Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Medium/Very Hard
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Now seems like a good time to talk about this book since the 20th anniversary edition was just released. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a classic of gay non-fiction, but probably requires a bit of an explanation. The book consists of two long-form essays titled “Times Square Blue” and “…3, 2, 1, Contact: Times Square Red”. The first is a relatively straightforward narrative of Delany’s extensive sexual encounters in the pornographic movie theaters of Times Square prior to then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s initiative to “clean up” the area, and the second is a much more academic explanation of Delany’s theories on interpersonal relationships in cities, and how Giuliani’s policies have negatively affected them. There’s a pretty big spike in difficulty from the first essay to the second, but the first one does help illustrate what exactly it is we’re losing, making the second essay easier to follow.

If you think you’ve ever had a weird hookup, Delany has had one ten times stranger. Anyone familiar with his non-fiction knows that Delany has been an enthusiastic participant in public sex and hookup culture since the ‘50s, and that he was lucky enough to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. We are fortunate that he lived to tell us about how things used to be, since there are so few others who can do so. And tell us he does, gleefully and in extensive detail. The range of people, preferences, and practices that Delany engages with is humbling, and throws into stark relief the inadequacies of our popular understanding of sexuality. No amount of labels could account for the kaleidoscope of people out there.

The reason these stories matter to Delany is that they’re examples of the diverse forms of social contact only made possible by spaces like the porn theaters, spaces which were being removed as part of Giuliani’s campaign to “purify” Times Square. Delany argues that the destruction of the theaters are part of a larger trend in city planning which would have everything separated out and sorted into similar spaces. Neighborhoods would only contain houses, for example, not drug stores or restaurants, which would belong in a commercial district. The result is that everyone stays in their homes except to work or shop, which they would commute to without ever interfacing with their neighbors. There’s a class dimension to this too, the poor are grouped with the poor, the rich with the rich, and the two will probably never cross paths because there are fewer and fewer public spaces in which to intermingle. Without these connections we lose the ability to understand and to empathize with people not like us, and, worst of all, we might even forget that they exist. But that’s only a brief summary of his argument, and I would encourage anyone interested to give the full thing a read. It definitely caused me to reflect on who I interact with and how. And even if you’re not, “Times Square Blue” alone is an extremely interesting window into that historical period and a great look at the diverse forms sexuality can take.

The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).

There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.

Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.

Dark Reflections

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Dark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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From the Dark Reflections Goodreads page:

“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.”

Dark Reflections might have been a better known book if it weren’t for an unfortunate publication history. Right before its release, Carroll & Graf, its publisher, was purchased by another company and Delany’s editor was laid off. As a result the book received very little publisher support, but still managed to pick up nominations for the Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. There are depressingly few African-American authors writing gay fiction. To my knowledge, only three have done so successfully and at length: James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, and Samuel R. Delany. But while Delany has written many people of color into his science-fiction, the experiences of those characters sometimes feels far removed from the experiences of people of color today, which is why this book is a valuable one.

While Dark Reflections stands very well on its own, the book takes on interesting new dimensions when considered in the context of the author’s life and work. Arnold Hawley is something of a dark reflection of Delany himself, an exploration of the ways his life may have gone had he been a different person, and the ways in which it might be the same. Chief among these differences is Arnold’s rejection of his sexuality, something Delany wholeheartedly embraced. But Delany is careful to present Arnold’s life in an unbiased and neutral way. While I personally found it to be very sad at times, I’m not sure if Arnold would have considered it to be sad. The reverse chronological structure of the story created some interesting foreshadowing moments and gave the narrative a natural velocity that made it easy to read through to the end, even if the beginning can be a bit slow at times. The book definitely doesn’t deserve its obscure status, and I hope that future readers and critics will recognize its value.

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.