1984 by Samuel R. Delany

Voyant, 2000, 351pp, $17.95
reviewed in Foundation 85, Summer 2002

In May 1984, in a letter to his bibliographer, Robert S. Bravard, Samuel R. Delany wrote:

Frank says to me, at least once a month, ‘Chip, don’t you ever think about anything except writing?’ Well the truth is, since I was a teenager, I
haven’t. Most of what I think about, I certainly think of in
terms of writing, either directly or indirectly. Just to walk down the street means to me a series of visual, olfactory, and auditory experiences, some of which I know I can write about with a fair degree of accuracy and immediacy, and some of them I realize as I encounter them I’d have difficulty articulating. And the upsetting experiences, the ones I dwell on, the ones that obsess me, are not the dramatic ones in any sense, but simply the latter. (p.110, his italics)

There is something in this passage that accounts for the dense almost obsessive concern with the texture of things in Delany’s fiction. It also seems to account for the range of his writing, for everything is grist to his mill whether it be the works of literary criticism he reads and that find expression in novels like Triton, the sexual encounters in seedy cinemas that provide the bedrock for pornography like The Mad Man and sociological essays like Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the family history that was the inspiration for Atlantis. Even more, it seems to account for the peculiar and often contradictory character of this collection of his letters. What can be articulated and more importantly what can not seems to be the central question that any reader of this book must try to answer.

1984 is a very strange book that seems, on the surface, to be not at all strange. It is, quite simply, a collection of the letters that Delany wrote to various friends and acquaintances during 1984, overlapping slightly with the end of 1983 and the beginning of 1985. The qualities of writing that are so distinctive in his fiction are all here in his letters. They are mostly long letters ranging over a wide range of subjects, and very revealing about his artistic tastes, his influences, his engagement with the world of science fiction, his sex life, his financial situation, his family. In other words, everything that comes into his fiction and his critical writing comes into these letters also, and because they seem to be giving the real life origin of what went into the fiction they are a gift to anyone fascinated by Delany’s work.

Yet the letters themselves seem to raise more questions than they can answer.

The most obvious question is: why 1984? Kenneth R. James, in his introductory essay, keeps returning to George Orwell’s novel, as if Delany’s letters in some way provide a counterpoint to that novel. They don’t, and Delany refers to Orwell’s book only twice in passing.

1984, or rather the latter part of 1983, saw the first public awareness of AIDS. Is that, then, the theme? Certainly that would seem to account for the eight letters, written between June and October 1983, which form the prologue to this book. These are mostly about AIDS, or more particularly they amount to Delany propounding his theories about the epidemiology of AIDS that he held then and seems still to hold. These are cockamamie – he repeatedly declares, for instance, that anyone performing oral sex is in less danger than anyone performing anal sex, a theory that was probably known to be wrong at the time, and he insists that there are people with natural immunity (of which he is probably one), and in 1983 only wishful thinking could have seriously maintained that position. Is then the progress and the understanding of AIDS during that fateful period in New York’s gay history, the underlying theme of the book? Well, as it turns out, no. He writes extensively about AIDS during 1983, that period when he was drafting the AIDS-related passages of Flight from Neveryon, but in 1984, as he revises that novel and prepares it for publication, it pretty well drops out of sight. It makes no difference to his sexual activity, which is catalogued in great detail in many of the letters here, and such was the nature of the time he could hardly avoid the occasional mention of it in these letters, but in none of the letters written in 1984 is AIDS again a central issue. In fact, so noticeable is the change in tone and content between the letters of 1983 and the letters of 1984, that this raises yet another question about the book: why call it 1984 but begin so long before that year?

Do the three letters from 1985 provide a clue? These three letters between them contain an important piece of news: the break-up of Delany’s seven-year relationship with Frank. This is indeed significant, not only because it was the first stable, long-term homosexual relationship Delany was in after the failure of his marriage to Marilyn Hacker, but also because it was parting from Frank that stopped him writing The Splendour and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the second part of the diptych begun with Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. Not that you would guess that latter fact from these letters: Delany is still at work on the novel when the collection ends, and no mention is made anywhere of the fact that the book was never finished.

