I was born in upstate New York and grew up in New Jersey; depending on how you keep track, I’ve lived in New York for between fourteen and eighteen years now. What all of this means is that I’m not much of an authority on all things Southern — but, like many a reader of literary fiction, I find myself drawn to a certain quality exhibited by writers from that part of the country. Wiser critics than I can ponder whether there is some specifically Southern quality to these books, or if — say — Harry Crews had been from Michigan, we would have read him in an entirely different way. Given that the two books discussed today — Samuel R. Delany’s massive novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Todd Dills’s collection Triumph of the Ape — are set primarily in the South, these are things that have been on my mind.
For an eight-hundred-page novel, Delany’s book has a surprisingly concise summary: it follows the decades-long relationship between two men living in a small rural community on the Georgia coast. What that wouldn’t do, however, is get at the stylistic range that Delany achieves here. Parts of it are wonderfully pastoral; others, deeply elegaic. And elements of it are incredibly explicit — especially the first four hundred pages. (I’d definitely recommend both Roger Bellin and Jo Walton‘s takes on it.) And yet from there, the book advances through the years, moving past the present and into a future that seems quite plausible.
It doesn’t hurt that Delany intentionally places his characters in a relatively isolated community — that’s basically the point, and their separation from certain societal advances continuously resonates throughout the novel. There are definitely comparisons to be made to Delany’s earlier Dark Reflections, the story of a poet and academic living on the fringes of society: both capture the harrowing sense of standing still while the world evolves around you, just past your level of comfort. But the novel it reminded me of, in both its scope and in its moments of dissonance, was Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada. Here, too, there is an entirely detailed, well-constructed world; here, too, are elements that will leave certain readers feeling more than a little discomfort. But, for me, the experience was an ultimately rewarding one; every element, both the beautiful and the unsettling, is placed there for a reason, and the novel forces you to reckon with it as a whole.
Full disclosure: in his capacity as editor of THE2NDHAND, Todd Dills has published some of my fiction. He’s a friend, and we’ve read together on multiple occasions. But he’s also a writer whose work I admire greatly; his novel Sons of the Rapture may well be my favorite thing featherproof has published, and I’m glad to see that there’s now a collection out of his short fiction. He’s equally at home exploring the Southeast and Chicago; I described this book recently as a fusion of Barry Hannah and Touch & Go Records, and that quality resonates — he’s equally comfortable describing two very different spaces, both culturally and physically, and he’s able to expertly tap into the dissonance between them. (Mairead Case has some smart things to say about it as well.) Highly recommended — and I’m hoping that the next few years bring more from Dills.