The Poetry Project

Chip Delany: His Sensations and Ideas

Review by Stephen Ira

In its precise yet somehow cockeyed opening image, Samuel R. Delany’s new novel, Shoat Rumblin: His Sensations and Ideas, establishes itself within a world familiar to any fan of that idiosyncratic and brilliant author.

        From the cracked curb, if you glanced up, across the second floor’s eight picture windows (painted black behind their red and gold foil), scraped up gilt gothic—man high—spelled out:

                                C O L U M B I A

       Much smaller and running along the bottom of the window with the B, it said ADULT E. Along the window with the I: NTERTA. And the window with the A: INMENT—advertising for the people driving by on the highway at the Hudson’s edge.

Delany’s work is replete with such granularity, expressed through spatial description, here through the layering of language on language. The particularity of the letters’ arrangement interrupts his own language production. In a recent interview, I asked a question about this new novel, and its ultra-embodied, slow-minded protagonist. Did Delany think of him as, for example, intellectually or developmentally disabled? He began to describe public transit systems to me, and the cities in which different characters had lived.

In another work from his later period, Dark Reflections, Delany’s aging protagonist struggles to rise after his evening pee without soiling his long winter coat; he has trouble swiping his MetroCard at the right speed to enter the subway. Set in the same neighborhood but from a different period of Delany’s writing life, Heavenly Breakfast describes his time in a commune on the Lower East Side, where the sheer smallness of the space affected residents’ decentralized, consensus-based organizing strategies. Dhalgren’s Kidd famously irritates SF/F aficionados who expect more adventures from the novel’s hero, rather than a guy wandering around satisfying his desires.

What are we to make of this insistence on phenomenology rather than ideology—on what the eye does as it observes each window at The Columbia, assesses the space between the body’s hand and the subway turnstile, surveys a smoking city for a place to sleep? This insistence is the natural result of an intellectual life lived with pleasure as, if not its object, its primary landmark—and landmarks are important to Delany.

It hurts to read, in Shoat Rumblin’s first pages: “In the last few years, people have tried to tell me the Columbia never existed.” To return to the landscape of Delany’s great Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and to find that someone would dare deny the C O L U M B I A! Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany’s canonical book on the neighborhood, begins with long descriptions—in fact, its first essay is mostly description—full of almost Homeric recitations of buildings and businesses and streets, with an occasional friendly direction from Delany’s authorial voice: “Let’s go around the corner.”

“Well, the Columbia was there,” proclaims Delany’s narrator—one of two narrators, actually, and the less prominent of them. The other narrator is Shoat Rumblin himself, and it is because of Shoat that the Columbia enters our story. You see, Shoat and Adrian Rome, the narrator, met at that fine establishment. Adrian explains to us how he encountered, blew, and fell for Shoat, a man with no home, enormous hands, and a priapic cock seeking appreciative mouths. He explains how Shoat came to leave the streets and live with him. Chip first encountered his partner, Dennis Rickett, while Rickett lived on the street. In one sense, you might call this novel a fantasized erotic biography of the man he loves. I find this terribly, terribly romantic.

Most of the novel’s action concerns Shoat and his father, Buck, an equally enormous, priapic man. They are not like other people. They are like the man in the painting that graces the self-published novel’s cover: Diogenes. They believe in the world of immediate experience, and if they could masturbate in the agora, they probably would. Buck and Shoat—whose name means “baby pig”—cannot fulfill the demands of polite society. It abuses them in the form of Shoat’s cruel and judgmental mother, whom they drive away. Shoat is thrown out of school for pissing himself. His father teaches him to cut a hole in his pocket so he can masturbate publicly. (“Would that I could ease hunger by rubbing my belly,” said Diogenes, when somebody told him to quit jacking it.) The two men love each other. If this pornography novel has a moral, perhaps it is that men should hug their sons.

Here we find Delany in his sprawling, sweaty mode. Shoat is raunch maximalism. The characters commit a nonstop series of incredible acts: in one scene, a top suddenly demands that his bottom make spaghetti: “Yeah, you fuck-faced old cocksucker! I’m hungry! Ain’t you gonna feed your damn fuck stud? Come on!\” The bottom does, as quickly as he can, while the top berates him. When he is finished, the top squats over his plate and shits—for the bottom’s delighted consumption, of course. This moment is distinctive in its virtuosic weirdness and sense of humor—even the characters know what they are doing is funny. This is part of their joy. When the world treats your desires as beyond the pale, a domestic intimacy exists among those of us who, performing these acts together, giggle and mutually confess.

The bottom in question is Scummy. Unlike Shoat and Buck, who become his family, Scummy is something of an intellectual, formerly a graduate teaching assistant, now an abject cocksucking bum. He encounters Buck in this capacity, as a homeless heavy raunch submissive happy to get facefucked and pissed on and spit-swappingly kissed a few times a day, out by the dumpsters behind Buck’s work—eventually, Buck brings him home for good. When he confesses his past as an academic to Shoat, Shoat asks him how he’d fallen so far. Imagine his surprise when Scummy answers, “It was because I didn’t have any big, sweaty, cheesy, nasty dirty dicks to suck on—like yours and Buck’s.”

