Arnold Hawley, a gay, African–American poet, has lived in NYC for most of his life. Dark Reflections traces Hawley's life in three sections — in reverse order. Part one: Hawley, at 50 years old, wins the an award for his sixth book of poems. Part two explores Hawley's unhappy marriage, while the final section recalls his college days. Dark Reflections, moving back and forth in time, creates an extraordinary meditation on social attitudes, loneliness, and life's triumphs.
Samuel Ray Delany, also known as "Chip," is an award-winning American science fiction author. He was born to a prominent black family on April 1, 1942, and raised in Harlem. His mother, Margaret Carey Boyd Delany, was a library clerk in the New York Public Library system. His father, Samuel Ray Delany, Senior, ran a successful Harlem undertaking establishment, Levy & Delany Funeral Home, on 7th Avenue, between 1938 and his death in 1960. The family lived in the top two floors of the three-story private house between five- and six-story Harlem apartment buildings. Delany's aunts were Sadie and Bessie Delany; Delany used some of their adventures as the basis for the adventures of his characters Elsie and Corry in the opening novella Atlantis: Model 1924 in his book of largely autobiographical stories Atlantis: Three Tales.
Delany attended the Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, during which he was selected to attend Camp Rising Sun, the Louis August Jonas Foundation's international summer scholarship program. Delany and poet Marilyn Hacker met in high school, and were married in 1961. Their marriage lasted nineteen years. They had a daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany (b. 1974), who spent a decade working in theater in New York City.
Delany was a published science fiction author by the age of 20. He published nine well-regarded science fiction novels between 1962 and 1968, as well as several prize-winning short stories (collected in Driftglass  and more recently in Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories ). His eleventh and most popular novel, Dhalgren, was published in 1975. His main literary project through the late 1970s and 1980s was the Return to Nevèrÿon series, the overall title of the four volumes and also the title of the fourth and final book.
Delany has published several autobiographical/semi-autobiographical accounts of his life as a black, gay, and highly dyslexic writer, including his Hugo award winning autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water.
Since 1988, Delany has been a professor at several universities. This includes eleven years as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a year and a half as an English professor at the University at Buffalo. He then moved to the English Department of Temple University in 2001, where he has been teaching since. He has had several visiting guest professorships before and during these same years. He has also published several books of criticism, interviews, and essays. In one of his non-fiction books, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), he draws on personal experience to examine the relationship between the effort to redevelop Times Square and the public sex lives of working-class men, gay and straight, in New York City.
In 2007, Delany was the subject of a documentary film, The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. The film debuted on April 25 at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.
This book is centered on Arnold Hawley, an aging Black gay poet living alone in New York. Divided in three parts, the first part titled The Prize shows the very unsavoury side of publishing and the disappointments and struggles of being a writer and artist, Arnold is in his 50s and later 70s in near-poverty/poverty. The second part entitled Vashti in The Dark is about the bizarre, short-lived and , in the end, traumatic marriage Arnold gets in in his mid thirties, and the third part The Book of Pictures about the suppression of sexuality and developing insecurities and self-hatred Arnold experiences in his young age. With the development of the story and each segment, brings more understanding to the protagonist.
Aunt Bea becomes Arnold’s guardian when his parents die, she’s a caring woman whose search for knowledge and love for the arts inspires the same in Arnold. Yet there’s an environment of decorum and respectability which at the time of Arnold’s youth cannot give Arnold the answers and knowledge that he needs. As a child, precocious as he is, Arnold asks a doctor about the frequency of homosexuality to which he is answered that the case is one in five thousand and non-existent in Black people and although he reads from the books available to him in libraries, the information he finds is insufficient. All this is before the Stonewall riots of the late 1960s and when Arnold finally finds the answers he needs that might have remedied the loneliness and repression he has carried for years leads to this rather painful truth and sad observation:
“One night, when he leaned the book against the lamp’s bronze base and turned off the light on his bedside table, Arnold lay awake thinking: “How … cruel! Even if it is the most debilitating of conditions (which, were it anywhere near as common as Dr. Kinsey said, made it seem unlikely): how cruel , to take us as children and impose such isolating loneliness. Tonight, Arnold thought, in Pittsfield and in Queens and in Appleton and in Fishtown and God-knows-where-else, children are awake, in bed, as I am now, pondering their approaching deaths from this … disease, in the midst of a loneliness sharp enough to clog their ears and scatter their eyes and cloy their throat with grave dust. And, as he had not in a while, Arnold began to cry. Why, why, why lie to them as I was lied to?”