But are these letters about the break-up? When he announces the parting of the ways in the first letter of 1985, it is like a bolt from the blue. Although he implies a long, slow disintegration of their relationship, you will search the rest of the book in vain for any hint that things were going sour. Rather you get repeated reports about how good Frank is with Delany’s daughter, Iva, you get Frank enjoying visits to Delany’s parents, you get Frank uncomplainingly putting up with the fact that they are broke. The only hint of anything wrong might be in the passage I quoted at the start of this review. Delany turns Frank’s remarks into a statement about himself as a writer, but might it not be a complaint that Delany, selfishly, was not paying attention to Frank? If so, it is unique in this book, for it is the only potential criticism of Delany that is allowed to slip through.

So, this is not a chronicle about the onset of AIDS, as the 1983 letters might suggest; nor is it a chronicle of the break-up of a relationship, as the 1985 letters might suggest. What is covered in the body of this book is as interesting but more inchoate. We learn of the frustrations involved in ushering two books – Flight from Neveryon, which he believed at the time was the final part of the Neveryon sequence though he later produced Return to Neveryon, the last work of fantasy or science fiction he has written to date; and Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, which he believed at the time was the first of two novels, though the second part was never completed – through to publication. We learn of the financial problems which resulted from unpaid taxes so great that the IRS put a freeze on his bank account (not long after this book closes he would begin a career as an academic which would finally put an end to this poverty, though again there is no hint of that in this book). We learn of his working habits, which mostly seem to involve starting to write in the early hours of the morning and working steadily through to around midday. We learn of cruising in the porn cinemas of Times Square, the men he picks up there, the acts performed. (Delany has written about this more graphically in The Mad Man and more cogently in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, so that the only thing we really learn from these passages is how readily he would describe all this in letters to friends.) In all these sexual encounters, Delany is always careful to stress his own thoughtfulness and care for others, the way he looks after the hustlers and homeless who are the majority of his pick-ups; yet at the same time he describes this sexual milieu in the dark of the porn cinema as rather impersonal, no names, no eye contact, so that there seems to be a contradiction in here somewhere. We learn about looking after his daughter, about going to conventions, about a high-class party where he met Umberto Eco. There is a lot of very interesting material here, for any student of Delany’s work or indeed for the general reader, but there is nothing that actually answers the question: why 1984. Or, indeed, why 1984 has been stretched to 20 months.

And there are other questions raised by this book. These are, we are clearly told on the cover, selected letters. The selection was made by Delany himself, but there is nothing to indicate what criteria he used. When he includes a letter to the head of a school on behalf of a neighbour’s child, one must wonder what he left out. Though one thing he did leave out was any letter he received. Except in one instance, when he quotes at length from one person’s letter in a letter he is writing to someone else, we never hear any voice but Delany’s. We don’t know what he is replying to, we don’t hear any side of the story but his. Yet he may not be the most reliable of narrators. After spending some considerable time correcting Bravard and his colleague Michael Peplow about the exact sequence in which various editions of his early novels were published, Delany casually reveals how often and how easily he loses or misplaces things. Are we to accept his infallibility on some things but his fallibility on others?

We are left with a volume that strands us between belief and disbelief, between certainty and uncertainty. There are things here we can probably accept without question: the party on millionaire’s row, the day to day arguments with his publishers about cover illustrations. There are things here that cast a useful light across all his work: the number of his heroes who bite their fingernails reflects his own sexual obsession with bitten fingernails (something he himself cannot do), and probably means that we are to read these heroes as sexually desirable. And there are things unsaid, of which the exact nature of the relationship with Frank is probably the most important. But these things unsaid leave gaps throughout this selection of letters. A collection of letters is a form of autobiography – a form that Delany has already essayed twice, in Heavenly Breakfast and The Motion of Light on Water. But this autobiography is so open to doubt that it leaves us doubting also those other autobiographies: the person Delany wants us to see is so full of intimate details that it feels like it must be the whole story. These letters suggest that is not the case.