012-07-10 01:24 pm (UTC)
Seems like proof that writers gradually accumulate enough benefit of the doubt that they can write just about anything and readers will try to finish it.
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[User Picture]From: yendi
2012-07-10 02:35 pm (UTC)
So Delany's YA debut is a success, then?
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[User Picture]From: talktooloose
2012-07-10 02:56 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Delaney, and descriptions such as yours make me think he's kind of like John Irving, but with more excreta. Irving always takes me into a world that I know can not exist but which seems oddly similar to ours.

Your description also brings to mind a long-ago NYC gay-zine called "Straight to Hell," or just STH for short. I bought one of the collections in the pre-Internet-porn-ubiquity days. It was also written by a gay senior citizen, and also created the impression of a down-at-heel but enthusiastic gay lust subculture where shit played a larger role than it does in rl.
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[User Picture]From: kest
2012-07-10 04:11 pm (UTC)
My roommates were watching South Park last night, where the boys decide to write the most offensive book of all time, after they are disappointed by Catcher in the Rye, and everyone hails it as a masterpiece and tries to read symbolism into it that isn't there. I was thinking of you, and this book. And also of 50 Shades of Grey, because let's face it, not everyone is reading Spiders.
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[User Picture]From: agrumer
2012-07-10 06:12 pm (UTC)
Yeah, all through Nick's description I was like "this is a real-life version of South Park's 'The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs'."
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[User Picture]From: highway_west
2012-07-10 04:23 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that when I first started reading this post that I was pretty convinced it was some sort of satire review until I googled the book.

Sometimes I have no words to express my confusion with the world.
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[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2012-07-10 04:54 pm (UTC)
FWIW on the colors of skin = food products tip, there's also this book:

Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Chidren (Look Inside!)

Charlie Anders once read a crackin' snot-sex story at PPO. I wonder if she ever got it published.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-07-10 05:07 pm (UTC)
Darn those black people and their white privilege! Those kids will immediately be drummed out of Harry Potter fandom.
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[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2012-07-10 05:13 pm (UTC)
Tho if nobody ever compares skin tone to a foofy coffee drink ever again, I can't say I'll be heartbroken at the death of the cliche.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-07-10 05:14 pm (UTC)
Foofy? I think that coffee drink is genderqueer, thankyouverymuch!
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[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2012-07-10 05:16 pm (UTC)
Silly. "Foofy" is the gender (queered).

And they can marry anybody they like.

Edited at 2012-07-10 05:16 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-07-10 07:52 pm (UTC)
Surely foofy gendered drinks can be adjectified, so long as they're not objectified! By the male gaze, uh, I mean the male gulp. And speaking of male gulps, here we are, back to the book...
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[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2012-07-10 08:04 pm (UTC)
That one deserves applause. Applause!
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2012-07-10 08:53 pm (UTC)
*golf clap*
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[User Picture]From: farklebarkle
2012-07-10 08:05 pm (UTC)
It sounds a lot -- a LOT -- like Hogg. And I read that once, and once was enough.

(Okay, twice.)
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-07-10 08:09 pm (UTC)
It's like four HOGGs put together.
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[User Picture]From: Tristan Davenport
2012-07-11 01:56 am (UTC)
Human Centihogg.
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[User Picture]From: farklebarkle
2012-07-11 03:33 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-07-11 04:02 pm (UTC)
Hogg's boson.
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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
2012-07-12 09:58 pm (UTC)
Hogg's bosun, surely.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-07-11 02:02 pm (UTC)
Now this scares me. I thoroughly enjoyed Mad Man, but Hogg. No.

Wonder what I'll make of the new one when I can dig out from editorial reading.

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[User Picture]From: silviamg
2012-07-11 04:36 am (UTC)
All those books about how to get published clearly were WRONG!
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[User Picture]From: timesygn
2012-07-11 06:01 am (UTC)


Shit - even well-written shit - is still shit.
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[User Picture]From: ryan_howse
2012-07-11 05:32 pm (UTC)
Did the book end with "The Aristocrats?"
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