Perhaps in a way Arnold Hawley is the answer to the question which is difficult to think about, let alone reflect on: What and who would I be if the knowledge that was crucial in my development arrived late, or even worse, never arrived at all?
Delany has written an incredible book, the complexity of its protagonist, the structure of the novel and the revelations in it among them what it means to be a Black writer in the literary world, sexual repression and homophobia, and the loneliness and the struggles of an artist, I’m still reeling from this. What a wonderful journey discovering more and more with a writer that’s fast becoming a favourite.
'In his apartment, save two in the living room and three in the kitchen, every wall was covered with bookshelves, the books themselves - mostly paperbacks - dim and spine out. Really, it was like living in the storage cellar of a bookstore. Yet he'd have it no other way. For isn't this where, finally, the village had its heart?'
One of my 2021 reading goals is to catch up on favourite authors and books that have fallen by the wayside. There is always so much to be distracted by. This year is no exception so far, as I have already found myself reading everything but the books I had planned to. Heck, I even made a list!
‘Dark Reflections’ is a case in point. I bought the trade paperback when it was originally published in 2007, as I had completed my MA on Delany in 2001 and made a point of collecting all of his books. It ended up on the bookshelf … and I never read it. Then I worked abroad for a few years, the house back home was sold, and the book went missing in the process.
Recently I switched from a Kindle Unlimited to a Scribd subscription, and lo and behold found a Dover Thrift ebook of ‘Dark Reflections’! It has a simply glorious cover pic of Delany in a floral purple shirt and tied-back long silver hair, resembling a resplendent hippie guru from the Summer of Love (well, at least that pic is way better than the cover of ‘Stories for Chip’, where Delany looks like a blue Papa Smurf, but that is another story).
Last week while scrolling through my saved books on Scribd, I realised that the ebook had … disappeared. Well, no bother, I could always just buy a Kindle version on Amazon. Except it had mysteriously disappeared from there too. I checked on the Dover website itself, and the only edition listed was a new trade paperback.
By now I was quite annoyed and stubbornly determined to read this book, which it seems had been eluding me for years. I tracked down a PDF for loan on the Open Library website, and strained my eyesight for three nights reading it on my laptop.
I have been thinking what to write, as this has been one of those rare instances where the reading experience was so overwhelming that I am (literally) at a loss for words. It is simply one of the best books that Delany has ever written. Why on earth has it taken me so long to discover this?
My reading relationship with Delany is a special one. I read all of the traditional SF classics from the local library when I was a teenager, but the one from that time that has always stuck with me is ‘The Jewels of Aptor’. I would like to say it is the first SF book I ever read, but surely that cannot be true. Then I was tiptoeing around the genre, gravitating to the usual suspects like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Simak and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith.
How did I discover the name of Delany, and what drew me to ‘The Jewels of Aptor’ in the first place? Probably because it was such an unusual hybrid genre novel, and unlike anything I had read up to that point. I would only get to read ‘Dhalgren’ many years later when I found a copy in a university bookshop.
At that stage I was still in my salad days, to paraphrase Shakespeare, and still quite a few years away from coming out myself, which is when I first read ‘The Motion of Light in Water’ (I will never forget Delany’s description of St Marks Baths in its glory days, and how I wished I could be there – just as ‘Jewels’ had transported me not only to another world, but into a different [better?] version of my much younger self so many years earlier).
