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What Are They Reading?

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Tales of Nevèrÿon.
Samuel R. Delany
Wesleyan. 260 pp. $17.95.

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Richard Kim
Richard Kim
Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times...

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I first read Samuel Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon during the high-geek days of junior high. I wasn't exactly a charter member of the trench-coat mafia back then, but I couldn't catch a ball or ride a skateboard, so I spent a lot of time in my room reading sword-and-sorcery novels and dreaming up ways to smite my enemies, imagined and real. I must have picked up the 1979 Bantam first-edition paperback because I liked the cover--probably some muscle-, fur- and sword-clad barbarian. Most likely, I read the whole book in a day, puzzling over the parts I didn't understand (there were lots of them) and lingering over scenes with fighting, sex or dragons (too few for my adolescent tastes). In comparison with the usual fantasy schlock, I found Tales of Nevèrÿon difficult and not much fun. But for some reason it lodged in my memory as a singular and enigmatic reading experience, one that would haunt me for years.

In an attempt to recapture that moment, I picked up the 1993 reissue by Wesleyan University Press. The encounter has been edifying, and slightly disappointing as well. For one thing, the world now knows Samuel Delany as a literature professor, critic's darling, memoirist (The Motion of Light in Water) and queer social theorist (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue), and this edition of Tales of Nevèrÿon has been repackaged to reflect Delany's current stature. It comes with blurbs by Fredric Jameson, Umberto Eco and Constance Penley. Each chapter now begins with a theoretical passage from Michel Foucault, Edward Said or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others. And the entire volume starts with a new preface by Delany's alter ego K. Leslie Steiner and ends with a cryptic afterword, titled "Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three," by Delany's other alter ego, S.L. Kermit.

Lots of unnecessary whistles and bells here. Fortunately, Delany's tales remain as provocative as ever. Like Tolkien and Lucas, Delany sets his story in the mythical past, a place and time that might have been, a society on the cusp of civilization. But unlike the conventional heroic fantasy, Delany's protagonists aren't hurtling toward some predestined, triumphant future. There's Gorgik, the ex-slave who frees himself by whoring and fighting, only to become sexually attached to his slave collar, leading a slave revolt that most slaves don't seem to want. There's Norema, the clever young storyteller who escapes her sleepy, patriarchal fishing village and finds herself in an uneasy alliance with Raven, an Amazonian swordswoman from a matriarchy Norema finds rather crude. And there's Old Venn, Norema's mentor, who brings the civilized practice of writing to her island homeland, only to wish (too little, too late) that she hadn't. "If you can write down a woman's or man's name, you can write down all sorts of things next to that name...and very soon you will have the control over your fellows that is slavery. Civilized people are very careful about who they let write down their names, and who they do not. Since we, here, do not aspire to civilization, it is perhaps best we halt the entire process."

It's clear that Delany was reading semiotics, cultural anthropology and Marxist monetary theory and history as he was writing Tales of Nevèrÿon, and you can read the new edition as a series of thought experiments that just happen to be set in the sword-and-sorcery genre. But for me at least, that mode of reading renders the book a bit too formulaic; it also disrupts the imaginative experience of reading fantasy. I respect Delany's right to revise his book and make a buck or two by selling it to theory-minded academics who wouldn't have been caught dead with the original. But if you can, hunt down the 1979 edition, find your inner lonesome teenager, and be pleasantly surprised.

Clarification (February 6) : Thanks to Samuel Delany fans who pointed out errors in this column. I suggested that Delany added new material, including epigrams, an appendix and a preface for the 1993 republication by Wesleyan University Press. In fact, only the preface is new. I wrote about the Bantam first edition from clearly faulty memory, and those details should have been checked. I never intended, however, to impugn Delany, whose writing I deeply admire. The larger point of my column was that reading Tales of Neveryon as a teenager, clearly ignorant of its theoretical underpinnings, was more mystifying, more pleasing, though perhaps less edifying, than reading the book now. What changed was not just the book and its status but also the reader.

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