Saturday, April 17, 2010

Samuel R. Delany, Neveryóna; or, The Tale of Signs and Cities (1983)

This is the second book of a four-book sequence. The others consist of a hodgepodge of short stories, novellas, and short novels; this is the only full-length novel in the bunch. The general idea is to take what is probably accurately seen as the least literary fictional genre there is--high fantasy--and make something more of it by approaching it in an extremely theoretical way.

I read the first volume, Tales of Nevèrÿon, when I was...twenty, if my extremely short, vapid Amazon review is to be believed. I enjoyed it well enough. Even if just about all the thematic significance went over my head, there was enough incident in the book to please me--though apparently not enough so to induce me to pursue subsequent volumes. I read Tales again more recently for a qualifying exam, and I appreciated it on a much less superficial level--it's really interesting on the development of civilization and the attendant development of signs. Plus, gay sex. I'm not going to claim that my understanding on this second run-through was perfectly lucid, but it was a big improvement, to be sure. I should check out the rest of the series! thought I. But I didn't. UNTIL NOW.

It has to be said, it's an extremely good thing that I did not attempt to tackle Neveryóna as a gormless twenty-year-old. It would not have been a pretty sight. Because, as noted, Tales can sorta kinda be read as regular ol' fantasy, even if you have no theoretical grounding or interest therein. Neveryóna... really can't. Trying to read it at that age, with that knowledge set, I would have been as a bug before a steamroller. It would not have been a pretty sight.

I think this novel--also the first volume, really, but it's more apparent than ever here--can be described as a hybrid between fiction and theory. You may be tricked by the back cover into imagining this is to some extent a conventional fantasy novel, but then you would face a rude awakening. Not a whole lot happens here. The whole series allegedly revolves around Gorgik's slave rebellion, but Gorgik and rebellion only play minor roles in Nevéryona. The story, such as it is, involves a provincial teenage girl named Prynn who leaves her village out of a vaguely-defined sense of wanderlust and travels here, there, and some other places, having long, mostly fairly one-sided conversations with people. The general theme is civilization and how it works. The entire series (so far) is very fascinated with the idea of pinpointing the coming-into-being of civilization's tools (money, eg) and concepts (mathematics, eg) (granted, the difference between "tool" and "concept" may not always be entirely clear). Specifically, as the subtitle indicates, we are here concerned with signs and cities. I found that having previously read Delany's non-fiction book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue for a class helped me to get a better handle on some of what he is doing here in terms of conceptualizing the lives of cities.

The novel (let's just call it that) is intermittently fascinating and frequently--let's not deny it--grindingly tedious. There are parts that you'd be only too happy to see go on forever (as in a monologue that Gorgik delivers narrating his and Prynn's progress through the city), and there are parts when you wish the characters would just SHUT THE HELL UP, as in a fucking endless dialogue between a noblewoman and one of her servants with whom she's romantically involved--although I DO have to give the novel credit for treating of female sexuality, straight and queer, which the first book didn't so much.

I will be the first to admit that there are undoubtedly elements of Neveryóna that went WOOSH! right over my head. However...I dunno. There were also parts that I DID get--I think--that just didn't seem all that groundbreaking or original to me. A lot of the discussion of power structures seemed to me to be pretty much straight Foucault, and there's a long, foreboding passage towards the end about the impossibility of pinpointing what aspect of language is the "true" beginning that seemed like completely unadorned Derrida. It's like I say about DeLillo: it's just not enough to transfer theoretical ideas directly into a fictional setting. You have to actually do something with them; otherwise, they're simply not very interesting. I'm certainly not saying that Delany even begins to plumb the depths of leaden mediocrity that DeLillo swims through with such assurance (that's right--he's so mediocre that he SWIMS THROUGH LEAD--JUST ACCEPT IT), but he could do better, I think. Let me reiterate, however, that I'm pretty sure there's a lot I'm missing.

The ending did leave me in a good mood, however, as Prynn wanders through a vividly-rendered Summer festival and sets off with some traveling performers. It just has a good sense of fullness and possibility to it. Even more than that, though, my favorite part of the book is probably the postscript. The series is posited as a translation of ancient texts of indeterminate origin, and Delany outlines the purported anthropology and academic discourse there surrounding really convincingly. This novel's appendix features a series of letters back and forth from purported academics arguing about the historical and linguistic details of the ancillary material from the first volume. I'm pretty sure it's full of opaque in-jokes, but even missing out on such things, it remains great, playfully erudite stuff.

In spite of my reservations, I certainly intend to see the series out at some point. I think I prefer it over Dhalgren, honestly; it's certainly as self-conscious or moreso, but it lacks Dhalgren's sometimes-painful hipper-than-thou tone and overbearing sexuality. Recommended, maybe, sort of.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Yes, Dhalgren, sadly, was not for me. This sounds neat the way you describe it, though. Why not post it on amazon (minus the profanities)? I think you've now amassed a few cool essays on books here that could well go there.


1:23 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Perhaps I should. I think part of the reason I haven't been is because I feel less constrained writing here than I do on amazon--that is, here I feel like I can ramble, interpret, get tangential--just do all these general critic-y things that seem vaguely inappropriate for amazon. Also, I feel as though I actually OWN things I write here. Not that I have any plans to materially profit off of it (although hey, if anyone reading this WANTS to pay me, let's talk!), but I find amazon's claim to ownership of anything you write there somewhat worrisome, if only in a theoretical way.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Well, I figure that the type of person who would be interested in reading a bunch of reviews of these particular texts would also be pretty forgiving of critic-y things on the part of the reviewers. Plus, it would certainly spice things up a bit, what with all the gushing superlative reviews that nearly every product seems to have.

As for the rest, I think that, even if amazon wanted to prevent you from reusing your thoughts somewhere else, all you'd need to do would be to reword them. Even if they have ownership of the particular words you used to say something, I don't think they own (or really care about owning) the actual thoughts expressed therein.


8:56 PM  

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