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I was young when I first learned that, while the incidents that can befall a man or a woman are as numberless as sunlit flashes flickering on the sea, what the same man or woman can say of them is as limited as the repertoire on the platform of some particularly uninventive mummers' troupe. Indeed, it is that repertoire. (Delany, "The Game of Time and Pain")

The final volume of Delany's Nevèrÿon series (which, over all, is also called Return to Nevèrÿon) ends with the same story that begins it, "The Tale of Gorgik". After reading all the intervening stories, returning to "The Tale of Gorgik" is like reading a brand new story. Everything in it, from the glancing views of Noyeed to the curious importance of the astrolabe that Myrgot gives to Gorgik, has been transformed repeatedly over the course of the series in such a way as to become practically unrecognizable. In fact, there was a section early in "The Tale of Gorgik" that connects it beautifully with "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" that I could not for the life of me remember reading when I read the tale in the first volume just last July! So I dutifully pulled out my copy of Tales of Nevèrÿon, and sure enough, that section of the story wasn't in the earlier version. This is a master stroke by Delany, "returning" us to a tale that is no longer the same as the original. The impossibility of recovering origins is one of the main themes of the series, and Delany embodies it beautifully in his anti-narrative.

But this raises questions about how the series was structured, because the final appendix of the third volume, Flight from Nevèrÿon, made it clear that it was intended to be the final volume of the series. Return is thus an excess volume of sorts, which again fits Delany's theme. But was it planned that way? In the appendix/preface to Return K. Leslie Steiner (a fictional scholar) tells us that the second story in the book, "The Tale of Rumor and Desire", was originally written to serve as a bridge (of lost desire?) between "The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers" and "The Tale of Fog and Granite" in a proposed collection of the shorter works in the series, excluding the long novel, Neveryóna, which "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" would replace in the sequence. The collection never happened, leaving "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" stranded. But what of the first story in Return, "The Game of Time and Pain"? Chronologically, this would be the final story in the series, showing us as it does the final success of Gorgik's efforts to free all the slaves in Nevèrÿon. Was it the lack of this closure in Flight from Nevèrÿon (in which Gorgik himself turns into an offstage rumor or legend in the end) that begged the question that is Return? Yet Delany uses this "closure" as a way to bring us back to a beginning that opens a whole new can of worms.

We are warned at the very beginning that we may want to read the book in reverse order, presumably starting with Steiner's appendix/preface, which comments on the entire series. The stories run in reverse chronological order, but it's easy enough to read "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" as a thematic comment on "The Game of Time and Pain", which is also very much about desire, and as mentioned above, "The Tale of Gorgik" has been revised to connect to "The Tale of Rumor and Desire," thus making it follow very nicely even though it is chronologically earlier. Complicating all this is the fact that "The Game of Time and Pain" tells us the final fate of Clodon, who is the protagonist of "The Tale of Rumor and Desire", but who is also a nameless character -- and impersonator of Gorgik -- in "The Tale of Fog and Granite" in the previous volume. The flow of chronology and causality and commentary in these tales is intricate and elaborate -- a tapestry as complex as any woven by the characters in this world, where the loom and spindle have only just been invented.

I've commented a lot on structure here, perhaps because it's easier for me to talk about than some of the more difficult thematic material. Another piece of structure: In "The Game of Time and Pain", we start with characters outside an abandoned castle arguing about whether someone is lurking in it. We move to Gorgik, bedding down alone in the castle for the night and then discovering another camper there and telling him a long story about how he found and lost himself, as a slave and as a liberator of slaves. Gorgik falls asleep and dreams of his dying old aristocratic mentor, Myrgot, who meditates on Gorgik's final visit with her, which intersects with a number of other characters introduced in the first book. Gorgik wakes up alone in the castle again. Finally we return to the characters outside the castle arguing again, this time comically, about whether anyone had been lurking in the castle the previous night. The frames of the tale are thus completely symmetrical, except for the dream of Myrgot, who represents a point of view that cannot be accounted for by strict narrative logic -- an intrusion of fantasy? (Even calling it a dream is an interpretation only barely suggested by the text itself.)

