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Dhalgren

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This is one of the best books I've ever read, but I would have difficulty recommending it to anyone else. It has next to no plot, and what little there is can be confusing and convoluted. It features a protagonist who has forgotten his name and many of his recent experiences, and who is quite possibly schizophrenic. The setting is a fictional Midwestern American city in the throes of societal breakdown. There are many graphically described sex scenes, including hetero-, homo- and bi-sexual, with some of the participants being minors. There is also casual talk of rape, and the "N" word is used a lot. While Delany is black, which might excuse his use of the term, many times it is uttered by non-black characters. Although marketed as science fiction (and nominated for a Nebula), it contains only a couple of elements remotely associated with the genre, and — horror of horrors — it's actually a literary novel. If all of that hasn't turned you off already, bear with me as I try to explain why I like it.

First, I like a challenging read. The next book I pick up will likely be much lighter in tone, but every once in a while I want to try the tougher ones. This was the second reading for me, the first being around thirty-five years ago. I won't tell you I understand what Delany was trying to do, although I will venture a few guesses. I think if anyone does say they fully understand this novel they are either a liar, a genius, or Delany himself. I can recognize some of the mythological archetypes utilized for the characters, several being similar to those used in The Einstein Intersection and other stories. I can also see his emulation of other literary styles, primarily of James Joyce. However, the most confusing thing might be that there is no definitive answer for what the book is about. Much of it reads more as poetry than prose, and as with the best poetry (or the best of any art) it can have multiple meanings for different people, and maybe even different meanings for the same people at different times.

Delany is not playing by any rules here. The narrative is unreliable in both the things that happen and the sequence in which they occur. The novel begins in mid-sentence, and the truncated last line of the book is the first half of that sentence, creating a narrative loop. The last chapter is completely in first person, although we can't be sure the narrator is always the same person. The rest is in third person, but with occasional lapses into first. Regardless of the viewpoint, it is clear that the main character is one who comes to be known as The Kid, or just kid, or to some he's Kidd, and somehow he can recognize the distinctions of pronunciation. He enters the city of Bellona knowing only that it has been cut off from the rest of the world and that there is no explanation for the phenomena the city is experiencing. He eventually encounters nearly all of the people who have remained in the city, but he firsts meets Tak Loufer, an engineer who fancies himself the official greeter of strangers. Through Tak, Kid meets members of a commune living in a city park, one of them being the beautiful Lanya, later his lover. He finds a notebook someone else has lost, one that has been written on only the right hand pages. Kid begins filling the left side pages with a journal of his experiences, as well as some poems. It is never stated what year this is supposed to be taking place, whether it is the 1975 of the book's publication, or near future, or some alternate time line. Kid says he is twenty-seven (although most guess at least ten years younger) and that he was born in 1948, but Lanya says that can't be right, but she never makes it clear if she means that would make him much older or much younger than he claims.

There are no city services, although one lone bus continues to run, but just as a symbol of normality for the otherwise unemployed driver. No television or radio signals can be received, and yet Roger Calkins, who is also the unofficial mayor, continues to publish the daily newspaper, the Bellona Times. It may be a symptom of some time/space distortion, but the dates on the paper are unreliable. One day the paper may state it is Sunday, March 21, 1976, and the next day it is Friday, February 2, 1776. Does the city jump around in time, or is Calkins just playing a joke? Kid is possibly hallucinating many things, or the city does change its shape or orientation from time to time. One day the bridge and river he crossed to enter Bellona is visible only a couple of blocks from Tak's residence, the next it is miles away. Tak states that he is confused why the sun rises from different directions from day to day. Many fires burn across the city, but they never seem to destroy the buildings, or else they are working in reverse. There is a perpetual cloud cover over the city, but one night it clears enough for two different moons to be visible, one in full phase, the other a crescent. On one day, and one day only, the sun appears from behind the clouds and almost completely fills the sky, prompting worry that Earth has fallen out of its orbit, and yet the temperature remains normal. What seems to Kid to have occurred in just a day is three or four days in the experience of Lanya. Is he going crazy? Is it just a dream? Possibly...no, probably both.

