On Rereading The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

“The Einstein Intersection” is undoubtedly a strange book.  It posits a far future in which humans have been destroyed in some sort of apocalyptic event, and an alien race that has colonized the Earth is attempting to come to grips with the history and mythos of the human race.  Into such a loose thematic structure Delany is able to throw in myths at seeming random:  Orpheus, Billy the Kid, Elvis, the Beatles, Jean Harlow, Jesus, the Devil, and so on.  Delany’s hero, Lobey, an Orpheus-type, embarks on a quest to save his dead loved one from Kid Death, and on the way has all sorts of picaresque adventures, discovering old human computers in the vast catacombs called the Source Caves, battling carnivorous plants, herding the dragons the locals use for food.  Fair enough, and entertaining.  It ultimately doesn’t make much sense, but such a loose plot structure allows a talented writer like Delany to paint evocative word pictures and spin complex thought pastiches, and that’s the point.  It’s like an elaborate Disneyland ride that the author is obviously making up as he goes along.

A few specific comments I want to make in light of modern publishing realities:  This book won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1968.  It’s a very short book; it reads more like a novella.  It must have just barely gone over the 40,000 word limit to qualify for a novel.  The length is perfect for the material and allows Delany to keep his images in sharp focus without watering them down with excess wordage.  The length was not unusual back then in the 1960s.  Many novels were short, lean paperback originals, easy to carry and quick to read.  Mainstream publishers nowadays, though, insist on bulk in novels.  In guidelines for writers, minimum length is often listed at 80,000 or even 100,000 words.  Publishers feel that books must be bulky, telephone book-sized doorstoppers or the reading public won’t be interested.  Bullshit, of course, but that’s the thinking that comes out of New York these days.  The indie trend, though, is towards shorter novels – or rather let’s say that self-publishing has given writers a new-found or newly reclaimed freedom to write at whatever length fits the story.  It’s very possible that nowadays “The Einstein Intersection” would have difficulty being sold and marketed as a full-length novel, at least by the mainstream.

Another point concerns the loose structure of the novel and the fact that the author intermingles accounts of his trip through Europe while he was writing the book with the text of the novel.  It’s obvious from the various diary entries that Delany was making it up as he went along with only the vaguest of ideas of a destination rather than working from a detailed outline.  This brought to mind the book Dean Wesley Smith has recently been posting on his blog chapter by chapter called “Writing Into the Dark.”  Delany’s concept is to intermingle his own contemporary journey with the journey of his mythical hero in the novel, showing how art and life interrelate and there is no separating the two.

He’s right, of course.  There is no real differentiation between the journey of life the writer is engaged in and the words he is creating.  I discovered this as I struggled to express myself as a young writer, finally taking the physical step of actually setting out on the road to symbolize my stepping out as a writer with a distinctive voice.  In the course of writing my last two novels I have been writing into the dark, setting down a minimum number of words daily late at night when my other work is done.  The results, to me at least, have been more than satisfactory.  There is no point at which a writer completely divorces himself from life and works in a cocoon-like, sterile environment completely from memory.  Life goes on around and within the writer, and outside influences inevitably impress themselves into the work.  A writer is the sum of everything he has experienced up to the moment of time words are set down on paper – or computer screen, or whatever.  He puts down a certain number of words, gets up, does things in whatever environment of life he has found himself, goes back to the page, and new circumstances and events have irrevocably changed him so that he is a new person this time, and the next, and the next.  Every individual act of writing involves an evolution of environment, circumstance, and personality, however subtle.  Some writers, admittedly, seek to minimize this by adhering to elaborate, rigidly structured, pre-plotted frameworks.  Others, like Delany, embrace the fluidity and dynamism of existence – ride with the flow, so to speak.  It’s like the difference between a formal piece of studio music that might be over in two or three minutes and an elaborate improvisation at a concert.  The Grateful Dead were master of improvisation back in the day.  They could take a two or three minute song off one of their albums and play it for twenty or thirty minutes or even an hour in concert, creating of it a new thing, a new event.

So that’s what “The Einstein Intersection” is, in a sense: a work of succinct improvisation by a virtuoso wordsmith.  The structure of the story allows the creation of flamboyant, beautifully-written scenes to hang onto the frame in dizzying seeming-complexity.  But it is, in fact, quite a simple allegory beneath the dazzle.

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