It is incredible how some authors – and there are only a precious handful – that you seem to read and gravitate towards, and whom you follow throughout your own life’s journey. I have seen Delany gradually grow older over the years, outlive stellar contemporaries like Ursula le Guin, and fondly follow his Twitter account, which includes pics of the Philadelphia apartment he has retired to with partner Dennis Rickett, a place as filled with books (maybe even moreso) than that of Arnold Hawley’s apartment in ‘Dark Reflections’.
To me, Delany is first and foremost an SF writer. ‘Babel-17’, ‘Triton’, ‘Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand’ and ‘Nova’ are a few of the many classics from this lauded writer, including ‘Dhalgren’ of course. A member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame since 2002, he was finally awarded Grand Master status in 2013.
It was always inevitable that Delany’s writing journey would lead him to such darkly transcendent places as ‘The Mad Man’ and ‘Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders’. Not to forget that when I embarked on my own postgraduate studies, ‘The Jewel-Hinged Jaw’ was one of the first books of literary criticism I had ever read – let alone SF literary criticism.
For Delany, it has been a progression, a journey, an evolution and an ongoing transformation. When looking for online reviews of ‘Dark Reflections’, I found a fantastic article from the LA Review of Books by Matthew Cheney:
The great nostalgia within a certain segment of the science fiction community for the pre-Dhalgren Delany is a nostalgia for a pre-Stonewall Delany. All of the fiction for which he ever received a science fiction award was written before the Stonewall riots. Delany’s work becomes more aesthetically adventurous not only as he develops a greater knowledge of literary and cultural theory, but also as the gay liberation movement opens up some more positive space for gay men in American society.
Cheney also quotes Gardner Dozois, considered one of the most influential editors in SF ever, as stating that “Dhalgren stopped me cold two or three times, and I never did finish it. There were things I liked about his later SF novels, like Triton, but I can’t honestly say I appreciated them as much as I appreciated some of his earlier stuff.”
Of course, Dozois edited Asimov’s for years, still the best short-form magazine out there (though its North American bias is being healthily challenged by Clarkesworld and tor.com). His ‘best of’ anthologies, including his exhaustively detailed yearly summaries, were always highlights in the SF publishing calendar.
However, his particular comments about Delany, which I was unaware of until this article, have made me realise I not only need to reappraise Dozois, but quietly reflect on how editors and publishers, as a business enterprise driven by commercial interests, ultimately determine what we get to read and which authors are chosen to succeed.
What is interesting about the Cheney article is how it highlights that Delany’s early fame as an SF writer is ultimately what gave him the platform to pursue his later interests in everything from comics to pornography and academic writing, even though these books would never match his earlier commercial successes (‘Dhalgren’ sold over a million copies apparently). This is probably why Delany was a university teacher for so many years: It was a much-needed income stream.
What ‘Dark Reflections’ does as a novel is highlight the precariousness of the writing life, and the role of sheer circumstance and just plain luck and stubbornness in making any kind of headway. Indeed, the book almost never ever saw the light of day, as the publisher was bought out and Delany’s editor fired in the shake-up – events that eerily mirror what happens to Arnold Hawley.
Despite his immense reputation and assured status, one would think Delany has it easy as a writer in this latter part of his life and career. Not so. He ended up self-publishing his latest novel, ‘Shoat Rumblin’, while academic Kenneth James has set up an Indiegogo account to crowd-fund ‘Autumnal City’, the second planned volume of Delany’s journals.
Why do we place so little worth on art and artists? This includes writers, of course. And why when an author is successful in one field, is it considered a regression if he or she strikes out in a completely different direction? Despite its credentials for being forward-thinking and utopian, SF both as a genre and as a community has been remarkably averse to change and downright reactionary when it comes to many of the issues of race, sexuality and identity that Delany’s later work has focused on.
