Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections.
This is now my favorite Delany novel, beating out Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. It might also be my favorite Delany book, beating out the magisterial memoirist critique of city planning and gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It concerns Arnold Hawley, an aging black poet in New York, struggling to survive in penury, incapable of coming to grips with his sexuality. Dark Reflections is the publisher-imposed title of one of his collections, and it seems to me a few weeks after digesting the novel’s piercing misery that Hawley is in a number of ways a dark reflection of Delany himself. Hawley is a black writer, but a poet rather than a novelist; Hawley is a gay cis man, but rather than being sexually exuberant and adventurous as Delany himself has been, Hawley has never in his life had a real partner and only briefly experimented with other men; and, like Delany, Hawley marries a woman for a period of time. Hawley’s literary tastes also bear out a resemblance to Delany’s, encompassing high modernist poets like Hayden and Crane and out of fashion writers (out of fashion in the post-9/11 NYC of the novel) such as Gass and a few others I’ve seen Delany reference in interviews.
I described the novel’s sadness as piercing, and it is. I remember calling Joyce’s own sexually repressed James Duffy of “A Painful Case” “an entirely doomed personality,” and in a number of ways Arnold Hawley is very much that. Unlike Duffy, Hawley has literary endeavor to redeem his existence, which teems so avidly on the surface with failure, but even this redemption is small beer. There are several scenes of Hawley at various ages, doing small acts to cement his reputation and clear the way for future biographers, like notating the backs of old photographs, “The poet Arnold Hawley, Coney Island, 1939.” I was just reading Helene Cixous yesterday, and she talks about Flaubert renouncing life for the “the beautifully written,” and how all of his human relationships were “monstrous.” She wonders if it is necessary for art that the artist renounce their existence. The worst thing of course, about Hawley, is that he essentially renounces his existence but gets no recognition in return, and can only hope for a posthumous revival. Yet the text seems to suggest that Hawley’s near inscrutable works (never excerpted) and their clumsy, abstruse titles are not really ripe or likely for posthumous celebration. They are unfashionable, difficult. Hawley’s fastidious concern for leaving behind documentation of his life is probably in vain.
When faced with any of the diminutive or great tragedies of his life, Hawley often stands in front of his bookshelf, gazing at his collection of first editions of his own works. In the sense that Hawley exteriorizes himself into words, this is Narcissus and his reflection. But in the sense that Hawley lives for his work, it is his reminder of his purpose, and that the grubby, messy things of life, such as sex and companionship, are no more than grist for the monstrous mill of words. The novel is beautiful and almost unbearable, and serves as a reminder, among other things, that the vast majority of lives in human history have had all happiness and sexual satisfaction squashed, thwarted, crushed, diverted, deceived, and destroyed. One thinks of all the charwomen and chimney sweeps in Victorian novels who have never kissed another human being, scrubbing and scraping and inhaling all the dust of the miserable world, their Holy Communion of industrialization. One can’t help but feel poorly about Arnold Hawley, but what is remarkable is not that one life is bereft of human sexual and emotional companionship, but that so few in history have not been bereft. Unlike the red faced and raw handed specters from Victorian works, Hawley makes his own decision to live for his art, but his view of his sexuality (“It’s not worth worrying about something that was already ruined to begin with”) comes from the time and place that shaped him. Yet Delany makes clear, not only by his own memoirs displaying an alternative, but within the text, that Hawley chooses, again and again, to let the social forces that shape him continue to own him.
Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents.
On the subject of industrialization and coal scuttles and crude oil and tar paper, here comes Fritz Leiber attempting to kidnap the horror tale and drag it inside a garbage bag into the city. Other writers had dealt with modernity and it’s waste products and leprous slums before (Dickens with “The Signalman,” Wells with “The Cone,” for starters), but none had been so fetishistically obsessed with coal and refuse and all the pornography of industrial effluvium. “Smoke Ghost” is the classic here, and deserving of the recognition. What I had forgotten about the story since I last read it was that the entity in question demands worship, and that the unfortunate ad-man who becomes haunted by it sees it as the epicenter of the forces of war and totalitarianism. Or perhaps the smoke thing is some kind of excretion of those forces, akin to the cancerous runoff from paper mills. In the parlor game of “What is this textual figure a metaphor for?”, I would suggest it has something of the utterly mad drive of technological progress – the blind striving and groping for increasing mechanization and bureaucratization, regardless of whether this manifests in superfluous electric pepper shakers or in Belsen and Sobibor, in laundry machines that whine jingles while they wash or in the atom bomb. That it demands worship also connotes a traditional criticism of money, which suggests it could also be capital at the same time.
Other stories are of less interest, such as “The Automatic Pistol” which mostly acts as an updating of the “familiar” from witchcraft and demonology, a point Leiber is not afraid to baldly and unnecessarily state in dialogue. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” forgoes the oozing closeups on drainage ditches or the burbling sacks of sentient detergent that demand tribute, and instead opts for a more cosmic route, although Leiber still manages to tie everything into Hitler once again. A brilliant chess player prone to wastreldom and fuckery has a series of dreams where he is playing some kind of interdimensional board game (somewhere between chess and Go) against an unidentified malignant force. The whole narrative is feverish and absorbing, but I think its final culminating image was a little amateurishly written, winding up more silly than anything else. This is rather surprising, as Leiber is a very capable prose writer, but there you go. And the two stories I was most excited about (“Diary in the Snow”, “A Bit of the Dark World”) are excised from my defective Berkeley edition. Cocks and balls.
Alan Garner, The Owl Service.
Garner draws on the Welsh Mabinogion for this young adult novel from 1967. The owl service in question is an old dinner service with floral patterns that, when traced together in a certain way, form the images of owls. This parallels the tale from the Mabinogion of someone enchanting a meadow to turn into a woman, who becomes furious and seeks revenge because all she wanted was to be flowers and not disgusting horrible humans. This flower-spirit has been imprisoned in various forms over the years, in wall-paintings and now in a dinner service, always making the transformation from flowers to owls in order to go “a-hunting.” British class society plays a prominent role in tensions between characters, chiefly in a romance between a working class Welsh boy and an upper class English girl. The names of characters from the Mabinogion are truly unfamiliar (like Bloduwedd, who I call “Bloody Wood”), which makes me wonder why science fiction so often opts for Roman language rather than Welsh when attempting to construct the alien. In any case, it was an enjoyable read but I have very little that’s intelligible or intelligent to say about it.