Plagues and Carnivals in Delany's “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”

by on Sep.20, 2011

As part of a virtual reading group, over the past few months I’ve been working my way through Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon series (1979-1987); we’re in the middle of discussing Flight from Nevèrÿon, the third of four books in the series.

Flight from Nevèrÿon includes in it “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” an experimental novel of crisis responding to the AIDS situation in early 1980s NYC. It’s been interesting reading it in the context of recent posts by Joyelle and Johannes on plagues, plague states, and the notion of infectious poetics.

“The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is preceded by two other tales in this book, all of which dialectically relate. The other Nevèrÿon books are also a series of linked tales, each describing layers of the fantasy world of Nevèrÿon as it “transition[s] from a barter to a money economy” (Tales 12). Over here we have Gorgik the Liberator freeing slaves and erotically resignifying the iron slave collar he himself once wore; over there we have Pryn, a young barbarian woman who brazenly flies a dragon before embarking on a journey of self-education that will lead her to Gorgik, to the mummers, to a scheming wizard, and more; roving all around is Raven, a rascally, wonderfully überfeminist warrior woman brandishing a double-bladed sword, who pops up here and there leaving shadows for Pryn to conjecture about; among many other characters.

“The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is the only tale (I believe – haven’t read the last book yet) that directly references the present; though certainly the rest of the book and series is informed by and written to inform/document the present, elsewhere never is the present (except in appendices) pulled directly into the story. So when TPC opens – on a bridge – in contemporary (early 1980s) NYC, in first person from the author-narrator’s perspective, it’s a jarring and dramatic shift.

The tale alternates between two fragmented, interacting narratives, one taking place in early 80s NYC, the other in the fictive world of Nevèrÿon. The contemporary narrative comprises Delany’s documentation of the rising numbers of AIDS cases in the US and the paranoia prompted by (fictional) news of a serial killer targeting hustlers in NYC, as well as commentary on the tale’s fictive strategies. This narrative frames/is framed by the plague narrative Delany is simultaneously writing into his fictional world – a plague quite similar to AIDS in its epidemiology and symptoms, though Delany was working with very limited, mostly anecdotal, knowledge of HIV/AIDS at the time.


“The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is considered the first (or at least first published by a mainstream press) fictive response to and representation of AIDS, and it is notable for its refusal to pretend to represent it at all. As a whole, Flight from Nevèrÿon is obsessed with excessive signification and displaceability of meaning (and power). The book opens with Gorgik strategically producing excessive signification by casting off what markers he can, going underground, and letting rumors about him proliferate, elevating his mystery and therefore his power.

Serving as a counterpoint to Gorgik’s use of proliferative signification is The Master. A man of nobility, the Master, in a move similar to Gorgik’s, long ago gave up his name and history to slip into a less visible role as a teacher. Yet, he finds the effects of this strategy as troubling as Gorgik finds them empowering. In addressing the “monster” that others have made of his former name and identity in their spreading of fabrications about his history, the Master expresses considerable distress:

That simple act of unnaming started something of a fable, which still grows and moves and develops in the city and its suburbs, quite apart from me.

Oh, there’ve been moments when my reputation seemed a light rippling out into darkness, myself its central flame. More often, however, it’s some gnarled, preposterous monster, inhabiting my city with me, whom I’ve never met…The monster often comes close, but it refuses to confront me personally: I must wait for people to to tell me about it….But the doorsteps of Neveryóna, my real home, I now suspect, were what I wanted to protect from the grotesquerie all knowledge becomes when it moves too far from the knower. (203-4)

In his youth, the Master tells us (he has taken over the narration in these sections), he set off on a grandiose journey to follow the path of a great inventor through Nevèrÿon. He found his map failed him at every turn: villages had moved, the land and its histories were not fully traceable. The Master presents a thesis of uncontrolled, destabilizing signification as productive of monstrosity – a kind of contamination of Truth – via the displacement and mutation of information transfer and unmappability.

(The Master, of course, desires to master Truth. He is in this sense presented as something of a pathetic creature — and yet he takes up so much space in the tale! This seems to be a comment on “mastery’s” entitlement to plop itself down in the middle of all the more interesting material.)

