Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Einstein Intersection

by Samuel R. Delany

We begin with exposition and end in what may as well be ellipses, or at least a “To Be Continued…” with no hope of return. A definable space, a geographical distance, is crossed over the span of Samuel R. Delany’s novella, “The Einstein Intersection,” but this space is ultimately fractal – a multiplicity opening outward to indeterminacy. Lo Lobey travels from the small, sheep-herding community of his birth to Branning-at-sea, a teeming metropolis “someone had started building…[and that] had gotten out of hand and started building itself.” Lo Lobey is in some ways a cipher for Orpheus or perhaps Ringo Starr, though that’s an imprecise relation either way. He is a mutant, using his psychic “difference” he can play the melodies within people’s heads on his knife that doubles as a flute.

The novel is concerned with Lobey’s quest to avenge the death of his lover, Friza. He vows to kill her murderer, Kid Death, a redheaded Billy the Kid cipher, and somehow bring her back to life and reunite with her. This leads to a journey investigating the difference between what is said on the page, and what is meant by a word. Lobey is our guide, often speaking directly to us backwards in time from our far future. Delany describes him as “ugly and grinning most of the time,” with “…a whole lot of big nose and gray eyes and wide mouth crammed on a small brown face proper for a fox.” This description puts a certain image in the reader’s head, it’s precise enough, but we must remember the variance of language, as so often exploited by Delany. Language and time are here wonderfully ambiguous.

“The Einstein Intersection” is a novel of travel, but not so much of a specific journey. Okay, so a gap is traveled from a somewhere to another somewhere, but the novel ends in transit, amidst an in-conclusion. Mythology provides some lubrication. Myths spiral around each other, grouped in double-helixes and weaving amidst Lobey, Friza, Kid Death, and all the other characters of “The Einstein Intersection.” But these myths do not explain away the novel, they serve as the springboard towards an ineffable mystery. Delany addresses the reader at one point, telling us “the central subject of the book is myth.” But things are never unilateral in his books. As I stated above, the novel does not conclude in a conventional end-stop. Lobey decides to continue traveling beyond the strictures of the novel - this time amongst the stars instead of on land. As this ending expands the narrative infinitely forward, it also loops the story back to the beginning. We learn that Lo Hawk, Lobey’s village elder at the book’s opening, is also a mutant who “…left this world, worked for a while on the moon, on the outer planets, then on worlds that were far away.” Travel leads to further travel. Writing leads to writing.

The book was written during a year aboard, in which Samuel Delany traveled the Mediterranean, to Spain, to Greece, and back to New York, our perennial port city. Each chapter is preceded by prescient quotes from writers as diverse as James Joyce, Gregory Corso, Jean Genet and Emily Dickinson. Delany also appears in a series of Author’s Notes as the writer visibly in the act of writing. In Greece, he watches as “…children played with orange peels in the mud…[while] some others chase a red-headed boy.” We learn this incites Delany to consider “perhaps on rewriting I shall change Kid Death’s hair from black to red.” Mind you, the character’s hair has already been rewritten as red before we encounter this note in the text. It has always been red for us, the readers. Again, both in procedural increment and temporality, Delany is not so much leaping back and forth in time as acquainting the text with an all-encompassing “now.” Compare the temporal hiccups in “The Einstein Intersection” with the heady linear leaps of “Empire Star,” discussed elsewhere on this blog. These consistencies through inconsistency advocate a unity more holistic than simple obsessive thematic repetition.

One of Delany’s textual obsessions is travel. As Lydia Davis reminds us, travel is a means of writing as writing is also a method of travel. The progression of the book as a written act is affiliated with the spatial progression of Delany across Europe. And while we’re at it, this all compares with Lobey’s trek across a blasted world. Additionally, Delany considers age as progression. Remember, Delany was something of a prodigy in the science fiction community of the 1960s. He published five books, winning the prestigious Nebula Award for “Babel-17,” by the time he was 24, which happens to be my own age. In an Author’s Note later on in the novel, Delany writes “I remember a year and a half ago when I finished The Fall of the Towers, saying to myself, you are twenty-one years old, going on twenty-two: you are too old to get by as a child prodigy… still, the images of youth plague me, Chatterton, Greenburg, Radiquet. By the end of TEI I hope to have excised them.” Ah! Now this addresses something contingent with all of the Delany books I have discussed on this blog. A subterranean thematic has surfaced!

So far, I have read and approached four early Samuel R. Delany novels – “The Ballad of Beta-2” (1965), “Empire Star” (1966), “Babel-17” (also 1966), and now 1967’s “The Einstein Intersection.” All four deal with initiation or education. In that regard, their endings are often inconclusive, that is to say, expansive rather than narrowing. These novels end so that the narrative can engage in an open act of continuing. They also serve as praxis, initiated by their young author, to move through a text and ultimately arrive at still further texts. Writing leads to writing. Travel leads to travel. Spider tells us the long-absent humans haunting “The Einstein Intersection” first used an intersection of Einsteinian logic and Goedelian irrationalism “…to reach the limits of the known universe with ships and projection forces…[and then to go] somewhere else, to no world in this continuum.” The myths that provide the scaffolding of the novel are left behind, they are the archetypal husks humanity has shaken off. Transcended. Myths are not to be sanctified or dictated in detail. Rather, myth is a tool to arrive at still greater mysteries, those realities beyond language. Delany similarly uses writing to this effect – the text is an act instead of a product.

The Dove tells Lobey the alien beings that have adopted humanity’s husks “…are worn out with trying to be human.” They have missed the mark in their attempts at replication. The forms they assume are misshapen and often non-functional, while mankind’s language inadequately expresses experience outside humanity’s kin. Human language cannot describe extra-human experience. The disconnect of language is emphasized beautifully at a latter moment in the novel, one in which Delany returns to one of his key themes – the city or polis. Lobey describes his entry into the metropolis of Branning-at-sea using the vocabulary at his command, that of the country: “…rivers of men and torrents of women, storms of voices, rains of fingers and jungles of arms. But it’s not fair to Branning. It’s not fair to the country either.” The referential capacity of language contains distinct boundaries. Language is pliant, or more accurately promiscuous, and it wavers in its attention: its references dance amongst potential sources.

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