This wasn’t what I was expecting. I picked this up at Tbilisi English Book Swap, a monthly meeting of English speaking bibliophiles in Tbilisi. I had heard of Samuel Delany and imagined this would be a science fiction story. It isn’t. Samuel Delany has written a lot of science fiction but he writes in other genres too.
This is the story of a gay black poet living in New York City. So in a sense there are alien worlds for me, a straight white Englishman, in the story, but not in the way I had imagined. There were no rocket ships taking me off to the outer galaxy. Arnold, our poet lives a lonely existence in the city. The book starts when he is 51, coincidentally my age, when he has had published most of his poetry and is living alone and fearing growing old. He is disappointed when one of his poetry collections doesn’t win a poetry competition, the Alfred Proctor Prize. The prize is awarded to a box of words, where the “reader” has to create his or her own poetry from the “poet’s” chosen words. There is discussion of what is and isn’t art and scandals associated with art pieces which shocked audiences from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed. The first part of the book takes us to when Arnold is nearly seventy an old and lonely man with his aches and pains and no significant other.
We see how he got to this state in the second and third parts of the book. In the second part the book lurches back in time to where Arnold meets a crazy barefooted woman in a park and after talking an hour agrees to marry her, she knows she is gay but wants to get married.
The third part of the book tells of Arnold’s youth and student days. At the age of 11 he asks a doctor about homosexuality, the doctor tells him it is a disease affecting maybe 1 in 20 000 men and never affecting black men. As a student he has a fixation on a black delivery man, Slake or Samson Bowman, but this doesn’t go anywhere, his life from beginning to end is largely chaste.
There are descriptions of gay sex in the second and third parts of the book, I flicked through these quickly, I don’t enjoy reading about sex, gay or straight, in books. But it is there if you want it.
There are interesting aspects of both gay and black history. Like when a group of black activists change the labels in New York Public Libraries from “Negro Literature” to “black literature” with a small b. Stonewall is a bar known to Arnold but he avoided the famous riots there.
The book is in a sense a lament to a life half-lived, Arnold only comes to terms with his sexuality in later life, he stayed in the closet afraid to upset his dear Aunt Bea, who may have known anyway. It is a very reflective book as the title suggests.
My rating 3.5 out of 5