The Paris Review
Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210
You—and, indeed, several other SF writers—have called Bester’s 1956 novel, Tiger! Tiger!, the greatest science-fiction novel from that period. What so excites you about Bester?
I picked up Tiger! first when I was fourteen or fifteen, in its Galaxy serial publication, and thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever read. Tiger! Tiger! is an extraordinarily colorful and inventive novel. One whole chapter utilizes bizarre typography that sprawls all over the pages. In the climactic chapter, the hero is in the basement of a burning cathedral—St. Patrick’s, in New York—that’s collapsing all around him, and the man experiences this through synesthesia, where he hears smells and sees sounds and tastes what things feel like. It’s Bester’s version of the end of Gaddis’s Recognitions. Besides the nods to Gaddis—he was Bester’s Greenwich Village neighbor and published The Recognitions the year before Tiger!—and Joyce, it’s also very much an homage to Rimbaud’s “dérèglement de tous les sens.”
Later on, when I was about twenty-four, I read Bester’s book again and realized, while it was very good, it wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever read. But because of its overall color and energy, Tiger! Tiger! projects a sense that, just over the novel’s horizon, someone is thinking seriously about important modernist questions. What is the relation of the ordinary working man to the privileged man at the pinnacle of culture? What causes modern warfare today? What is the relationship between economics and war? Bester was very definitely a leftist writer, with a sense that economics was behind all wars. For him, wars were the playing out of economic-cum-industrial conflicts.
Still later I found out that Bester himself had been reading and rereading Ulysses for a year and discussing it weekly with two close friends. You could easily say that Tiger! Tiger! was his attempt at a book for bright fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, with some of Ulysses’s textual playfulness. I wanted to see whether I could write something that would be as interesting for a twenty-five-year-old as this had been for me at fifteen. I’ll never know whether I succeeded.
In Nova, your reimagining of Tiger! Tiger!, Prince Red and Ruby Red have an almost incestuous relationship.
Yes, they do. You have to remember the book was written before ’68, the moment when innuendo ceased to be a legally necessary literary technique.
Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?
Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, aids rendered them permanently obsolete.
Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin’s exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space ...
At fifteen I knew perfectly well Gully went on to rape her. Many of my students, however, miss it. As readers who’ve learned to read with texts written largely after 1968, they’re unfamiliar with that order of narrative suggestion. Writers aren’t constrained by law to use it today and many young readers, under thirty-five, have forgotten how to read it.
My students reach the climax of Heart of Darkness, when the pilgrims stand at the steamer’s rail, firing their rifles at the natives on the shore, fifteen or twenty feet away, “for some sport,” while an appalled Marlow blows the boat’s horn to frighten the Africans off. Some of the natives throw themselves on the ground, but among them stands Kurtz’s black mistress, her arms raised toward the boat that carries Kurtz away. From his bed in the wheelhouse, sickly Kurtz watches through the window—which Conrad has made clear has been left open. At the boat rail, the white men go on firing, and with a line of white space, the scene ends ...
Year after year, more than half my students fail to realize that the white men have just killed the black woman Kurtz has been sleeping with for several years. Or that Kurtz, too weak to intervene, has had to lie there and watch them do it.
When you ask, later, the significance of Kurtz’s final words, as he looks out through this same window, “The horror! The horror!,” it never occurs to them that it might refer to the fact that he has watched his fellow Europeans murder in cold blood the woman he has lived with. Suggestion for them is not an option. Earlier generations of readers, however, did not have these interpretive problems.
“If he raped her, why didn’t the writer say so?” “If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of “literacy.”
Another canonical work that lists toward the incomprehensible for the modern reader under the weight of modernist criticism is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
How do you mean?
I’ve read interpretations that see the tale as Kafka’s prediction of World War I or II, and it has to stand up beneath interpretative phrases like “that great portrait of the sickness that was Europe.” I’ve even heard one academic give a rather involuted explanation about how the story depicts the encounter of a family with the inexplicable. Well, that’s true, in the sense that a heart attack, a stroke, a crippling accident is, itself, inexplicable. But that sort of occurrence—schizophrenia or some mentally or physically crippling disease—is still the tenor of Kafka’s metaphor.
