Delany: The Polymath and Dark Reflections

On Thursday night, I went to see The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and this weekend I finished reading Delany's new novel, Dark Reflections, and though I feel like both require more sustained viewing/reading before I want to commit to any deep and probing thoughts about them, here are some notes...

The Polymath was both exciting and disappointing, in some ways inevitably so, because I have spent the past year studying Delany's work intensely and intensively. Thus, there was excitement because various moments of the film gave me images of things I had previously only imagined -- Delany's family, his book-encrusted apartment, etc. -- and disappointment because, of course, no film can contain the depth of information one gets from reading a writer's works.

The Polymath
worked best for me when it did what only its own particular medium can do -- in this case, present a particular person in particular situations, places, and times. My favorite scene, for instance, was one where Delany walked through an empty movie theatre, pointing out where in a porn theatre in the 1970s or 1980s certain people would sit, and why, and what their choices of seats said about them and the social situation of the theatre itself. The information was perfectly familiar to me from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and other sources, but seeing Delany discuss these ideas within an actual cinema adds an immediacy, theatricality, and personality that isn't available via words alone. It's a delightful, informative scene. Similar scenes of Delany walking through the streets of Manhattan were also revelatory, because he offered amusing or illuminating comments, and it's also fun to see how he interacts with people, such as a woman who insisted that he must be someone famous, or another who called out, "Hello, Santa Claus!" He shines in such moments, and so does the film.

Unfortunately, there weren't enough such moments for my taste (I may be greedy), and the editing of the movie felt choppy. Most scenes are separated with title frames that offer information, quotes, or the titles and dates of some of his books. These quickly became annoying, because they seemed to be thrown in to make up for gaps, and most felt extraneous because they were seldom very closely tied to what came before or after them. In many ways, The Polymath seems to suffer a bit of an identity crisis, uncertain as to whether it wants to be a linear Biography-style documentary or a more free-flowing, impressionistic portrait. It leans toward the latter, which makes the more linear material even more awkward. The film as a whole doesn't have a coherent tone or style, which may be an attempt to capture the breadth and eclecticism of Delany's interests and influences, but that does him a disservice, because one of the things that makes Delany so interesting is the way he overlaps and intersects his interests and influences -- the movie feels piecemeal, grabbing at whatever it can, but Delany's own work has never felt that way to me.

Dark Reflections is a novel unlike any other Delany novel -- it's probably closest to Atlantis: Three Tales, but it's more straightforward and fictional, and one of the most immediately accessible novels Delany has written in ages. This is not to say it lacks complexity -- it's intellectually rich and structurally impressive, with hardly any moment lacking echoes and reiterations elsewhere in the book.

The story is that of Arnold Hawley, a not-very-successful poet, a black gay man who has lived most of his life in celibacy on the Lower East Side. Delany has, of course, included many black, gay poet characters (not always in that configuration) in his work from the beginning, but this is the first time I can think of that he has devoted so much attention to a character who hardly ever has sex. There are scenes that Delany has depicted before -- scenes of hustlers, scenes of public bathrooms -- but this time they are portrayed through the consciousness of someone who is mostly frightened by them, wary of them, even disgusted by them. I have often been fascinated by Delany's writings because they are filled with characters whose experiences are vastly different from my own, and whose reactions to the world are therefore different from my own, yet now with Arnold Hawley, Delany has created a character whose reactions to these situations are ones I can most easily sympathize with, and this provided a new fascination, because I was impressed at how well Delany was able to create a convincing character whose reaction to the seedier side of life is closer to my own (admittedly Puritan) response of yuck. And though Arnold is not at all a role model, and is in many ways a pathetic man, I didn't read him as being a target of satire or contempt, the way he might be in a more determinedly "transgressive" writer's work, but rather as a complex human being. His is a sad life, but not one we as readers are put in a position to laugh at or dismiss out of hand, because he is portrayed as possessing dignity -- much as the more socially marginalized characters in Dark Reflections and many of Delany's other novels are portrayed as possessing dignity, making them worthy of empathy.

Dark Reflections is a very literary book -- a book about a life propelled by literary passions more than any others. Names of books and writers populate the pages, and we get a more vivid view of Arnold's reading than of almost anything else. There are descriptions of people and places throughout the book, but they are secondary to the parade of names and titles. At first, this bothered me, but by the end the effect is extraordinary, much like that of a David Markson novel or Caroline Maso's Ava. Here, the technique efficiently builds character, giving us a sense of what Arnold most cares about and a sense of the depth of his reading life, the most vivid life he has.

Coincidence is also important to the novel, for better and worse. The middle section relies on a coincidence that I didn't find convincing, because it is tied to the book's most dramatic and violent moment, and seemed necessary more for narrative convenience than anything else. A less startling coincidence at the end brings some different strands of the book together, and this one I found both convincing and moving. The last pages of Dark Reflections are beautifully paced and evocative, ringing thematic and contextual notes from throughout the book, so that even though Arnold's life is not given any sort of clear resolution, the novel itself is satisfyingly whole and complete.

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