Delany's Dirt

by Ray Davis

(Published in Ash of Stars, ed. James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi)
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IV. Hogg

To speak the unspeakable without the proper rhetorical flourish or introduction; to muff that flourish, either by accident, misjudgment, or simple ignorance; to choose the wrong flourish or not choose any (i.e., to choose the flourish called "the literal") is to perform the unspeakable.
-- Samuel R. Delany, "On the Unspeakable", Avant-Pop, p. 150
"'Cause people don't even wanna see shit like that. I mean, they'd be happier pretending it didn't even happen. But you're gonna see enough of the kind of stuff I usually do."
-- Hogg, p. 39
The old liberal line on "sexual liberation" was "There's too little love in the world. Why begrudge it?" Which doesn't quite ring true. Love is troubling, unreliable, and often corrupting.

Hogg is a love story. (Man meets boy. Man loses boy. Man finds boy.) It's also the most purely evil novel I've ever read.

In his introduction to Michael Perkins's Evil Companions, Delany writes that that book's "fundamental conceit" is to suppose "the new breed of pot-puffing, long-haired young people -- beatniks or hippies -- really were as perverted and sexually dangerous as a hypostasized American Middle Class and Working Class then claimed to fear." Similarly, one could say that Hogg is the (otherwise imaginary) porn which '80s anti-porn crusaders attacked: made up of violence against women and sexual abuse of children, with a dash of racism, all rolled in a thick coat of filth.

I doubt it needs pointing out that Delany hardly matches the crusaders' imagined pornographer, nor that Hogg's publishing non-history hardly matches the crusaders' imagined porn industry. So I'll restrict myself to noting the equally unanticipated effects of the work:

Imagine Lautréamont as tight narrative, de Sade as gritty realism, Bataille without preciousness, and Genet without sentimentality. Then imagine the resulting work as constructed with brilliant meticulousness -- a book whose only possible defense might be that it erupted in a fit of passion, but which instead wears its badge of shame polished to a high gloss.

And finally imagine this most sophisticated and depraved of books as written in a flat voice so quintessentially American that the first comparison to come to mind is Dashiell Hammett.[7]

In virtually all his work, Hammett subverted point-of-view assumptions with extremes of emotional distance. The cold reportage of his narrative voices gives an impression of complete control, of a man who's always a few steps ahead and likes it that way, even at the cost of becoming a "monster."[8] Some of the most powerful moments in Hammett's fiction come when it's made coldly, distantly, clear that such control is merely the most convenient side-effect of extreme emotional damage.

Hogg's first-person narrator is as suspicious of expression and as compusive about accurate observation as any Hammett hero. He's as nameless as Hammett's Op, and, like the Op, shows no interest in reporting reactions beyond the physiological: "it felt good," "it stung." Devaluing or simply not recognizing what fiction defines as psychology, his all-purpose analysis of any more complex inner state is "It made me feel funny."

The foundation for all Delany's horrific effects is that, instead of placing a middle-aged authority figure into this strong silent role, Hogg is narrated by a sexually submissive eleven-year-old boy. This casting against type undermines easy application of labels like victim, or collaborator, or agent; despite his blatant powerlessness, the narrator never describes himself as forced to do anything against his will, and he's able to casually, silently, leave those who think themselves his owners. Admittedly, this impression of independence is achieved by reducing force of will almost past existence, since in the world of Hogg, as in our own, power is no illusion. But control, mercifully, is. It's a small mercy, but one worth clinging to, and the only one offered by Hogg's painstaking portrayals of attempts to assert control.

Refusal to communicate is one rebellion of the powerless, and Delany does Hammett's reticence one better by keeping Hogg's central character almost completely speechless as well as nameless. In this 212-page novel, the boy utters only one word. It's the last word of the book, worried out of him only because he cannot walk away from his insistent questioner. And that word is nothing but a borrowed lie, taken from the narrator's almost-invisible opposite number (every '70s Delany novel has one), a twelve-year-old girl enslaved by her father.