As Delany said in his official statement on becoming a Grand Master:
“This award astonishes me, humbles me, and I am honoured by it. It recalls to me – with the awareness of mortality age ushers up – the extraordinary writers who did not live to receive it: Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Octavia E. Butler – as well, from the generation before me, Katherine MacLean, very much alive. I accept the award for them too: They are the stellar practitioners without whom my own work, dim enough, would have been still dimmer.”
Reading Samuel Delany can be a humbling experience. Earlier this year I assumed I would be the ideal reader for Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. No one, I thought, appreciates the literary value of trashy gay sex quite like I do. Yet after a hundred pages I found myself in a state of abject defeat. Christ, it was just so goddamn disgusting and there was no end in sight...
Well, I'm happy to report Dark Reflections, written around the same time, is a much more agreeable reading experience. Delany's sexual obsessions are here on display, but he explores them with a good deal more gentleness and subtlety. The quiet sadness and dignity of protagonist Arnold Hawley is really heartbreaking in the end.
I am inclined to read much of Delany’s work as being autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, but this time I found myself wanting to distance the writer from his product. It was just so sad, I wouldn’t wish a lot of it on anyone, even though in the end it seems to carry a degree of redemption. I was inclined, however, to see the character Arnold Hawley as sort of a hard-luck stand in, a case of “there, but for the grace of God, goes Samuel R. Delany.” Hawley, I hope, is more the product of Delany’s darkest days of self-doubt and “what if” questions, than a real reflection of his life.
Unlike Delany’s better-known sci fi work, this is a very down-to-Earth novel, set mostly in New York City in the last decades of the Twentieth Century (with important scenes in Boston, and some slippage into the 21st Century). The familiarity of the places and time makes it all the more tempting to look for real incidents. I spent some of my own youth in Tompkins Square Park and St. Marks Books, so the pictures of Hawley’s daily doings are sharp and clear for me.
Arnold Hawley is a poet, where Delany is (usually) a science fiction writer, but Delany’s novels are frequently laced with original poetry. In fact, one thing that surprised me is that we see none of Hawley’s poetry represented in the book – just discussed, reviewed, or described second-hand. Arnold Hawley is black (I’m sticking to that term rather than “African American,” because the character prefers it), and light-skinned, Delany is also a writer who has these characteristics. Much of the book explores the challenges of being an intellectual in America whose race is seen as defining his possibilities, and it takes us through a period during and just after Civil Rights into the dubious equality of later years. Arnold Hawley is gay, although he marries a woman at one point in his life, and this is also true of Delany. From what I understand, Delany’s marriage (to the poet Marilyn Hacker, an out lesbian) went rather better than Hawley’s, to a barefoot street urchin who suffers mental illness. Hawley is also a virgin, at least through most of the book, and he suffers from a powerful inability to act on his sexuality, even after he has accepted it. I believe (and rather hope) that this is not true of Delany.
One of the reviews on the back of my copy of the book states that it is “about the martyrdom of the writer in the modern world,” which seems only to capture part of it, perhaps even unwittingly to do injury to it. Saying it that way ignores the degree to which it is about the martyrdom of black men and women, of gay men and women, of people who don’t fit into middle class expectations of what an “intellectual” is, and of people without the courage to first accept and then define their own identities. In some twisted way, by making it about “the writer,” the book magically becomes about the white middle class male which is imagined when the term “writer” is used without further explanation. Thankfully, the book itself never makes this mistake.
This is not to say that only black gay men will benefit from reading the book. Anyone will recognize in themselves the loneliness and missed opportunities that define Hawley’s life. In that sense, I think anyone can also share in his redemption, which suggests that merely by being human, he is a beautiful and worthwhile creature, and by being an artist, he has shared some of that beauty and creation with the world. As with the Delany novels I’ve read before, I expect I will come back to this in years to come and find it even richer than on my first reading.