The Master represents a tension that drives Delany’s treatment of AIDS as crisis: there is this urgency to know, to understand, and to represent, and also a recognition that complete knowledge, comprehension, and representation are impossible, and that the attempt to achieve them is another kind of monster-making – the desire to control, stabilize, reduce. Of one of the central figures in the NYC narrative, Joey, a hustler and friend, Delany/the narrator writes:

What’s hardest, in the end, for me to accept it that none of these emblematic images fixes Joey’s life. Rather, it’s the movement between them that the text does not capture — or document — a movement that may, at least in part, be as bewildering to him as it is to me.  (352)


In response to the fictive plague in Neveryóna (Nevèrÿon’s capital city) – the princess and her administration decide to hold a Carnival aimed at taking people’s minds away from it. The princess invites Gorgik the Liberator to join her cabinet, and the Carnival will celebrate his acceptance of this invitation and serve as his welcome. Neveryóna’s Carnival thus is not spectacle or even theater but rather a conservative gesture aimed at pacifying the masses. It’s stagy, sure — staged by the monarchy — and so suspect as art/theater/spectacle. In a meta section referencing Defoe and Artaud (and that pretty well describes the scene in Nosferatu that Johannes posted), Delany writes:

Even in Artaud’s conservative schema, once ‘official theater’ is banished during the plague, the reemergence, here and there, of spontaneous theatrical gestures in the demoralized populace at large throughout the city represents, for him, the birth of true and valid art/theater/spectacle.

Though not burdened with a modern theory of germs — not obsessed with acronyms — Nevèrÿon certainly has some intuitive knowledge of contagion. And despite (or because of) the inhabitants’ suspicions of its officially sanctioned Carnival and its official invitation to the Liberator to take part in its cabinet, this unusual response has opened a marginal space for a certain radical gesture.

Do I, however, know what it is? (230)

The radical gesture Delany invents is the Calling of the Amnewor, an underground gathering that takes place during the Carnival. In a stirring if baffling ceremony, a Wizard purports to raise the Amnewor, a border-god, and in so doing reseal the borders between life and death that have deteriorated in the wake of the plague. As he closes the strange ceremony, the Wizard exhorts:

But remember, as you speak, it is the discrepancy, the contradiction, the gap between what you recall and what you can say (even as you strive for accuracy and articulation) that vouchsafes our hope, that indicates the possibility of something more, just as, at this end, its total articulation (the complete knowledge that one lies) signs, again, our failure.


In his interview on experimental writing in Para*doxa, included in his volume of essays and interviews About Writing, Delany explains the difference between the (social realist) novel of crisis (e.g., Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun) and the experimental novel of crisis (with Joanna Russ’s The Female Man being his prime example) and why he chose the experimental mode to respond to the AIDS situation in 1983:

Because of the topicality and the urgency of my own undertaking, I felt it was worth the risk to hoist up on my own shaky shoulder the burden of the experimental, when I decided to take on AIDS, life, and death in a novel started in ’83 and finished in June ’84.

That judgment of the crisis was NOT: I must reach as many people as possible. Rather, it was: The people I reach, I must reach as INTENSELY as possible. …To write that book, I said: Even if I don’t use it all, I’ve got to have the full range of the contemporary aesthetic armamentarium from which to choose…I’ve got things to say that are too important and that will not fit within the structures of narrative fiction as it is usually handed to us.

Up to this tale, Tales of Nevèrÿon is constructed as a document of the present in meticulously constructed fantasy-historical guise. And here comes contemporary NYC invading the body of the text, assaulting the walls, art infected by the real, its cells of necessity mutating to accommodate it. Delany gives us another example of Joyelle’s “wading through the plague ground of the present,” in this case one in which the plague ground is literally that — the scene of a devastating and incomprehensible epidemic that requires the mutation of narrative into new forms, new bridgings, new possibilities and new urgencies.

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7 comments for this entry:
  1. Ken Chen

    I’ve had this book for several years without reading it and was thinking of dumping it until I saw your blurb for it on Goodreads the other day. My question is this: is it a fun book? Does it contain that mysterious substance known as thrillpower?

  2. megan milks

    hi ken – i vouch for the thrillpower! but it is part of a series and i’d recommend reading the series in full. as a whole, Tales of Neveryon is rich in story and wonder – highly engrossing and a marvelous example of worldmaking and art-as-philosophy.

  3. adam strauss

    I adore SD: havn’t read this constellation but have read other serial novels of his. His ability to blend realism to mega-fantasy is exciting, and am I misremembering or is he a really world-class stylist?

    Plus, how not love a book whose star is a fictionalization of Marilyn Hacker!

  4. megan milks

    hi adam – you said it – chip is very much a world-class stylist. i’m rereading his About Writing collection now, and the attention he pays to the sentence is edifying.

  5. Johannes

    I love this: “The people I reach, I must reach as INTENSELY as possible.”


  6. Ken Chen

    Are you aware that Samuel Delaney had a brief career writing Wonder Woman?

  7. megan milks

    i was not – but that makes a whole lot of sense.

    there is a lot to know about samuel delany!