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.

Another Country

Another Country
James Baldwin
Difficulty: Medium
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Can I tell you a secret? I hate Giovanni’s Room. I mean, I really hate that book. It’s a masterpiece of course, arguably the public face of gay literature. But I hate it. Like a lot of American gay young men, Giovanni’s Room was one of the first books featuring gay men I’d ever read because it was one of the only ones I’d ever heard of. But while it may be about gay men, I don’t think it’s for them. Giovanni’s Room is a public tragedy, a cry for help designed to inspire public sympathy for the plight of gay men, a goal which it unquestionably accomplished. But when I read it, what I saw was that I was doomed to a life of misery, and that wasn’t a message I wanted or needed to hear. I wish I’d read Another Country instead at that time, instead of many years later. It’s still tragic, but there’s an optimism and a humanity in it different from Giovanni’s Room’s nihilism. Another Country feels like an instruction manual for loving yourself and the people around you, regardless of your differences, and that’s much more valuable to me.

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Another Country tells the story of a small group of friends coping with the suicide of one of their own. They’re a diverse group: black and white, straight and not, at home and abroad, and they struggle mightily against the prejudices of the age, both as they exist externally in the world and as they do inside each individual person. Juggling themes of sexuality, race, politics, and art, Baldwin strips away the masks that define so much about us and reveals his characters to be simply people, men and women who deserve each other’s sympathy and support as they try to navigate the world together.

In Another Country, more than any of his other books (except perhaps If Beale Street Could Talk), Baldwin relaxed his characteristic restraint and really let loose with some of his more radical ideas. Prostitution, interracial relationships, homo- and bisexuality, and extra-marital affairs all feature prominently in the story, making it  pretty transgressive for its time and definitely a bit out of step with some of his more controlled, strategic works, like Go Tell It On The Mountain or Giovanni’s Room. Because I’ve only got so much space to talk about this book, I’m going to focus on one aspect that really stood out to me: anger. More specifically, how to be angry, angry in a way that doesn’t destroy you from within. Baldwin is afraid of people becoming Wright’s Bigger Thomas or his own Rufus Scott, so beaten down by the world that the only thing they can do is lash out and be crushed. All of the characters in Another Country have good reason to be angry, and oftentimes they take it out on each other, but in the end they always manage, even if only barely, to see the humanity in each other. That sounds annoyingly vague when I write it out, but if the secret to shared humanity were simple Baldwin wouldn’t be writing so many books about it.

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.