Sometimes you just have to trust Delany. Like Dhalgren, this wasn't always a joy on a sentence-by-sentence level, but when you turn the last page and put the book down it hits you. Delany's love of literature and his human compassion is on display all up and down this thing, and Arnold Hawley as a character is emblematic of the hidden life of the noncommercial artist in America, of the impossibility of fulling realizing the self's desire, of what that sadness feels like as ambient accretion over a lifetime.
I'd wanted to read this for a while, but with most other authors I think this about (bar Dennis Cooper), I end up stumbling across their books in a bookshop at some point. YEARS have passed and that's never happened for me and Delany, bar Dhalgren and Nova that are out with that Sci-Fi Classics line. So I went and ordered it!
Well, it opens with a novella called "The Prize" that's a 5* for me, about the frustrating and confusing literary world, how progress goes backwards, forwards, competitors come out of nowhere, some books get inexplicably praised and life comes at the poet hard while he's still expected to produce new material. Very well done.
Delany it seems had some other novella kicking about, and decided it could happen to the protagonist of the first novella. It's a fictional version of an experience close to what happened to him in real life as evidenced by The Motion Of Light In Water—except it doesn't really fit here. And having read about it in Motion of Light it was just one of those exchanges Delany loves to write about where he just starts talking to some random blue collar guy who then gets out his dick for some reason and was in prison maybe ahaha. It's what Delany loved spending his days doing. And he's still at it! It's of occasional interest to the reader but doesn't work here.
The last section is some extended narrative summary of how various threads that I no longer cared about tied up.
Nah, I can't recommend. Motion of Light does this better.
I’ve followed Samuel R. Delany’s career across galaxies for thirty years. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, Delany had written and published nine novels, two of them winning Nebulas for best science fiction. I’ve read most of his early work, including Dhalgren, considered by many to be the finest science fiction novel ever written, and, from later in his career, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, as well as the Neveryon series, his foray into the fantasy genre. As a boy I read Nova, Delany’s tribute to the space opera genre and a forerunner to today’s cyberpunk, which even now remains one of my favorite science fiction novels.
As a heterosexual, I didn’t always relate to some of Delany’s gay protagonists and storylines, but I always thrilled, even as a boy, to his use of language, his dense prose, descriptive narrative, and vivid imagination. When I began writing seriously it was Delany I endeavored to emulate.
In Dark Reflections, Delany, now a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, steps away from the science fiction genre to give us a glimpse into the lonely life of Arnold Hawley, a black, gay poet living in Manhattan’s East Village. Gone is the dense language that usually accompanies Delany’s prose; but the story itself, related elegantly with simple honesty, is rife with complexities. A poet himself before turning to fiction, perhaps only Delany knows how much of Arnold’s story is autobiographical, although his real life marriage to Marilyn Hacker, also a poet, ended much less tragically than Arnold’s. Perhaps it is the alternate autobiography Delany would have written had he not turned to fiction writing.
One of the fascinating aspects of Dark Reflections (and there are many) is that it is told in three parts in reverse chronological order, perhaps to reflect what we see when we glance into the looking glass ― a reverse image of how others perceive us.
In part one, The Prize, Arnold, in his fifties, has just won the Alfred Proctor Award for his sixth book of collected poems. Arnold is the poster child for the starving artist, holding onto the $3,000 stipend the award pays out over three years as a financial godsend to his existence. Emerging writers who read Dark Reflections will take comfort from Arnold’s insecurities and envy of others, while non-writers will be afforded a glimpse into the soul of a creative spirit ― its innocence and sensitivity, its desire for recognition. In response to praise for one of his collected works as “one of my favorite books of the last… well, thirty years! In any genre! Really! It’s just an… an amazing performance!” Arnold later reflects:
“The fact is, there is no praise as great as the praise I want.” He’d said it with tears welling. “That sort of praise doesn’t exist ― I know that,” Arnold had told Dr. Engles, on his side of the chipped table in the small blue room at Mount Sinai. “It doesn’t stop me from wanting it, though ― wanting it so much!” Couldn’t he have an entire evening without someone like Michael, sneakily and without warning, reminding him how little he’d had, who could keep his f--king mouth shut?
