Jonathan Kemp on Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man
"The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
“Lying there, I thought: people feel guilty about wanting to do stuff like this. But this is the reward for actually doing it, for finding someone who wants to do it with you: The fantasies of it may be drenched in shame, but the act culminates in the knowledge no one has been harmed, no one has been wounded, no one has been wronged.” – The Mad Man, p. 458
What I love most about this book is the way it blends the intellectual with the downright dirty. There are long, descriptive passages detailing sexual acts involving piss-drinking, shit-eating, smegma, toe jam – any body fluid you can think of. Some of this could only be erotic to someone sharing the same predilections. Mostly, though, the aim doesn’t seem to be sexual arousal, but more an exercise in tolerance, or empathy. Like De Sade, Delany seems to be endlessly cataloguing these sexual acts in order to move beyond mere pornography, to enter a terrain of ethics, even boredom. These extreme acts are presented in such a gleefully shameless way that one cannot help but appreciate the pleasure being taken by the participants. In his opening “Disclaimer”, Delany calls it a “pornutopic fantasy”, yet as Reed Woodman points out, the style employed is “mainstream realism” rather than fantasy.
Whilst Delany is best known as a science fiction author, here he actively challenges, or cross-fertilizes, genre, blurring boundaries, practicing – to quote the fictitious philosopher Timothy Hasler whose life and work the novel explores – “invention to the brink of intelligibility”. A self-confessed Foucauldian, Delany has chosen to explore madness and sexuality, or the madness of sexuality, in terms which seriously challenge the reader. As one reviewer writes, it’s “a big old friendly dog of a book, with, like many big old friendly dogs, habits and appetites which might offend the finicky.” The Mad Man received a Lambda Literary Award nomination for “Best Gay Mystery,” although its strength is really that it doesn’t quite fit any genre.
Delany claims the novel was inspired by his outrage at an article on AIDS by Harold Brodkey that appeared in The New Yorker in the June 1993 which began, “I have AIDS. I am surprised that I do. I have not been exposed since the nineteen-seventies, which is to say that my experiences, my adventures with homosexuality took place largely in the nineteen-sixties, and back then I relied on time and abstinence to indicate my degree of freedom from infection and to protect others and myself.” At the very start of the novel, The Mad Man’s narrator, John Marr, writes: “I do not have AIDS. I’m surprised that I don’t …”
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