How does one go about responding to something like Samuel Delany’s Hogg? Or perhaps a better question would be how I or how ought I go about responding, as that is the task before me. Most basically and uncritically, we have before us in that piece what I see to be the best example of a combination of explicit revulsion and a hidden, forbidden-feeling sort of fascination in a reader response. It was a rude and rough transition to make from something like Lolita, which was so disconcerting because we were really able to get in the mind of a psychopath and if not empathize with him, at least understand his thought through the first half of the book, to something like this novel, though to be fair, there’s probably not any real way to transition smoothly into Delany. Hogg, unlike Lolita, largely resists the development any sort of feelings of similitude with any of the characters, including the narrator. Certainly, I’d hope that we’d be unable to identify with the rapists for hire and their modes of conduct, but Delaney’s narrator is so passive, complicit, and faceless that we find him difficult to empathize with as well. It’s as if the whole time we read and things happen to him, we just want him to rise up and rebel against the abuse that he encounters. This is because he seems like a relatively relatable narrator; he isn’t the one actively seeking to engage in such abhorrent activities, and he describes events in a way that would initially implicitly indicate to us that he shares our impulse to characterize what’s occurring as depravity. He seems like a normal narrator, a mere observer of events. However, his position is complicated when he participates in the abuse or becomes complicit in taking abuse, thus forcing us to question our relationship to the narrator and to the events. How are we really any different from him if all we do is effectively watch the same way that he does?
Speaking to the characterization of the narrator as a decently reliable source (excepting those problematic moments of complicity or voyeurism), he seems to describe and regard the situations around him with a particular sort of insight that proves to the reader that he has adequate, and maybe even special, powers of perception. For example, we see what we imagine would be a realistic characterization of all the customers of the “business” Pedro is running with his sister and the narrator out of the basement of their building. He describes these clients grotesquely, as “dirty,” “sweaty,” (14) having disgusting eating habits, having horrible conceptions of personal hygiene, such as keeping “black-rimmed nails” and smelling “like something burning in front of a vegetable stand on a hot day” (12) and physically unattractive, with attributes such as a “nest of acne” (14). Similarly, as he watches Hogg rape that first woman (whose name we don’t even get to know, interestingly), he describes the scene in painstaking detail and goes on to describe Hogg himself in a way that someone repulsed by him might. The narrator describes his smell as that “like a stopped toilet-stall, where somebody had left six months of dirty socks, in the back of a butcher shop with the refrigeration on the blink, on fire” (23). This sort of description, as it elicits a response of revulsion from the reader, might indicate to us that, since it’s coming to us as filtered through the narrator, he shares in our feelings of revulsion. However, it’s disorienting and disconcerting when we find that this may not necessarily be the case. In the scene where Hogg first rapes the narrator, he, the narrator, tells us that as Hogg “kept on fucking…I was pushing like I had to take a shit. That felt good,” (28). This idea that rape of any sort could possibly feel good is deeply troubling to us. How could this violent act as a blatant disregard of honoring what conventionally makes the act of intercourse sacred possibly feel good?
Statements like these call directly into question two things, one more immediately than the other. The first and more obvious is the actual authority of the narrator. Can we actually rely on him to transmit to us a perspective that we would get viewing the situation? Or one that might portray the situation accurately? However, what’s called into question extends further. As we take a step back from the immediate issue of narrator authority, we must consider our own role as implicated by this cursory question. Most of what the narrator seems to describe seems as though we should have no reason to question it. Thus he seems to be mostly reliable. If he’s mostly reliable, it may not necessarily be implausible that all of what he says has a grain of truth to it. And then what would that say about how we personally might react when placed in similar situations? Or what would it say about the way in which we participate in a similar complicity as the narrator (one that so abhors us) by simply continuing to read the book?
Posted by Loy’s Baedeker.