The Prize is perhaps the most movingly poignant part of the whole of Dark Reflections. Arnold himself, now sixty-eight and eighty pounds overweight (a mirror image of Delany’s own girth), suffering incontinence (entering a subway he wonders if the smell of urine emanates from him or the subway) perhaps best sums up its content: Jesus, he thought, at last on the platform, a tear tickling his cheek, the tears of the old just don’t mean anything, do they?
As poignant as The Prize is, part two, Vashti in the Dark, is the most shocking. Arnold, in his late thirties, sits outside a public restroom known to be a place where gay men rendezvous, fantasizing about what takes place inside but lacking the courage to partake, only once venturing inside only to flee in horror. It is here he meets a young homeless woman, Judy, perhaps fifteen years his junior. He befriends the shoeless Judy, takes her to lunch and subsequently buys her some shoes and clothing and brings her back to his apartment where the not quite right Judy, knowing of Arnold’s proclivity for men, convinces Arnold that they should wed. A few days later, tested for disease and license in tow, they marry, and Judy’s wedding gift to Arnold is to send him out to the public restroom to have the night of his life. Arnold returns to his apartment with young Tony to a shocking scene. This is Delany at his brilliant best, what he reveals both through the narrative as well as what is left unwritten.
The final segment, Book of Pictures, chronicles Arnold’s youth as he wrestles with the “disease” a doctor tells him afflicts only one in five thousand men (a greatly skewed number) and with which no Negro has ever been diagnosed, and that he is sure will one day cut his life short. In Book of Pictures, Arnold witnesses other gay men embracing their sexuality; but the reader knows, having already witnessed the end to his story at the beginning, that Arnold is unable to come terms with his own sexuality.
Throughout the text Arnold, whenever he finds a photograph of himself, invariably turns it over to write on its back, The poet Arnold Hawley, aged ― in anticipation of the biography of his life that is never written. Underlying themes of Dark Reflections are poetry’s status as the most ignored field in literature ― Arnold, who never quite embraces his sexuality, is haunted by the remark a famous white poet made when a poet of color was admitted to a literary society: “Who let the coon in?” ― as well as the loneliness and despair that all too often accompany the life of the creative soul.
Highly recommended reading.
J. Conrad Guest for The Smoking Poet
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
A wonderfully thoughtful and intelligent and even moving book. I had thought to use it for a class, but it is too sexually explicit (— though the hero, himself, is… well, best to read it for yourself).
It was depressing and I liked it a lot. Touched at rare moments with the same magical glittering paintbrush as Dhalgren, but here it's used to show just glimpses of a world the main character can't quite enter.
It's so strange - sparse, depressed, pretentious. Most of the time I was reading it I disliked it, but something kept pulling me along through the endless years of nothingness. Finally, after I'd finished the last chapter (an excellent last chapter) and put it down for a while, I got that awe of seeing the full picture of what I'd read. It helped to realize that Delaney is not an aggrieved poet writing an autobiography (my initial assumption). He's a science fiction writer taking his talents of atmosphere and detail to the task of describing one empty self-defeating human life. I'm not sure I can recommend this, but I'm slightly more glad than mad that I read it.
I'm a big Samuel R. Delany fan, and I'm somewhat astonished to say that I think this is my favorite of his books, despite the fact that others are more outwardly daring and innovative. It's the story of a minor African American poet, a closeted gay man who has almost never had sex in his life; it seems to be a strange alter-ego for Delany himself, who is similarly bookish and devoted to his craft, but who is well known and very active sexually. The story is told in the form of three novellas, in reverse order of the author's life, and somehow that worked beautifully as a narrative. You see the sadness of the older man, and then you see the perfectly innocent steps that made him wind up that way. And yet throughout he has a certain dignity as an artist and as a man.