Whatever you say about the story’s all but infinite higher meanings, just at the level of plot, The Metamorphosis is an allegorical tale about a family, one of whose members, presumably the one who’s responsible for bringing in most of the money, is suddenly stricken by a catastrophe, a debilitating disease that—overnight—renders him homebound and largely unrecognizable as the person he once was and tells what the experience might be from the point of view of the person to whom it happens.
This was a fairly common experience for families before World War II, and it still is. Kafka himself was such a person. His tuberculosis rendered him such a person in his own family, and it struck me as a chillingly accurate picture of the whole process of the transformation that occurred when my own mother was felled with a major stroke that, in an instant, rendered her wheelchair-bound, paralyzed on one side, and without language for the last eight years of her life.
The way the remaining family both recognizes and does not recognize the new and wholly dependent creature as the person he or she once was, and the way the invalid has to be treated—physically and emotionally—as a kind of insect . . . well, it’s a hugely cruel story, even as it details how love for the person metamorphoses, under pressure of the transformative situation, into annoyance and a feeling of entrapment. The title refers to the family’s transformation as much as it does to Gregor’s. When the invalid finally dies—as my mother did, almost a decade on—Kafka explains how at last there is a feeling of freedom and even rebirth.
When we were coming back from the cemetery after my mother’s funeral, my sister, who truly loved my mother—as, indeed, did I—said to me, “Chip, that is the end of eight awful, awful years,” and a breeze blew momentarily through the trees. I had to answer, “Yes, it is.” And I remembered Gregor’s sister, in the last sentences of Kafka’s tale. It’s a portrait of the human processes which constitute that awfulness.
I’d never argue that the historical resonances that so many analysts see in the tale are not there, but I point out that what I have described as the events of the story and their general significance is how those historical suggestions manifest themselves. How we treat our invalids—our mad, our physically or mentally compromised family members—does tell you something about who we are politically, historically, culturally. But until we can respond to the story as an allegory on that level, those historical suggestions are just not anchored. The commonplace reading, under the supernatural event Kafka has given us, is what keeps the meaning-generating mechanism of the tale functioning.
When did you decide that sex was important to your work?
For my work? Hell, for my life! Although I didn’t start taking advantage of the public sex available to gay men till I was eighteen, with a moderately successful trip to the New Amsterdam movie palace on Forty-second Street. No lightning flashed. No bells clanged. But it was useful to learn that it was available and could make me feel better about small stretches of my life.
Not a full decade on, when I was twenty-seven, Stonewall happened. Many of the political conclusions that became generalized with Stonewall—such as coming out of the closet to end the nightmare of gay blackmail—I’d arrived at in theory at eighteen or nineteen. But I didn’t start acting on them until I moved to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1968.
You describe learning, as a young teenager, that a sexual fantasy you hadn’t yet written down could be eked out for a number of days or even weeks, whereas putting it on the page—using what you call “the whole narrative excess we think of as realism”—would make it briefly far more exciting, but then leach it of all subsequent erotic charge. Do you still feel that tug between the urge to put something into language and the urge to fend off writing?
I still feel that style is important for reading pleasure, and sex is important for pleasure in life. Each appeases a different type of desire. And while I find nothing shameful in taking direct erotic pleasure from reading or writing, I don’t think they entail a necessary relation. The processes you have me describing are contingent psychological processes. Neither marks one end nor the other of any necessary or even philosophical relationship. Do I still feel the tug between the urge to put something into writing and the urge to fend it off? Less so as I get older. I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up. I assume the universe will go on providing me with many more. The man I’ve lived quite happily with for twenty-two years provides me with much of my sexual satisfaction, physical and psychological. But, no, not all—thank Deus sive Natura, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza. Nor do I provide all his. What an unachievable responsibility!