When I asked whether Delany thought of Buck and Shoat as disabled, he said he thought of them as needing help. “I’m just a cocksucker all the way. I could always use my smarts to help somebody else—that’s never been a problem for me,” says Scummy. “But after a while, if it’s only me I’ve got to help, I just do less and less.” Lost outside his necessary set of complex relations, Scummy becomes incomprehensible, and it throws him into despair. As he holds forth to Shoat on what it means to be a cocksucker the way he is, he explains, “if you were, when you were sucking cock, you’d...feel better than anybody else could possibly feel. And when you’re really feeling good like that, you can know things. You know just how good getting your dick sucked could be—I mean, if the guy you were sucking would really let himself get into it, really let himself feel it all in his body, all through him. And because you know that, like you couldn’t know it any other way, how good that feeling is—you want the guy to feel that good!” This is what I mean by pleasure not even necessarily as priority or as goal, but as the Polaris by which you can see your path.

Sexual pleasure here enables, or even necessitates, a radically relational coming-to-selfhood. As scholar Steven Shaviro wrote, sexual acts in Delany’s work “have little to do with any dialectic of law and its transgression, but are articulated in terms of range or series of bodily pleasures and potentials that both connect people to one another and to the world, and help define the nature of a ‘self’ that does not pre-exist them.” As Shoat listens to Scummy rhapsodize on this relational pleasure, “something funny happened: Right then, I became a suck stud. [. . .] It was suddenly understanding, actually realizing, really knowing what it was the cocksucker was enjoying about sucking my dick that made me want to get my dick sucked—more than anything.”

What understanding of sexual violence do we arrive at with such an optimistic view of pleasure? Delany does not shy away from this question. Shoat Rumblin’s villain, a maniacal texture fetishist named Jonnah Wilkes who lives in a mansion full of broken pinball machines, rapes Shoat with a shotgun as he rambles to himself, narrating grotesque orgies he imagines the Rumblin family having. By this point, we are acquainted with this family’s orgies—but they are nothing like the ones this psychopath fantasizes. When his daddy Buck arrives to rescue Shoat from the rapist, Jonnah throws a porn cassette at him, snarling: “‘I hate—’ (Buck tried to dodge, but it hit his cheek—) “‘fucking pornography, man!’” (There goes language again, interrupting itself to produce a proper sense of the interruptive phenomenal world!) Even when Delany’s pornography includes rape, it is never, ultimately, a form of relation that has much to do with pleasure. Sometimes it is a form of pleasure for a character; but then it hasn’t much to do with relation, and the protagonist will ultimately turn away.

On his ever convivial Facebook page, Delany has written that Shoat exists in an “informal trilogy” with two very different novels: Phallos and Dark Reflections. The metafictional Phallos is a kind of chalk outline around an absent pornographic novel’s body—very heady, very much a critic’s wet dream, it shares a structure with Nabokov’s Pale Fire. By contrast, Dark Reflections is an understated and terribly sad book; its main character, Arnold Hawley, is an aging poet deeply alienated from his desiring body. The essentially physical, intellectually inchoate rough trade and the cerebral, upper class, yearning queer is a time-honored binary opposition in gay literature and thought. Delany takes this problem and works on it with gentle insistence, like a cock of incredible size, throughout the trilogy of Shoat Rumblin, Dark Reflections, and Phallos.

Arnold Hawley is a poet in near poverty, for whom a minor literary prize’s payout of several thousand is a lifechanging event; Scummy, the cocksucking ex-adjunct, still loves to read and cracks several obscure literary jokes, but when he re-encounters educated, cultured homosexuals again, he can’t stop laughing, and remarks, “Broadway show posters and handcrafted bookshelves—I been around you [Shoat and Buck] so long, I’d forgotten there were faggots—gay guys—like that.” (“I don’t think they got no real sealant on that deck, though,” Buck replies thoughtfully, deeply in the world of physical things.) Class mobility and motility are deeply alive as Arnold navigates expensive restaurants in gentrified Park Slope and Scummy uses the words he learned in graduate school to ferry his incestuous, piss-drinking found family through a world not built for them. It’s tempting to think of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, and of the rageful Charlie screaming, running down the burning hall, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

All minds have a life, Delany seems to say: not only is the transient laborer a creature of the mind as well as the body, the professor may well be an indigent or in danger of becoming one. It is only by a careful, granular examination of the actual facts—and crucially, forms of relation—on the ground that we can come to understand these lives. As Shaviro writes, “The thing about Delany is that he doesn’t, himself, mediate between [. . .] the concretely, immediately personal and the wide-ranging abstraction; rather, his fictions draw us into a world [. . .] in which making such broad and clumsy distinctions, let alone trying thereby to mediate between them and re-connect them, seems hopelessly naive.” Diogenes, the beggar, the sex freak, the drunk, who laughed at Plato when he spoke of “cupness” rather than an assortment of cups, was after all, a philosopher.

#262 — Fall 2020