Delany is amazing. You never know what he'll come up with.
Samuel R Delaney does mainstream fiction. I'm afraid to say anything about this book because whatever I say might make it sound boring, which it profoundly isn't. So ignore this review and just go read it for yourself.
Still reading? OK, then. The protagonist is a shy, black, gay poet who reminisces about his youth and navigates aging in a world he is keenly observant of and emotionally distant from. The novel is compassionate, tragic, heroic, ordinary, chastely erotic, wickedly funny, vividly descriptive, playfully serious, intellectual, historical. His memories are twined non-chronologically with observations and opinions about poetry, black history, gay history, small press publishing, poverty, New York City, and more.
One of my friends, much more of a Delany fan than I, said that he thought "Dark Reflections" was boring and it was the only Samuel Delany he couldn't get through. And a basic plot description would make it sound boring; it's just a lot of subway rides and worries about reputation and money. But I think this was a really good look at the loneliness of being a writer and the choices people make to live the lives they want, or think they need.
Arnold Hawley, black poet, lives through a lot, particularly in New York City, where he lives most of his life. Most of his career he is able to support himself on a college professor's salary (adjunct - no benefits), but when he retires he has to stretch his limited income. But this is just a subtheme of the book.
In this book, Delany explores the experience of being black in a world, and in a field, where whites make the rules and where expectations differ. He is told not to use his photo on his books because it might turn people away. In spite of his living without monetary success and suffering fools gladly, Hawley seems to take it all in stride. He's curious. He's interested. He's a poet.
I guess I've been reading a lot of dreary books about authors lately (see my review of Red Pill by Hari Kunzru). I liked this book, though the subject matter was despairing -- the life story of a Black unrequited homosexual poet who has experienced maybe about as much success as a poet could realistically hope for (publishing a bunch of books, winning a couple awards). It's a story that is not light on the realities of aging, growing up gay before Stonewall, and being a poet, all rather sobering topics. The book does take flight at a few key moments, and is short enough to not feel bludgeoning. And it's by Delany, so go read it, it's worth it.
Delany is simply an incredible author, and this is a novel that I will carry with me for a long time. In one of the most moving, touching stories I have ever read, Delany outlines the life of a man who struggles with himself and his life experiences. The way Delany tells the story feels like it is jolting you around Arnold's life, but I couldn't imagine it being told any other way.
Truly incredible. I'll have to sit on it for a bit longer, but I think I am going to be adding this to my list of all time favorites for sure.
This is not the science fiction story I imagined it would be when I picked it up. This is the story of a gay black poet living in New York City. So in a sense there are alien worlds for me, a straight white Englishman, in the story, but not in the way I had imagined. There were no rocket ships taking me off to the outer galaxy. Arnold, our poet lives a lonely existence in the city. The book starts when he is 51, coincidentally my age, when he has had published most of his poetry and is living alone and fearing growing old. He is disappointed when one of his poetry collections doesn't win a poetry competition, the Alfred Proctor Prize. The prize is awarded to a box of words, where the "reader" has to create his or her own poetry from the "poet's" chosen words. There is discussion of what is and isn't art and scandals associated with art pieces which shocked audiences from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to Tracey Emin's Unmade Bed. The first part of the book takes us to when Arnold is nearly seventy an old and lonely man with his aches and pains and no significant other.
We see how he got to this state in the second and third parts of the book. In the second part the book lurches back in time to where Arnold meets a crazy barefooted woman in a park and after talking an hour agrees to marry her, she knows she is gay but wants to get married.
