The patron saint of walnut-sized knuckles, Samuel R. Delany rhapsodizes repeatedly on mangled mitts in his memoirs and fiction. On lucky days these misshapen hands are attached to ill-shod societal outsiders.
In The Motion of Light in Water, Delany recounts his own discalced ramble through New York City. After the miscarriage of his then wife, poet Marilyn Hacker, he adopts the mien of Snake, a barefoot boy who came to him wordlessly in a dream and who will show up in his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor: “I knew this strange, gentle youngster, castrated of language and rephallicized by his name, was some version of myself, who both doubled me and split something off from me.”
Hoping to repeat the encounter, the writer arrives at a flower booth in the Staten Island terminal, where he tells the florist via written note that his name’s “Snake.” Mistaken for “one of them stupid kids,” Delany is raped in a storage space “behind the refrigeration unit” and sent on his way with a wilted orange bouquet. Elsewhere in Motion, Delany chews his own fingers raw, “an experiment that fell somewhere between the erotic and the aesthetic.” The same could be said for the author’s extensive oeuvre.
The Motion of Light in Water is a fine introduction to the grittier side of Delany’s sensibility: The exhaustive Shandian chronicle steers the reader through the author’s formative years as a Harlem prodigy through his grappling with sexuality, race, family, friends, threesomes, the folk scene, dyslexia, and science fiction in the 1960s East Village. Hogg offers a more extreme entrance. Written between 1969 and 1973 but not published until 1995, the unrelenting text exaggerates the effects of pre-Stonewall secrecy. Just reissued by FC2 with the author’s revisions and corrections, Hogg can still make even some adventurous readers retch.
Narrated by an ethnically ambiguous “cock sucker,” Hogg relays 72 hours wherein the 11-year-old hooks up with a burly, nail-gnawing, one-shoed trucker, Hogg, and accompanies him as a willing sex slave with a motley crew of rape artists to victimize women (and some men). Eventually, one of the younger crew members, a compulsive masturbator named Denny, goes on a killing spree, and the orgy shifts to cum-stained detective story. Besides suggesting more interesting ideas for body fluids than Guyotat’s Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers—a cinched foreskin creates curdled cum and a mouth of shit offers a warm bull’s-eye—the book can be read as Hogg’s coming-of-middle-age love story.
While a grad student at SUNY-Buffalo, I took two Delany-taught courses. “Art & Revolution” involved a semester-long close reading of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education alongside Marx. “Euphistics: The Analysis of Extravagant Prose” spun Djuna Barnes, Melville, Pater, and Nabokov with Gerald Burns, Sir Thomas Browne, George Saintsbury, and Charles M. Doughty.
Such eclectic bookishness is unavoidable in Delany’s new historical novella, Phallos, a lapidary, digital-age Pale Fire, tonally redolent of Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos. Emblematic of Delany’s recent concerns, the wee text offers a crib sheet for the writer’s interests in the history of the novel and textual criticism. Taking the form of an online essay (“My Three Favorite Gay Male Porn Novels”) by Randy Pedarson, the footnotes and an anonymous, grandiose introduction carry separate running dialogues with his underemployed Ph.D. friends, Binky and Phyllis: Walter Pater was a big Phallos fan, and his Plato & Platonism gets the extended treatment; Hegel, Nietzsche, Arthur Symons, and Guy Davenport come up.
Prior to Pedarson’s slipshod scholarship, a preface explains that a young African American named Adrian Rome moved to New York in 1994 and hoped to find a copy of Phallos (a book that had intrigued him since he was 12), but through a string of bad luck could only find Pedarson’s dubious online synopsis. A meditation on desire and repetition, the novel-in-a-novella begins during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian and follows Neoptolomus, a rags-to-riches Odysseus type from the island of Syracuse, on a roundabout 20-year quest for the unattainable jewel-encrusted phallos from the statue of a nameless god, which “has always-already-been stolen by someone else.”
Pulling Pierre Menard rank, Pedarson condenses Phallos, removing explicit sex scenes (e.g., the castration of two white men at the so-called “ebony orgy”). Still, he envisions a different synopsis, perhaps like Hogg, “in which the passage of the years and the progress from social level to social level we so cavalierly call ‘plot’ were elided and the sexual alone was foregrounded.”
Though the book’s rumored to have been written by “a black Southern writer, currently living in New York City,” the squeamish scholar’s unable to fathom that “a black man (or woman)” might have written Phallos, describing it as closer in feel to Sentimental Education than to Invisible Man, Roots, or Beloved.
But earlier, the anonymous Phallos author invoked the anticlimax of Flaubert’s big book, wherein Frederic and Deslauriers, who’ve fought wars and partaken in great romances, recall fleeing from a brothel in their youth as “the happiest time” ever. In Phallos, Neoptolomus’s “Nubian lover” muses on the sensual anticipations of “provincial boys, before their first visit to a local brothel.” It’s pure Delany: meta-commentary on Pedarson’s misfire noticeable to careful readers of the sentence-a-day French stylist. And then there’s more fucking.