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Outspoken Delany

25 May 2019 | book leibniz

Not “the discourse between …” but “the discourse of …”

It was at that line, nearing the conclusion of the final component of The Atheist in the Attic, that the opening component snapped into focus for me and I began to apprehend how the trick had been done. But here in instinctual imitation, I ape my betters. So allow me to begin, once more, to set the stage.

I’ve always found Samuel R. Delany a challenging read. I couldn’t complete reading Dhalgren, for example, until I made a start of it as I boarded a 96 hour Greyhound bus ride (in an earlier era, where wireless data was a myth of the far future) and when I finished it as the bus pulled into its final destination, it was with the confusing sensation of being at the start of the tale, and thus my journey, all over again. That disorienting dream-like sensation seems to me fundamental to the Delany experience.

So it is with this book, collecting the titular The Atheist in the Attic, his Racism and Science Fiction essay, and an interview by Terry Bisson, written for this volume of this series (PM Press’s Outspoken). Experiencing the progression has the feel of being deeply immersed in a complex phantasm, surfacing toward consciousness where the grim, looming shapes of real-world concerns circle hungrily, finally emerging to a clearer perspective on what has come before. Nearly to the end, I realized that the construction of the opening story and its narration evokes the hazy, slippery, atemporal construction of a dream’s tale. We the readers are observing a dreaming mind telling itself a tale of a dreamer and the story they tell themselves about the things they have done or mean to have done.

Like all of my understandings of Samuel R. Delany, I expect this one to be temporary at best and inevitably revealed as flawed, partial and obtuse.

Which is to say, I’ve read half a dozen of his works and each has seemed strikingly different from the others, to reach in new directions and repurpose language for his own specific uses. I’ve yet to read anything of his I’d describe as a quick and easy read but I don’t hesitate to recommend him to readers prepared to invest in the process of engaging the fiction.

This specific story serves as something of an indirect commentary on the portrayal of Leibniz in The Baroque Cycle giving his external sharpness a rather Half-Cocked Jack internal ambiguity but, as I read it, more focused on Baruch Spinoza and his mild-mannered radical heresies. So it could be read in conjunction with other works and perhaps profitably spark discourse by contrasting and comparing.