The Anti-Canon: Samuel R Delany's The Mad Man - by Jonathan Kemp

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

The Mad Mad Samuel R Delaney
The Mad Mad Samuel R Delaney

“Lying there, I thought: people feel guilty about wanting to do stuff like this. But this is the reward for actually doing it, for finding someone who wants to do it with you: The fantasies of it may be drenched in shame, but the act culminates in the knowledge no one has been harmed, no one has been wounded, no one has been wronged.” -- The Mad Man, p. 458

What I love most about this book is the way it blends the intellectual with the downright dirty. There are long, descriptive passages detailing sexual acts involving piss-drinking, shit-eating, smegma, toe jam – any body fluid you can think of. Some of this could only be erotic to someone sharing the same predilections. Mostly, though, the aim doesn’t seem to be sexual arousal, but more an exercise in tolerance, or empathy. Like De Sade, Delany seems to be endlessly cataloguing these sexual acts in order to move beyond mere pornography, to enter a terrain of ethics, even boredom. These extreme acts are presented in such a gleefully shameless way that one cannot help but appreciate the pleasure being taken by the participants. In his opening “Disclaimer”, Delany calls it a “pornutopic fantasy”, yet as Reed Woodman points out, the style employed is “mainstream realism” rather than fantasy.

Whilst Delany is best known as a science fiction author, here he actively challenges, or cross-fertilizes, genre, blurring boundaries, practicing – to quote the fictitious philosopher Timothy Hasler whose life and work the novel explores - “invention to the brink of intelligibility”. A self-confessed Foucauldian, Delany has chosen to explore madness and sexuality, or the madness of sexuality, in terms which seriously challenge the reader. As one reviewer writes, it’s “a big old friendly dog of a book, with, like many big old friendly dogs, habits and appetites which might offend the finicky.” The Mad Man received a Lambda Literary Award nomination for "Best Gay Mystery," although its strength is really that it doesn’t quite fit any genre.


Delany claims the novel was inspired by his outrage at an article on AIDS by Harold Brodkey that appeared in The New Yorker in the June 1993 which began, "I have AIDS. I am surprised that I do. I have not been exposed since the nineteen-seventies, which is to say that my experiences, my adventures with homosexuality took place largely in the nineteen-sixties, and back then I relied on time and abstinence to indicate my degree of freedom from infection and to protect others and myself." At the very start of the novel, The Mad Man’s narrator, John Marr, writes: "I do not have AIDS. I'm surprised that I don't . . ."

It’s a mad book – part detective story, part philosophical treatise, part porn fantasy, part love letter to New York, part socio-historical exploration of gay sexual subcultures.  The narrator, John Marr, is a young black academic, doing a PhD on a Korean philosopher called Timothy Hasler, when he’s not sucking off homeless men, or drinking piss at the Mineshaft. The novel recounts events from the early 1980s up to the early 1990s. Hasler was murdered in the early 1970s, in mysterious circumstances, outside a sleazy gay bar, and part of the novel’s narrative trajectory is Marr’s search for the truth about Hasler’s death. That search isn’t particularly dominant, however, and the novel meanders and takes detours into explicitly detailed accounts of Marr’s sex life – his frequent visits to porn cinemas and piss clubs, his sexual encounters with homeless (straight) men. In a long, 70 page letter to a straight (and straight-laced) female colleague at university, Marr rehearses some of the ideas Delany will present in his later nonfiction text, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999).

As a poststructuralist, Delany is interested in exploring the multiplicity of the self, the ruse of identity, the betrayals of language and the impossibility of any account of a person claiming to represent the truth of that person. As such, this multi-genre, many-faceted novel undermines its own claims to truth all the time: no one person ever has the full picture, not even the narrator, and certainly never the reader. For example, we never discover much in the way of biographical data for the narrator, who, after one particularly juicy encounter with a horse-hung young hobo, writes:

Suppose I was researching, not the life of some genius philosopher with his books and articles and a wake of articulate friends and acquaintances, but rather a homeless kid in and out of mental hospitals for chronic masturbation and indecent exposure? […] How would I even start?

This question of research, of how the truth might be textually constructed, of how thought is always predicated on language, is threaded throughout the novel. Hasler’s textual legacy – the philosophical articles, the sci-fi stories, the journals and letters - do not begin to represent his life, let alone explain the mystery of his death. Yet they are all Marr has.


As the book’s title might suggest, Nietzsche’s philosophy plays a big role, not only the obvious parable of the mad man, but also his account of Apollonian versus Dionysian creative energies, which haunt Hasler’s own philosophy (whose only full book is entitled Pascal, Nietzsche, Peirce), especially his concept of informal versus formal systems, which Delany’s entire novel seems to be bent on provocatively demonstrating:

What is inchoate to Hasler’s work, from beginning to end – what he best represents – is the realization that large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems; more accurately, structures that are so informal it's questionable whether they can be called systematic at all are prerequisites for those structures that can, indeed, be recognized as systems in the first place (Delany 1994, 243)

 The question of who, exactly, is the mad man of the novel’s title, snakes throughout the novel, as the sanity of nearly every single character is challenged and the very concept of reason or rationality – especially in relation to desire – is shaken and interrogated.

As Reed Woodhouse writes, “One of the central notions of The Mad Man is that philosophy can aid rethinking of cultural values, even if that rethinking cannot be fully expressed in academically ‘philosophical’ form”

Ultimately, it is The Mad Man’s fierce, sexy intelligence which makes it worth reading. Its refusal to compromise, its intelligence and generosity, its humanity and joyfulness. As Ray Davis writes in ‘Delany’s Dirt’, “what's shocking is not just that it's so clear-sighted, but that it's so happy”. The Mad Man is a big, open, generous book, inviting the reader to reassess their own ideas about desire, sociality, ethics, and morality.

Jonathan Kemp's first novel, London Triptych won the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award in 2011. His second novel, Ghosting is out in March 2015 (Myriad Editions). He lives and works in London. You can find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter @JonathanMKemp