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Neveryóna by Samuel R. Delany

Delanys-NeveryonaI read this novel when it first came out in 1983, but this is the first time I've reread it. I can't remember what I thought of it at the time, but my vague general impression of the Nevèrÿon series is that I really liked the first book and liked each proceeding book less than the one before. Now having read Neveryóna a second time, I have mixed feelings. It's a complex novel, and I'm not sure I understand what it's up to. Perhaps as a consequence of that lack of understanding, I often felt unengaged with it even as I remained intrigued by many of the ideas and scenes and scenarios. Maybe the novel, like Neveryóna itself, "becomes a shining symbol just out of reach."

This is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman named Pryn who leaves her mountain village on the back of a dragon to have some adventures in the wider world. But dragons in Nevèrÿon aren't quite the fabulous beasts of legend, and neither are Pryn's adventures. She arrives in the big city of Kolhari and immediately meets the legendary Gorgik, a former slave now leading a revolutionary anti-slavery movement, but the violence surrounding the revolution soon turns Pryn into an unintentional killer. Fleeing the scene, she falls in with Madame Keyne, a conservative businesswoman seeking to foment counter-revolution while stuck in a paranoid relationship with her mistress and her mistress' mad lover. All of this I found quite interesting, especially as Delany refigures and reconfigures episodes and ideas and items from the previous volume in the series, Tales of Nevèrÿon.

At this juncture, however, Delany does something pretty radical and has Pryn leave the city in the company of some smugglers and then, when she becomes convinced that one of them has impregnated her, stumble off to the small town of Enoch, where she falls in with a struggling working class family. This is an entirely more naturalistic section of the novel, and I confess I started to lose interest a bit as the tone and concerns shifted to an apparently much smaller, less mythical scale. On the other hand, I suspect that the deflation is intentional, because Delany signals both at the beginning and at the end of it that this is a different type of story that he might have told.

The final part of the novel moves to the southern part of Nevèrÿon, which is where the barbarians (and thus most of the slaves) are from. Pryn takes a job at a brewery, which gives us yet a different view of the world of business and capital, and she's invited to a party at the estate of a local nobleman, which is our first point of contact with the aristocracy that still rules this civilization. Pryn's notions of power and meaning are reconfigured yet again, and so, perhaps, are the reader's. The lost city of Neveryona and the mythical dragon Gauine have made ambiguous symbolic appearances and disappearances, and in the end Pryn is returning to Kolhari, befitting a book called "A Tale of Signs and Cities". But if my head was spinning a bit at this point, Pryn seems able to go with the flow.

Pryn's adventures encompass the whole range of class in Nevèrÿon, from slave to working class to lumpen proletariat, from merchant to aristocrat, from smuggler to class warrior. In that way her experience mirrors that of Gorgik in "The Tale of Gorgik," as they both become exemplars of civilization through their exposure to the fullness of what civilization has to offer, both low and high. However, the initial account of Gorgik is an explanation for how he became so powerful, where Pryn's tale is more modest. She rides a dragon, kills a man, and frees a slave, but she herself remains a figure outside of legend, if not outside of story. This makes Pryn a bit elusive, which is perhaps another reason I found the novel itself elusive.

Again, the difficulty of the novel seems intentional. Delany is constantly disrupting the pleasures of story with thorny outbursts of Theory. If that makes the novel elusive as a novel, I imagine that's the goal. He wants us to question everything, including the story and our identification with the characters. Everything is problematized, questioned, transformed, re-imagined. It's hard work, and it can be a slog. I often felt that I was in over my head, and I think that was a feeling I had more patience for when I was younger.

But there was much that I really liked as well, including things I wasn't sure I understood. The one thing I did remember from my first reading was a scene where Madame Keyne shows Pryn a kind of fountain in which gouges in a clay bowl at the top of the fountain are apparently copied exactly in sand in a lower bowl, as though the flowing water holds the memory or shape of the bowl it comes from. This is, as far as I can tell, the one piece of "magic" or inexplicable, anti-naturalistic phenomena in the novel, yet it's presented as fact, with an explanatory, learned discourse by Madame Keyne about how it all works. I do believe it's a kind of straight-faced joke, in contrast with the several other points in which this or that perfectly natural phenomenon is described as magic.

The other bit I just loved was the appendix, which is comprised of an exchange of letters between Charles Hoekstra, who is apparently an actual scholar of the ancient world, and S.L. Kermit, who appears to be a character created by Delany to write scholarly essays about the ancient Culhar fragment that's supposed to be the basis of all these tales. Hoekstra takes Kermit's scholarship to task, and Kermit's reply is a masterpiece of intellectual slapstick that even manages to incorporate a reference to mimeographed fanzines. After the difficult challenges of digesting the novel itself, this bit of comedy was a welcome dose of brandy.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this complex book, with its multiple meditations on economics, relationships, slavery, urbanity, invention, language, story, and sign. If it does soar on the wings of a dragon, it is the wings of the strange dragons of this world that can only fly from a high ledge down to the earth below and then have to climb laboriously back up to the higher vantage. It is, in fact, an ugly sort of flight, and yet what you see on its downward course gives you much ugly, elusive truth to think about.

I recommend, once again, Sylvia Kelso's essay about the whole Nevèrÿon series, '"Across Never": Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle'.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC)
You have to admire an author who can title a novel in such a way that it can be read as Never Yawn. (A worthy successor to Dull Gren.) That sad, I couldn't get on with the books at all, and never got to the end of the first.

Edited at 2013-09-25 04:04 pm (UTC)
Sep. 25th, 2013 04:09 pm (UTC)
That reminds me that at some point I considered speculating whether Delany was committing a pun on "never yoni". This would obviously be advocacy of gay male sex.
Sep. 25th, 2013 08:02 pm (UTC)
I read it twice in a row when it first came out, but not since. Based on my memory of it I've been calling it my favorite Delany novel for some time now. Reading your review makes me want to reread it -- and not.
Sep. 25th, 2013 08:15 pm (UTC)
There's always a danger when re-reading old favorites that one will find them less good than previously, but there's always the chance that one will find new riches revealing themselves as well. There's plenty to chew on in this novel, that's for sure. I recommend re-reading it. For what it's worth, my re-reading of the series so far has confirmed my preference for Tales of Neveryon, so maybe you'd renew your love for Neveryona as well.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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