The third part of the book tells of Arnold's youth and student days. At the age of 11 he asks a doctor about homosexuality, the doctor tells him it is a disease affecting maybe 1 in 20 000 men and never affecting black men. As a student he has a fixation on a black delivery man, Slake or Samson Bowman, but this doesn't go anywhere, his life from beginning to end is largely chaste.
There are descriptions of gay sex in the second and third parts of the book, I flicked through these quickly, I don't enjoy reading about sex, gay or straight, in books. But it is there if you want it.
There are interesting aspects of both gay and black history. Like when a group of black activists change the labels in New York Public Libraries from "Negro Literature" to "black literature" with a small b. Stonewall is a bar known to Arnold but he avoided the famous riots there.
The book is in a sense a lament to a life half-lived, Arnold only comes to terms with his sexuality in later life, he stayed in the closet afraid to upset his dear Aunt Bea, who may have known anyway. It is a very reflective book as the title suggests.
Samuel R. Delany's Dark Reflections: A marriage of SF and the mundane
With thousands of books published in the English language every year, to name any particular book or particular writer as "the best" of any particular category is to be either simply foolish or foolishly hubristic.
But still ... Samuel R. Delany is still the best writer working in the English language today. His recent novel, Dark Reflections, is a quiet, almost elegiac proof, not only of Delany's mastery of his craft but, perhaps more interestingly, that while you might take the science fiction out of the story, you can't take the science fiction out of the writer — at least, not this writer. And further, that "science fiction" may be less a matter of technology and time-lines than it is one of attitude and tone.
Dark Reflections is unquestionably a "literary" novel and yet, in its uncompromising story of one man's (unique — and yet, somehow universal) life, it nevertheless feels like science fiction in that it offers the reader the chance to explore the aline — that is, to get to know another being. If not "the universe in a grain of a sand", then the universe in the life of a man. Click to read the full review at Edifice Rex Online.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This book, while a work of fiction, is in a way a mirror of Samuel Delany's life. Both he and the main character of the book, Arnold Hawley, are gay black men living in New York City. However, while Delany's life has been one of sexual freedom (documented in books such as Motion of Light in Water and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue), Hawley's has been one of internalized homophobia and sexual repression.
The book's three sections cover three periods in reverse chronological order - Hawley's old age in the present, his mid-30s in the 1970s, and his college days in the 1960s. Within these sections Delany unravels the roots of Hawley's neurosis.
Due to unfortunate shifts in the publishing business, shortly after this book was published, its publisher, Carroll & Graf was closed by its corporate parent, leaving it stranded along with other fine recent books such as The Child: A Novel by Sarah Schulman. The book is in danger of being overlooked as a consequence.
"The psychological dismantling and rendering inactive of a passion... is one of the most painful things the self can undergo. Only poets and a few saints can accomplish it with any ease, because it entails a revision in one's conception of paradise as well as any entitlement the self may have to it."
I was really thinking I'd like this one, given its subject matter and reverse chronology. It wasn't that enjoyable to read, though. I liked the middle section a fair amount, surprisingly--it was sweet-- but on the whole I was looking forward the whole time to moving on to a different book.
The language in this book is absolutely beautiful. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. The story itself is almost one of memory,and it takes quite a bit of patience. Rather than being a coming-of-age story, which it easily could have been, it's a story about growing old, but about neither success nor failure. Gorgeous, gorgeous book.
I wonder, considering the first section especially, if this book would have as much relevance to a non-poet. I guess I'll never know, but it worked for me, particularly the first and last section (though I think the middle section is also necessary). I wrote a long review of this for class, so I'm skimping here.
I bought this to read something by Delaney at a "read-in" for African-American history month at Hofstra University. I was the only one to read an openly gay piece, and I felt really lucky to have found a piece about how one of the author's friends changed the shelf tags in the New York Public library, since the read-in was done in the library. The book was amazing.
incisive. heartbreaking. frank. recursive. a testament to Delany's nuanced understanding of narrative, manipulation of the realist contract, and the deceptively simple artistry of writing to writing...