Kid admits to both Lanya and her friend Dr. Brown, a psychologist, that he had previously been in a mental institution. Why he can remember that, along with details about his parents and schools he attended, but not remember his name, is never revealed. On the night of the riots that started, or were the first result of, the chaos enveloping Bellona, Dr. Brown tries to help patients evacuate the hospital where she works, and she later tells Kid that a man she saw that night resembled him. Had he been a patient there, or was she mistaken? Did he enter Bellona from without after a long hitchhiking trip up from Mexico, as he recalls, or is it possible he is still in the hospital, and everything he is experiencing just a fever dream? I believe this is the most logical explanation. Even the third person passages are told from Kid's perspective. He is in every scene, on every page of the novel. There are at least two things that are probably symbols of some obsession, and both are mentioned during the opening sequence, as well as many times thereafter. One is a type of chain he finds in a cave and wraps around his body. It is composed of mirrors, prisms and lenses along with the metal links holding them together. Several people he meets in Bellona also wear these chains, and one of them is Dr. Brown, although he does not know her profession until later. Another symbol is a scratch along the lower leg of four different women, starting with an unnamed naked girl he meets on the first page, and then later Lanya, Millie (a member of the park commune), and finally Dr. Brown again. I have no idea what those things mean to Kid, or to Delany, but they occur too frequently to be insignificant. Not only that, I am sure a lot of what Kid experiences are fictionalized from Delany's own life. Kid and Lanya enter a ménage à trois with a young boy. Delany and his wife Marilyn Hacker did the same in real life, only in their case the other man was a year older. Just prior to that, Delany had suffered a breakdown and was in Mount Sinai mental hospital for several weeks. During one of their separations, Hacker had a relationship with a half-Native American poet. Kid's mother was Native American and he begins to compose poems after his arrival in Bellona. Draw your own conclusions.

The possible schizophrenia I mentioned earlier can be surmised from the different ways Kid acts on different occasions. I suppose these days the diagnosis might be bipolar disorder instead. At first, Kidd seems "normal," a young man just curious about what is going on in Bellona. Almost everyone he meets likes him and wants to be his friend. Later he becomes the leader of a gang of "scorpions" who roam the city streets and perform acts of violence and vandalism. They are so named because they wear a chain around their necks which houses a holographic projector, which when activated envelops them in a veil of light. The first such devices made the light shield resemble a scorpion, although they later discover others that project the aura of dragons, griffins or other mythical creatures. Even when Kid is responsible for his gang's violence, he is still regarded in a positive light by many, and on several occasions is deemed a hero. However, his attitude towards other people can shift into hostile mode with little provocation. One minute he is smiling and benevolent, the next he is screaming and lashing out at others in the gang, and sometimes even Lanya or his boy lover Denny.

As much as this can be considered an alternate time line novel, or a fantasy, I think a good case can be made that it is also about contemporary city life. Bellona could be Detroit, or New Orleans after Katrina. It depicts a people abandoned by the mechanics of civilization as the powers-that-be (Roger Calkins in this case) retreat to their gated communities and ride out the storm. The majority left in Bellona are black, and the poorest in Cumberland Park are hit hardest when they lose all of their power and water. Another riot breaks out, or is it the same riot that started it all? Kid is able to escape(?) the city, and his exit mirrors his entrance in several particulars. Will he have to do it all over again? Delany has said that he intended the book to be elliptical, and that the reader could enter the story at almost any point. Maybe on my next read I'll start on page 100 and see if that's true.

Normally I don't go looking for other people's opinions until I've finished a review, but in this case I've been doing research on the eventual profile page I'll do on Delany's career. Dhalgren, at least by number of copies sold, is his most popular novel, but I'm willing to bet many didn't finish it, and a lot of those who did are probably as negative about it as some other reviewers. Harlan Ellison, in his LA Times review, admitted that he never finished reading it, in fact says he threw it against the wall out of frustration. Philip K. Dick said it was pure trash. However, Frederik Pohl was an editor at Bantam at the time, and selected it for publication. Jonathan Lethem said it could "stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s." Theodore Sturgeon said it was a "literary landmark...the very best to come out of the science fiction field." Only, it's NOT science fiction. At best it is speculative fiction (my preferred term), but literarily it has more in common with magical realism and surrealism. It is a drastic departure from the books that came before it. There is not a reliable answer to the question of whether it is good or not. I liked it the first time around, and I liked it even more on this second read. For anyone else, I would have to ask; have you read Finnegan's Wake, or Gravity's Rainbow, or anything by Faulkner, David Mitchell or David Foster Wallace? If you have and enjoyed them, then I'd say give Dhalgren a try. If not, then don't.

 

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Author
Samuel R. Delany

Published
1974

Awards
Nebula & Locus
nominee

Available from amazon.com