I got up but, as I stepped over the nigger, I looked back at her. She was staring at me... I felt my face trying to mimic hers, as though that would let me know what was going on inside her.
-- Hogg, p. 189 [ellipsis in original]
In some ways, Hogg's closest American cousin is that other novel of constrained rebellion, Huckleberry Finn: in its use of dialect (particularly the omnipresent "nigger"; Twain might've had occasion to use "cocksucker" as well, if printing standards had been different), the childish exclamations ("Cheese tastes awful good!"), the handing off of the narrator between rapacious scallywags on land and on water, the taken-for-granted gulf between male and female experience, and the narrator's concluding secret intention to light out for the territory. But this is a boy who's never been permitted the decision of whether to go to hell.

The book he writes is, as its first line claims, mostly about Hogg, the most imposing and articulate of its monsters, Shakespearean in his villainy. Hogg is the nightmarish Other who understands both the "systems of the world" --

"I think I ain't never met a normal, I mean normal, man who wasn't crazy! Loon crazy, take 'em off and put 'em away crazy, which is what they would do if there wasn't so many of them. Every normal man -- I mean sexually normal, now -- man I ever met figures the whole thing runs between two points: What he wants, and what he thinks should be. Every thought in his head is directed to fixing a rule-straight line between them, and he calls that line: What Is. [...] On the other hand, every faggot or panty-sucker, or whip jockey, or SM freak, or baby-fucker, or even a motherfucker like me, we know --" and his hands came down like he was pushing something away: "We know, man, that there is what we want, there is what should be, and there is what is: and don't none of them got anything to do with each other unless --"
The bartender was shaking his head.
"-- unless we make it," Hogg went on anyway.
-- Hogg, p. 121
-- and also how those systems depend upon the surreptitious assistance of those "outside" the system. The status quo's assumption of control is unspoken; therefore, when endangered, it must be re-established via the unspeakable.

Oddly, though Hogg is a sadistic misogynist, he's not blindly sexist. Like some nightmarishly literal Hitchcock, he is, if anything, unusually perceptive and articulate about the operations of sexism in the world; he's obsessed with women's suffering because he enjoys seeing women suffer. Some of his monologues are downright consciousness-raising in their own fashion:

"Men hate bitches the way white men hate niggers. [...] Long as they do like we say they're suppose to do, everything always looks fine. But let one of them get even a little, teeny, weeny bit out of line, then you watch what happens -- we wanna kill. We may not kill, but we wanna kill. Well, if I was a bitch and knew what I know 'cause I ain't one, I'd get out there and start killin' first."
-- Hogg, p. 82
Around this pair of dark stars, one silent as death and the other an embodiment of destruction, orbit a host of lesser monsters and victims. After the introductory chapter (in which the narrator claims he'll "tell you some about me," only to give a clinical summary of his final day in an impromptu lemonade-stand of a whorehouse), the first half of the book introduces us to four professional rapists (gruff blond leader, black guy, Italian guy, awkward teenager -- Hollywood war movie casting), then follows them to work on three rapes through three carefully constructed and varied chapters.

It's hard work, as they point out. Our band emerges victorious, but not wholly without injury, even if the most serious wound, a hideously incompetent attempt at a Prince Albert, was self-inflicted, and even if their one (very satisfying) fatality was merely an tag-along amateur.

The second half of the book contains a kidnapping, a car crash, incest, slavery, coprophagy, the surprising appearance of two straightforwardly affectionate bi-racial couples, cop-fucking, a not-especially-premeditated-or-violent rape of a child, a brutal fight, and mass murder. Which is to say the mood is more relaxed and expansive.

I don't much like criticism-by-plot-summary, but here a plot summary seems necessary if only as a warning. A book such as this simply can't be recommended to everyone; or maybe I've just grown mellower about the need to push through certain limits, more cognizant of the occasional healing benefits of keeping limits in place.

