Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: The Motion of Light in Water

[Samuel R. Delany. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. (Original edition by Arbor House, 1988.)]

I don't think I've ever read any of Samuel Delany's science fiction. I've known his name as a major author of the genre since I was a teen, and I suppose it's possible that I did read something of his back then and I don't recall, but I don't think so. Rather, I read this memoir because a friend of mine taught it last year and seemed to think it would interest me, and she was right.

Part of the appeal is the writing: It's good. He weaves together anecdote and reflection and mood in skillful ways, and though it's not a short book, it was a pleasure to read all the way through. He makes the inevitably partial slice of life and experience that goes into a memoir (as opposed to the more comprehensive treatment expected of biography or autobiography) feel both focused and substantial. He plays a bit with approach and form, and does it with the deft hand of someone who has written voluminously and obsessively since childhood.

The insights he offers are also valuable. At various points, he shifts modes for a paragraph or a few pages and reflects in a more overt and analytical way on things like writing, memory, history, and identity. Not only are all of these things connected to interests that I happen to have as well, but it was also intriguing to encounter analysis in these areas that was clearly the result of long and deep thought but just as clearly offered in the spirit of the engaged non-specialist rather than the career scholar. There was no attempt to produce a final whole, a synthesis that brought all of these insights together, and instead they were left as thoughts produced along a journey.

The book is also of considerable sociological interest. It focuses on his early life, and, as a middle-class gay Black man who came of age in mid-20th century New York City and whose marriage to a woman -- white poet Marilyn Hacker -- was mutually and consensually open from its very beginning, his experiences provide a rare window into pre-Stonewall sexual cultures, particularly among men who had sex with men. I found it fascinating how the book made it clear that what I, in my bookish and probably not terribly well-informed way, would have identified as three distinct constellations of experience and practices -- urban gay male culture pre-Stonewall; mixed-gender bohemian culture of the mid-century urban literary and arts scene; and the earlier working-class sexual cultures found in parts of New York and other cities with their relative openness but still quite different relationship to sex between men than feels familiar today -- all kind of blended together, at least in that moment, at least in the particular shape Delany's life took.

And, finally, it is of interest because it is a fairly matter-of-fact telling of a life lived counter to dominant oppressive norms in multiple respects. I always find something awesome and inspiring and affirming about such narratives, as they are a reminder that I personally seem to constantly need that the weight of normalizing discipline is rarely as uniformly heavy as I imagine it to be (even in the era of his account, which ends not only before Stonewall but before the sixties proper got underway). I particularly appreciated how his account did not romanticize his practices or the experiences they resulted in -- he shared the bad and the troubling as well as the good -- but neither did he stint on discussion of the positives that those with moralizing disapproval might not be able to even imagine -- how ordinary it was for meaningful friendship to emerge from anonymous hook-ups, for instance, or how joyful the triad was that he, Hacker, and another man lived in for a stretch of time. And I appreciated his reflections on the challenges of giving voice to stigmatized ways of living your life when the very public language itself that is available is so intensely saturated with denigration and dehumanization (it made me think a bit of this book).

The downsides to the book were few. Certainly I got an occasional sense of self-indulgence from it, which while not universal is certainly not uncommon with memoir. I didn't really mind it, as it was only occasional and he had interesting things to say, and, anyway, he had earned a little indulgence. There was also something about the New York-ness of it all that was simultaneously appealing and grating. It's not at all the author's fault, as of course he wrote about where he was. Still, there's something about being familiar with metropolitan places you have never been, and knowing that seeing your own streets and neighbourhoods in print would feel weird, that is so common that we often do not notice it but that still sometimes annoys me. Of course, I recognize that in the grand colonial scheme of things this centre-and-periphery organization of our cultural and imaginative landscape is more to my benefit than my detriment, and the fact is I *enjoyed* hearing about New York neighbourhoods; seeing cameos by W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, and Bob Dylan; and experiencing by proxy cultural pivots like the first-ever performance art piece to be promoted as a "happening."

These are minor points, however. I'm very glad that circumstances directed my attention to the book. It won't be of interest to everyone, of course, but for those whose curiosity is piqued, I encourage you to make the effort track it down and read it.

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