To an extent we all do this, we can't help it. And the legitimacy of a biographical interpretation of fiction is surely there in our appetite for interviews, in an author bracketing a text with personal notes as foreword or afterword. It is, perhaps, a question of degree, but how do we define that degree, where do we draw the line?
Dark Reflections is the story of a black, homosexual, New York writer growing old; it is written by a black, homosexual, New York writer growing old. How can we not read across from one to the other? And yet, the poet Arnold Hawley, award-winning but not financially successful, is clearly not the novelist Samuel R. Delany, award-winning and at least more financially secure than Hawley. And yet ...
Delany has never been afraid of putting aspects of his own life and experience into his fiction. Read the descriptions of homosexual encounters in novels such as The Mad Man (1994) and they are virtually identical to the descriptions of homosexual encounters in non-fictions such as Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). The erotic fascination with bitten fingernails that is in practically all his fiction from the earliest SF novels right up to Dark Reflections is there also in the letters collected in 1984 (published in 2000). The rent-controlled apartment that Hawley lives in on New York's Lower East Side is pretty close to the rent-controlled apartment Delany lived in when he was writing the 1984 letters.
But where Delany has put aspects of his own experience into his fiction, it has tended to be in carefully controlled amounts. Though most of his protagonists, where we are given enough information to tell, are black, he still didn't write much about the black experience. Their colour was not something that massively affected their life experience. It was only relatively recently, with the novella "Atlantis: Model 1924" (1995), that he wrote directly in his fiction about the experience rather than the accident of being black.
In contrast, the experience of being homosexual is something that has informed the vast majority of his writing. It is often disguised, though you don't have to work too hard to find it in Dhalgren (1974) or Triton (1976); but with the advent of AIDS, its effect on Delany's consciousness chronicled in 1984, homosexuality came right into the foreground of his work. It is the primary driver of his initial response to AIDS, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” incorporated in Flight from Neveryon (1985); it is one of the keys to understanding Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984; and, another infusion of biographical knowledge, the reason why the long-promised second part of this diptych never appeared); it is the core of his pornography, such as The Mad Man; even his polemical defence of the seedy culture of Times Square before gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, centres dramatically on his homosexual encounters in the dingy cinemas there.
What is new in Dark Reflections is the effect of age. His early protagonists, in The Jewels of Aptor (1962) or The Einstein Intersection (1967) or Dhalgren, were young enough that they were often known as the Kid. And though his characters have aged somewhat as their author has, they have tended to remain in a robust prime. Only in this novel, for the first time, has he directly addressed the experience of age. There is a sense of frailty, there are unexpected terrors, and there is a vagueness of memory especially with regard to dates (though the latter may be a characteristic of Hawley rather than his age, since the same hesitations—was it five years ago, seven?—are displayed by his younger self also). Indeed it seems appropriate that, as memory grows uncertain, this is a novel of memories. It is constructed of three sections, almost stand-alone novellas; in the first, "The Prize," Hawley is already old, looking back on his life and contemplating the ending of his career and what slight reputation he has; the second, "Vashti in the Dark," takes us back to mid-career and the strange, melodramatic events surrounding his one brief marriage; and the third, "The Book of Pictures," takes us still further back to his youth and the beginnings of his writing career. But all three are written from the perspective of old age, from the uncertain perspective of forgetfulness, regret, and the awareness of how transient life can be.
Before we start to look at this life, another biographical interjection: Delany has been more important to me than just about any other science fiction writer. When I was discovering science fiction his novels were the first post-Golden Age works I read, and they have coloured my reading of science fiction ever since. His criticism, first encountered in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), taught me a critical approach to the genre I follow still. His essays about writing, some reprinted in About Writing (2005), have stuck in my mind, have shaped my own writing, more than any other. How much does that affect the way I read this novel?
For a start I recognise the writing, the tics and traits that have been there ever since The Jewels of Aptor. There is his mode of description by the accumulation of detail, which can give a solidity to the scene, but can also, at times, give a lumpen quality to the prose. There is the way he is forever trying to capture the fleeting moment by allusion to its effects rather than description of its quality. At times this can be startlingly successful—there is a point where Hawley is caught in a shower of falling petals that is gloriously beautiful—at other times, his straining for image can lead to an odd clumsiness. Hawley is, as perhaps a poet should be, conscious of the visual effects of weather, and at one point in a fog he notices that area of clarity that still surrounds one. A passer by emerges from the fog, moves through that area of clarity and disappears into the fog once more; it's a lovely image of the tenebrous, but unfortunately Delany structures it so it reads as if the passer-by emerges from the fog, moves through the fog, disappears into the fog. For so evidently self-conscious a writer he can at times be remarkably careless; and yet the cumulative effect never seems careless. It is as if the odd wonky sentence, awkward metaphor or clunky passage is part of a deliberate structure that is, overall, robust, vivid, and real.
And structure is clearly important to Delany, who has, since the missing ending of Nova and the crossed-out passages of Dhalgren, experimented consistently with the shape of his fictions. In that light the backwards structure of Dark Reflections seems almost unexceptional. Each section moves forward in a regular chronological fashion, but from a progressively earlier starting point. So, for instance, we know in "The Prize" that there had been a brief and traumatic marriage in the past, but it is only in part two, "Vashti in the Dark," that we learn the gory details. The effect is a sequence of reflections designed to show how he became the lonely, insecure man we first encounter.