However, as the receptions of Thomas Harris's and Dennis Cooper's comparatively tepid novels (not to mention self-examination) illustrate, there are readers who welcome -- or, if "welcome" is too strong a word, at least are willing to pay for -- explorations of those limits, which are, after all, limits of expression rather than limits of imagination or of the world. That's pretty much what "evil" signals as a literary term: anything from flirtation with, to a direct assault on, the terms of the unspeakable.[9]

The unspeakable finds a perfect spokesperson in Delany's mute narrator. And the strangest, most unreal moments of his tale do not arise from the superhuman physical enduance of its characters, but from his impossibly accurate transcriptions of attempts to tell the unspeakable "with the proper rhetorical flourish":

"Of course the only thing anybody is interested in, in tonight's news, is Dennis Harkner. Young Harkner, as of this broadcast still on the loose, has been on an afternoon -- and evening-long -- rampage -- allegedly been on an afternoon and evening-long rampage of mayhem and slaughter.... And the latest tragedy?"
-- Hogg, p. 144
"Young Harkner" -- Denny, the gangly teenager among the rapists -- is another of Hogg's protégés, older than the narrator but more naïve. Or at least more direct in his application of Hogg's teachings: Nothing is true; everything is "all right." Crucified by over-the-top adolescent horniness, Denny finds some temporary relief in the distraction of physical agony, only to have his stymied sexuality then work itself out through murder. Having created this monster, Hogg watches Denny's progress with the fond disbelief of a TV dad dealing with normal growing pains, even going to some effort to rescue him.

Hogg also goes out of his way to rescue the narrator; Hogg's world holds its own forms of kindness -- which, of course, aren't rewarded. And it holds its own forms of humor and suspense, its own variety of character and incident.... What it lacks is the illusion of shelter. In Hogg, home is where the violence is. There's no respite. Nor is there the possibility of communication: language is useful only to incite, to command, or to pile up into unattended monologues. The elements of Hogg's world are pleasure and pain; everything else must be sketched with those bare terms, and they're no more separable (and no more mistakable for each other) than the black-and-white terms which make up the world of an etching.

Of course, the viewer's perception of an etching is not a matter of black lines on white space; similarly, the reader's reaction to Hogg is not a matter of the reactions portrayed by the narrative: art brings about effects very different from what one defines as its material. What are those effects? Or, as the question's usually asked, "Why would you want to read such a book?"

This sort of treatment of "such a book" usually explains from high regretful moral ground that, even though (it goes without saying) the reading affords us no pleasure, "we" -- the insinuatingly inclusive "we" of politicians and reviewers -- cannot afford to ignore such dreadful goings-on; it speaks of the artist's painful obligation to diagnose societal ills, despite the protests of the patient that she feels fine, just fine....

Such rhetoric is well-intentioned, but, given the book's own stringency, I think -- to quote Hogg again -- "that would just turn my stomach, somehow."

Yes, I may be able to say (with some smugness) that my pleasure in Hogg isn't overtly sexual; nevertheless, I take pleasure in the book. By virtually any definition, this must be a perverse pleasure. I can claim (and the claim somehow gives relief) that the pleasure is inextricably threaded with pain -- but that hardly makes the pleasure less perverse.

On the contrary, I'd say, perversely, that both pain and relief are essential aspects of the readerly pleasure to be taken in Hogg. The book provides an unusually pure (because unusually "evil") example of a complex pleasure, peculiar to narrative art, which combines anxious passivity and complete control, a feeling of novelty and a feeling of recognition, innocent transgression and guilty confession all in one. Perhaps the mechanisms binding these feelings together have something in common with those which motivate Denny's self-mutilation and murder spree, or with those which lead Hogg and the narrator to their own peculiar habits; perhaps that's why I find Hogg so fascinating and so indefensibly satisfying.

And, as I begin to stray outside the bounds of criticism, perhaps it's safest for me to simply recommend Hogg as a perverse pleasure, with all the inconvenient intellectual and spiritual rewards attendant on such.


[7]K. Leslie Steiner, in "'The Scorpion Garden' Revisited" (The Straits of Messina, pp. 17-31) also notes the classically American prose of Hogg, although she oddly bypasses Hammett in favor of the more traditionally expressive and sentimental Raymond Chandler.

[8]Hammett's Continental Op is described as "a bit of a monster" in The Dain Curse. Readers of Hogg, starting with Delany himself, have consistently applied the same term to that novel's characters. Also note that Blacky, the narrator of "We, In Some Strange Power's Employ..." is called "monster" at the end of the story.

[9]Henry James's witticism at the expense of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil -- that if this is the ultimate evil, then the ultimate good must be "plumcake and eau de Cologne" -- depends on confusing this aesthetic definition of "evil" with ethical "evil," a very different thing.


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Copyright 1996 Ray Davis