Introduction for Samuel R. Delany

I tried to summarize this moment in Samuel Delany’s 2012 novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders but I couldn’t. I find a deep resistance to summary in the essential matter of Delany’s work because all the details seem so important. My effort is more of a sports radio play by play of two pages than a summary.

Eric and Shit are life partners in an open relationship, which is also a narrative structure of interrelated paths in this novel. Shit is intent on trying to withdraw money with his ATM card from a bank far away from home, something he thinks should be illegal because the ATM machines, don’t know him. Shit asks Eric to do the transaction, and confirms his pin. They stop at a Sovereign. What’s that Shit asks. It’s a bank, Eric answers. Shit, in a childlike but philosophical way, illustrates how we could glide through this absurd electronic network of data storage, automation, and money. Shit doesn’t need the money; he just wants to see if it works.

It doesn’t, but that’s just because Eric gets the pin wrong, mixing up the order of numbers in Shit’s birthday. They stop and try another bank, this time an HSBC, and the withdrawal works. Yet Shit still doesn’t believe the first machine interaction failed because of human error.

Shit resists many systems. In Delany’s near future, ATMs only dispense multiples of fifty and the fees for this experiment cost $5 a withdrawal. As the novel moves, the two become operators for an old porn movie theater. Shit reflects that when they were garbage men, their previous job, we “knew more about than anyone else in Runcible County, just ‘cause we threw out their crap.” There are always stories of intimate and surprising forms of contact in Delany’s writing, which is a refusal of the automated and impersonal transaction of the ATM, and the delight in how much possibility there is for human intersection.

In discussing Polymath, a documentary on Delany and his work, the film’s director Fred Barney Taylor described Chip as speaking in one continuous sentence, making it a challenge to do video editing cuts with his footage.

Details flow in a never-ending way from Delany. This is one of the richest histories we have in sentences. How do we inherit the interactions within the theaters, the bath houses, the bars that have closed in New York City? How do we imagine who frequented them, what went on inside them, and the streets around them, in neighborhoods like times square or the east village where developers continue to erase and rebuild? Inside Delany’s sentences are profound stories of being a part of continuous cultures of expanding interracial and interclass contact. Samuel Delany has offered us not only an immense record but a model of how to live. Then comes recording the unsung and the unexpected, the ways we literally get close to people in a time when the architecture of the physical world tries to separate us.