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Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney

June 8, 2011

I’m reposting one of my older reviews as I haven’t written a new one since my last Wednesday. I chose Dhalgren, because it is a sci-fi landmark, but I’ve found not many people I know have read it. Understandably so, as it is quite an undertaking. But it is just so good.

I had to read Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren because my sister's fiancé, John, handed me the book. (If you want me to read something, people, put the book in my hands. Or pants—see Dune.) I wanted to read Dhalgren because, after a quick Google search, I realized it was a sci-fi landmark (and as I’ve said before, this is a genre I used to ignore but now can’t get enough of). It’s a hard read, though; the novel will be most enjoyable to you if you understand basic sci-fi motifs and postmodern techniques—and can handle 800 pages.

First, what I didn’t like: it took me almost twenty pages to get into it. But when you consider it’s 800 pages long, that’s not bad. See, the novel starts mid-sentence: “to wound the autumnal city.” Within a couple of pages our narrator has sex with a woman who soon turns into a tree. I had read on the webz that Dhalgren is a difficult read; with these first pages, I was inclined to agree. But, you know, sex with a stranger who turns into a tree is bound to happen to everyone at some point in his or her life, so I kept reading.

Now, what I like: that last part of a sentence that starts the novel is a complete sentence—it starts on the last page. Oh, hey: I liked pretty much everything about this book. So if you want my quick opinion, quit reading now and note that I give this book a five out of five. Because this novel is so damn epic, I’m not going to try to analyze it too much. Instead, I’ll just familiarize you with it a little bit, and tell you what I like.

Dhalgren takes place in an American city, Bellona. It was once one of the most populous cities, but most original inhabitants have left. I imagine it’s somewhere around New York. An unspecified disaster, limited only to this city, created post-apocalyptic conditions (the typical smoky-dusty-sky that brings looting and chaos). Yet, everyone lives okay with each other. There are, of course, moments of strife, as racial tensions run high and a crazy guy shoots at people from the top of a department store. People live wherever they want, taking whatever they want. Some normalcy exists (a bus runs; a bar serves booze nightly; a enigmatic publisher prints a newspaper). People drift into Bellona because they want something. Something new? Something difficult? Something boring? Hard to say. Given the post-apocalyptic setting, you might anticipate this to be a story of survival or of getting out. Nope. The time lapses, the atmosphere, the cosmic inconsistencies (is that two moons?), the optic chains, prisms and holographic disguises indicate this is science fiction. Some might say this is a metaphor of real-world strife (a metaphor for the ’60s?) or some other sci-fi trope. I don’t think it’s that, either. Hey, man, it just is.

As I mentioned before, the book starts mid-sentence. This sets us up for a trip: the circular narrative aspect is badass. I was confused when I started the book, and hella confused as I finished it. After finishing, though, I re-read the first two chapters and everything made so much more sense (so make sure you do that). The book doesn’t start, and the book doesn’t end. It’s really fitting that there is no clear plot, though, because our single-shoed narrator is unreliable. He doesn’t know who he is (he knows his age, he thinks, and places he’s been), so he gets nicknamed “Kidd” or “The Kid” (depending on who you ask). It’s not just the past he’s forgotten, either; he loses minutes, hours, days. Ahh, now we’re getting heavy into the post-modern thing. (Seriously: if you look up “postmodern literature,” note that this book contains nearly every characteristic.) In addition to the circular narrative and lapses in time, Delaney crafted the book to create poems and rough drafts within Dhalgren. The Kid, who carries a found notebook everywhere, writes poems (he thinks); the Kid writes down conversations and events that happen (the best he can recall); and the Kid goes back and scribbles in the margin.

Within a few chapters, the story feels like it’s progressing linearly, until Delaney shows us those notes in the margin (which, Kid admits, he doesn’t know where the vignettes fit in). So when did any of this stuff happen? Given all of this, Dhalgren could aptly be described as a “mindfuck.” (If you liked Inception, hey, you should read this book.) You have a keen sense that this book isn’t just a story, but an exercise in writing. It can be quite cheeky, as Tak explains to Kid the three conventions of science fiction (p. 372) or we read a conversation between a much-published poet, Newboy, and the new poet, Kid (p. 355). At some point the book stops being a novel and becomes a written history (p. 662):

[Here the correction marks—except for one entry further on—stop. Did our transcriber tire of amateur scholarship? What he has given is more frustrating than helpful. And the sensitive reader will wish with us that he had annotated the final, rather than the first, few pages; there are half a dozen passages to come where even these attempts at variora might be preferable to the most informed supposition…

If this wasn’t Delaney telling a story about Kid, but a journal written by Kid, then who is this mysterious transcriber? Is it Kid again? At what exact point does the former-book-now-journal become a book again? Are we supposed to believe anything? Yeah, guys, mindfuck.

It’s not just the fancy literary techniques that got me sweet on this book. It was the subject matter: people just doing people things. The seemingly inane conversations recorded by Kid, the plentiful sex scenes (straight, gay, ménage à trois, gang-bangs), the random acts of violence during scorpion “runs” don’t add up to much, but they do make us comfortable with the characters (unless, of course, you’re a prude). Delaney, a much-published literature professor, obviously knows how to use characterization. How aware are the characters that they’re in a book? They’re certainly aware someone is writing about them (they recognize themselves in Kid’s poetry). We get the feeling that nothing is censored (but who knows? What might Kid be hiding?), as this is a salacious read. But what would you be doing in a city with no rules and no economy?

Delaney can comment on our constructions of sex, gender, and race with his characters. The ones we’re primarily concerned with, the scorpions, seem to blur all these lines. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, male or female; you can have as much sex as you want—however nasty you want—or be as violent as you want. There are moments when the characters forget they’ve blurred the lines, though. Why does is it disturbing that Gladis desires an annual gang-bang? Why are most of the scorpions black? What does it mean that the white guy who prefers the company of the black scorpions is called Tarzan?
These things—and many others—gave me a lot to think about. These characters have such fluid sexual relationships with each other: why do I feel most comfortable with monogamy? Many of these characters don’t label their sexuality: why are we so uncomfortable with pansexuality? The black characters call each other “nigger:” why can’t the white scorpion respond in kind?

There is so much more to say and so much more to think about, but this “review” is already disjointed (although, given the book, that’s fitting). Needless to say, I definitely plan on reading this book again.


Next up, though? Jane Eyre. ‘Bout time I picked up a stodgy classic.

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