But let us begin at the end, with "The Book of Pictures." Set, primarily, in the late-50s and early-60s, it tells, through the medium of a seemingly straightforward account of Hawley's youth, student days, and early manhood up to the publication of his first couple of collections, two parallel stories of dawning awareness. The first of these is, in a sense, the most familiar: Hawley's awareness of his own homosexuality. It is a time of myths: when he is 12 he is told unequivocally by a doctor that homosexuality is a "disease" that affects maybe one in five or six thousand, and practically never Negroes. It is a lie he can never quite shake off. He becomes ashamed and afraid of his sexuality, and runs away from the sexual opportunities that come his way. The fear that marks his old age we can see being born here.
The parallel but less familiar story, at least coming from Delany, is his recognition of what it is to be black. Hawley comes from a close-knit family where his colour has little effect on his life. But as he goes away to college he begins to encounter the reality of segregation. It is in his ambitions to be a writer that racial issues have the most telling effect: is it possible to be black and a poet? His questing after black poets raises his consciousness of being black. And that term, "black," is important—it is discussed repeatedly throughout the novel, even down to the necessity of the lower-case "b." At one point a group of young radicals hide out in New York public libraries and, overnight, change all the signs for "Negro literature" to "black literature." This is, Delany implies, the trigger that causes the despised word "Negro" to drop out of public use. Although Hawley does not take part in this action, he is associated with the perpetrators and the deed is planned in his apartment. It is the most dramatic statement of black consciousness I think I have ever encountered in Delany's fiction, yet it happens off-stage and at a distance from his tentative, undemonstrative protagonist, as if, even now, homosexual identity is more important, more urgent, than black identity.
"Vashti in the Dark," the second section, is by some way the most dramatic in the book, but also the least satisfying. Hawley by now has three or four slim volumes of poetry to his name, has a dull office job, and though he is slipping into middle age is still a virgin. He has a habit of sitting out in a park near his apartment watching the men going into a public toilet, but not having the courage to follow them. It is there, one evening, that he encounters the strangely disturbed girl-woman Judy. Since she is homeless, he invites her in to his home. And when she starts talking of an obsessive need to marry, he agrees to marry her. There is no reason why Hawley should behave in so uncharacteristically impulsive a manner, and the events of the wedding night tip the piece over into gothic excess. Judy insists that, as her wedding present to him, he should go into that toilet in Tompkins Square Park and pick up a man. He does, fighting his dread to bring back a hyperactive Italian stud to the apartment, where they discover that Judy has committed suicide in the goriest manner imaginable. Other than his aunt Bea, who raised him and serves in the role of his conscience, and who is resolutely distant throughout most of the novel, Judy is the only prominent female character in the book. And her death, terrible as it is, is curiously affectless: there is the memory of her that crops up dully from time to time, and there is the book of poems, significantly also called Dark Reflections, that hinges on the people and events of that time, but otherwise Hawley's life continues smoothly.
And there is the first section, easily the best, a sustained and remarkably moving account of loss: loss of vitality, loss of confidence, loss of all that had sustained Hawley. It is called "The Prize," and the prize in question is a triennial award for poetry that provides a small stipend that helps to support him as he enters old age. As the novel opens, in 1987, Hawley is in his mid-60s and working now at a small college on Staten Island. Even with the stipend he cannot really afford to retire, but his age means retirement is about to be forced upon him. In dramatic terms, not a lot happens. Aunt Bea dies, and he has what amounts to a nervous breakdown, though this is covered in a bare few sentences. He struggles to get by on a pittance, runs his hands along the spines of his few books and remembers when they were written and what they meant to him. He stops writing, but an encounter with his former editor and with a much younger writer who avowedly reveres his work (Hawley finds it as difficult to deal with this declaration as he does with the rejection he's more used to) prompts him to try writing a few more poems. Since his old editor is now connected with the prize he once won, he decides to submit them but loses out to the young writer. Hawley has had his moment of fame and surely doesn't need any more awards. As Hawley shuffles homewards through Tompkins Square Park, we know that those last poems will now never be published. He is not yet really old, but age has already worn him away, erased him from the world like a ghost. It is a frail thread of narrative that winds through this section, but its frailty disguises a wiry toughness that makes it powerful, compelling reading.
The last time I met Delany he walked with difficulty with a stick and seemed somehow shrunken, but his writing retains its youthful vigor. It’s just that increasingly he has found ways of allusively incorporating his own experience into his sturdy prose. Hawley is not Delany, the biography of one is not the biography of the other, and it is not necessary in reading the one to understand the details of the other. But much that went into shaping the biography of the one has clearly gone into creating the biography of the other, and understanding that feeds into the richness of our critical appreciation of Delany’s work. Steadily we have watched as Delany’s experiences of homosexuality and of being black have shaped the fictions (and the non-fictions) he has written. Now, as his writing expands once more, it seems that age has provided him with a remarkable new subject.
Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology. His collection of reviews and essays, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, is forthcoming.