"The Game of Time and Pain" is, from one angle, a story about how Gorgik found himself, or perhaps liberated his own imagination (and thus himself), by realizing that he, a slave, shared a sexual kink (the fetishization of slave collars) with an aristocrat who owned slaves. "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" is about a drunken, dirty thug named Clodon -- a rapist, thief, and fraud whom we have in other stories seen impersonating Gorgik to criminal ends -- who fetishes women's feet and hands and has a tender encounter with the woman of his dreams. In tracing Clodon's history, Delany takes us back to an incident in Kolhari when the young Clodon, then a prostitute on the Bridge of Lost Desire, was talked into wearing a slave collar for a time to see whether he might like the S/M trade, which it turns out he doesn't. The added material in "The Tale of Gorgik" (which also adds a passing reference to the Bridge of Lost Desire that isn't in the original version) involves an even younger, pre-slavery Gorgik observing the young Clodon wearing the slave collar and then taking it off and tossing it into a cistern. It's implied that some of Gorgik's inchoate sexual feelings about slave collars started to take form in this wordless, distant, completely impersonal series of observations.

The series circles around sadomasochism from the very beginning, but it's probably safe to say that the theme of desire and sadomasochism grew richer and deeper over the course of the tales. I'm not the best person to comment on this theme, as my own understanding of desire is not particularly rich or deep itself. Still, I found the growth of Delany's accounting fascinating to watch, and it's also fascinating to consider how his career after this series has delved deep into the realm of pornography. The tales of Nevèrÿon are obsessed with discourse, desire, and power, and sadomasochism is in many ways the ultimate metaphor for all of these. The slave collar becomes one ring to riddle them all. Used as a sexual fetish, the slave collar catches but does not lock, and there you have an image of the incomplete or temporary closure that we see again and again in these stories.

Delany brings secret sexual desire to the center of his tales, and it is no doubt no accident that he incorporates commentary on Freud and Lacan into the stories as well. He insists that the hot, messy realities of sex and desire (which is a kind of fantasy, a kind of imagining) must be dealt with if we are to liberate ourselves, however incompletely or inconclusively, from the nightmare of history and slavery. It's true, while Clodon does achieve his libidinal dream, he's still trapped in a nightmarish life of impulsive misbehavior that will not end well for him. Yet his moment of satori is an ideal we can all aspire to, even as it is quickly lost again in time and pain. In an interview I found somewhere online, Delany talks about how this fourth volume was initially published under the title The Bridge of Lost Desire (which is the version I read) because at that time the series had been blacklisted by the chain bookstore B. Dalton's due to the gay material that had supposedly made the word Nevèrÿon poisonous. The Bridge of Lost Desire is a bridge in Kolhari where male and female prostitutes ply their trade. (Was Delany mocking B. Dalton's by including heterosexual desire and straight sex in "The Tale of Rumor and Desire"?) We cross the bridge again and again in these tales. It isn't named in the first book, but by the last it becomes, if only temporarily, the name of the book itself. The desire (the power, the discourse) lost in the process is -- stop me if I've told you this one before -- hauntingly similar to our lost memories of something that never really happened. Speak yet again!

Addendum in excess of a review: Well, I finally picked up a copy of Return from the uniform edition of the series put out by Wesleyan University Press. This edition adds composition (or completion) dates for the three tales. "The Game of Time and Pain" is given the date October 1985, which was the same year that Flight (the previous volume) was first published. "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" is given the date February 1987, which is the same year Bridge/Return was first published. This makes it seem as though Delany wrote the "closure" story either while or right after the third volume (allegedly the last) was published, but it sat there unpublished until he wrote the bridging story for the unpublished compendium of Nevèrÿon tales. Also interesting is that "The Tale of Gorgik" is given the date October 1976, which is probably its original composition date, despite the fact that it had material added to it after he wrote "The Tale of Rumor and Desire". Thus even this date is at least somewhat fictional. (I'm curious whether the uniform edition of Tales has the original version of "Gorgik" or the revised one, but I haven't had a chance to check that yet.)

Finally, I should note that in this edition the appendix is a somewhat modified version of Appendix B from the original edition of Flight. The modifications that I noticed were to change references to Flight as the final volume in the series, and to substitute references to Return instead. This reminded me that I had previously ascertained that the appendix/preface by K. Leslie Steiner from The Bridge of Lost Desire was moved to the beginning of the first volume in the uniform edition, where it serves as a preface to the entire series.

I imagine that this kind of convoluted textual history makes Delany cackle with glee. I find it pretty entertaining myself! However, I still noticed a couple of typos/misspellings in the appendix to the Wesleyan Return -- e.g., a reference to C.L. Moore's Jirel [of Joiry] is spelled Jeryl.

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