While many readers have focused on the sex, with which, yes, `The Mad Man' is rife, this is only one element in the novel among many. As a straight reader, I found myself engrossed in what is essentially a high-brow murder-mystery.
Timothy Hasler, a brilliant Korean-American philosopher and linguist, has been knifed to death at the Pit, a seedy gay bar. Years later, John Marr, a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation is based on Hasler's work, becomes obsessed with uncovering the circumstances surrounding Hasler's death. A gay man himself, Marr is outraged at "the self-righteous drivel" that one academician uses to excuse himself from completing a biography of Hasler---that is, he was horrified by Hasler's sexual tastes. In search of answers, Marr retraces Hasler's footsteps, even taking an apartment in the building where Hasler once lived. More and more, Marr turns up in quarters of the city generally avoided by the bourgeoisie.
"In these doorways, bars, porn-magazine and peep-show shops, the movie theaters where sight itself is so dimmed, in such theatrical darkness true vision is ... largely absent. In one sense, all the encounters ... here take place on some dreary Audenesque plain where a thousand people mill, where no one knows anyone else, and there is nowhere to sit down. [...] Any exchange resembling real conversation takes place quietly and ceases when someone else walks by."
Hyper-educated, for the most part middle class, Marr unexpectedly finds himself involved in a series of intimate encounters with the homeless men in his neighborhood. His sexual exploits gradually drift further and further from the mainstream until a passage in one of Hasler's journal's makes perfect sense both to him and to the reader.
" ...To live within the tethers of desire is-again and again-to be shocked at how far they have come loose from reason ..."
Delany, however, is not merely interested in sexual liberation, in adults pursuing their desires no matter how bizarre (so long as everyone consents and violence is not involved), he meticulously presents an assertion that, like an image in a hall of mirrors, repeat itself, evolving into analogy and gaining in magnitude as it does. Take for example, the so-called "Hasler grammars", described as "the realization that large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems ..." In other words, clear and observable order is built upon a foundation rather nebulously composed of what would be considered chaotic. Apply this linguistic construct to recent Manhattan history and it is, in a sense, a message to Rudy Giuliani that without the city's underworld and its denizens, the law and order---the Disneyland---he so wants New York to be, simply could not be; one exists only in relation to the other.
From the rarefied and esoteric to the instinctive and purely carnal, from the grand analogy to the concrete detail minutely observed, `The Mad Man' is a dense weave that rivals Delany's most richly layered narratives. Recently re-released in an exceptionally handsome edition, I recommend it to any reader who wants an author to engage him, or her, in a multi-level game of chess.