Dark Reflections Paperback – 23 Mar 2007
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Arnold Hawley, a gay, AfricanAmerican 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.
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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.