- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group (23 Mar. 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0786719478
- ISBN-13: 978-0786719471
- Product Dimensions: 20.9 x 15.3 x 1.7 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,396,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Dark Reflections Paperback – 23 Mar 2007
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About the Author
Samuel R. Delany is a New York novelist and critic, whose first novel was published when he was twenty. His tenth, "Dhalgren" (1975), currently available from Vintage Books, has sold over a million copies. His more recent fiction includes "Atlantis: Three Tales" (1995), "Hogg," (1995), and "Phallos" (2004); and his collected short stories, "Aye," and "Gomorrah" (2004), is currently also available from Vintage. Delany has repeatedly won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He is a recipient of the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a Life-time Contribution to Gay and Lesbian Writing and the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award. His book "Times Square Red, Times Square Blue" is a staple of gay studies courses. Besides his prize-winning autobiography, "The Motion of Light in Water" (1988), much of his nonfiction has been collected in three volumes, from Wesleyan University Press, "Silent Interviews" (1992), "Longer Views" (1996), and "Shorter Views" (2001). His most recent non-fiction book, from Wesleyan, is "About Writing" (2006). He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia and teaches at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, in Boulder, Colorado.
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But the book takes on an added dimension for those of us who are Delany junkies, since in some way it is (and is not) autobiographical. Arnold Hawley, the central character, is a black gay writer only a little older than Delany, whose books have Delanyesque titles (one of them is actually the title of a Delany book). But his life is the opposite of Delany's... his books are unread (and not even in the New York Public Library!); his sole claim to success is having won one rather questionable prize (is it a coincidence that the author's bio on the back of the book mentions Delany's prizes?); his old age is utterly lonely and his emotional life completely unfulfilled. Even though, like Delany, he married, his marriage (which culminates in the most horrifyingly vivid events that I've ever read) surely did not, let us hope, resemble that of the author!
So what's going on? Is this a "what if" account (as the Publisher's Weekly review, cited above implies)? Rather, I think the title, which is at least triply ambiguous, gives the clue. These are dark reflections (thoughts) about a life, looked at as if reflected in a dark mirror (and, of course, narrated in reflected order). It's time to go reread it and see what I missed reading it the first time.
Samuel Delany is a contemporary author famous for his science fiction. (He's won four Nebula awards and two Hugo awards over the course of his career and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002. He's won major awards from Lambda Literary and other gay prizes. His novel "Dhalgren" has sold more than 1 million copies.) He also writes porn. But this is a straight-forward novel. Well, not really straight forward: It's presented in reverse order, first presenting the author as an older man, then as a young author, and finally, as a college student (with flashbacks to childhood and flash-forwards to the narrator as an older man). The story is about Arnold Hawley a gay, black poet living in the East Village. So the parallels to Delany's life are inevitable.
The novel is not an easy read. Its language is rich and the events are tough to swallow.
The first section (with Arnold as an older man) wanders through a number of settings and includes a lengthy dinner party discussion that requires some knowledge of literary theory. The second section (with Arnold newly moved to the East Village) includes a graphic and poorly motivated piece of major violence. The final section (with Arnold in college) includes an unfulfilled fantasy with a simple (perhaps retarded) but exceptionally muscular and libidinous young black man, who was saved from his family by a white photographer. The final section also outlines Hawley's coming to awareness of the gay world around him - and includes mentions of many of the major and unknown black gay authors of the past 100 years.
The narrator grapples with a life-time of loneliness and worries about the literary legacy that he won't leave behind. There will not be a biography of Arnold Hawley. His photograph will not appear in a tribute to his works. He will die unappreciated. (Note that even though the last section takes place first, there are flash-forwards to Hawley in the present as an old man in the first section making minor changes in his life, which we do not see when where they would actually occur. It's not a problem, it's a solution to a difficult story.)
Having made it sound tough, I can now say that this is a terrific novel. It's layered and offers many points of discussion. One of the members of the group didn't realize that Delany was black (the photo on the back of the book is ambiguous) so this raised a number of issues. We discussed race and "passing" (including the novel "Passing" mentioned in the book). We discussed the self-reflexive mentions in the book (Hawley has written a book of poetry titled "Dark Reflections").
We talked about the themes that re-appear through out the book: poetry, publishing, photography, biographies, and academia and teaching. We also talked about the East Village and Tompkins Square Park in the 1980's, AIDS, and changing attitudes toward sex and public cruising. We discussed the difference between cruising the baths and the tea rooms in 1980 versus using Manhunt and Grindr today. We discussed the now-closed sex theaters in Times Square (one of Delany's fascinations, which he writes about in "Times Square Red, Times Square Blue," which some members don't agree with or understand). And we discussed closeted life in the 1970's and now. This is very much a novel of the 1980's and a world around Thompkins Square Park that no longer exists (a la "Rent").
"Dark Reflections" may not be a great introduction to the more popular (but equally difficult) sci-fi writings of Samuel Delany, but it is an interesting novel that can be discussed, especially in light of Delany's life and constantly evolving work. I hope it isn't delegated to the second tier of Delany's writings, because it's a first rate work.
So DARK REFLECTIONS was a huge surprise. It wasn't the massive mind-bender of DHALGREN, or the dense, sex-crammed THE MAD MAN, but the story of a poet barely scraping out an existence. He doesn't hit the jackpot, or meet the love of his life. His great achievement is that he survives, though he is haunted by the reality that his work may not survive him.
DARK REFLECTIONS strikes me as a blend of how Delany has described his actual life and how his life might have been had he been a poet instead of a science fiction writer and then a 'gay writer' in contemporary America. There are many amusing, odd, and painful details I won't ruin for you. Delany has spoken at length about how important are the economic conditions of characters in fiction, and he describes the half-empty-hand-to-mouth existence of his writer, how the smallest expenses can throw the aging character into turmoil when budgeting is spoiled.
All of that is background to the story of a writer who is closer to the end than the beginning and is clenched with worry and regret over his lack of success and recognition. It is a book of moments, from the look at the shelf of slim publications to the forwardness of a girl telling the writer he should go into a public men's room for the sex he desires. Delany doesn't tell a traditionally-structured story, so be warned if you are looking for something about a down-and-out writer who finds the spark of life through meeting a charming misfit.
I haven't done a good job of communicating anything more than my own enthusiasm. I think many readers are reluctant to spoil the unique moments of special books. If you are at all interested in something cerebral and truer to life than most popular fiction, and aren't put off by the book's odd structure, give DARK REFLECTIONS a look. Delany is a valuable writer, and his books should be read, savored, and re-read over and over before they are placed on your own shelf of Delany masterpieces.
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 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...
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.
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 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.