Samuel R Delaney
Completed 3/31/2014, Reviewed 4/17/2014
It took me nearly three weeks to read this 800 page tome. When people asked me what it was about, I usually said, “It’s about a drifter who ends up in Bellonia, a city in the center of the
which seems to have experienced something apocalyptic. He’s a poet who becomes the head of a gang,
has a lot of sex, and, oh yeah, he might be schizophrenic. I’ve heard it’s kind of stream of conscious,
like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’” And when they
ask if this is one of my science fiction reads, I answer, “I think so?!”
“Dhalgren” is a very strange book. The main character is the kid, or The Kid, or Kidd, so dubbed because he can’t remember his name. He’s drifted into Bellonia, where roads are destroyed, houses burn one day and are fine the next, and only several thousand out of an original several million people remain, living in communes, gangs, or desperate solitude. Early on, we learn that Kidd is bisexual, or perhaps more accurately, has a very fluid sexuality. He initially settles in with Lanya, living in a commune in one of the town’s parks. Eventually, he hangs around with the gang known as the scorpions, moving in with them and becoming their leader. He acquires another lover, a teen named Denny, with whom he and Lanya form a polyamorous relationship. Kidd is also a poet. Upon arriving in Bellonia, he acquires a notebook that has all the right side pages written in. Kidd writes his poetry and keeps a journal on the left side pages. He goes from situation to situation, documenting his experiences in this odd city, eventually becoming a kind of folk hero, despite the fact that he walks around with one bare foot and occasionally wakes up not remembering anything that happened to him in the last week.
What’s most interesting about the book is that there’s no plot. It’s more like a collection of stories about an odd person in a strange place. It really is like a journal. Delaney is playing with form, giving the reader characters, mood, and events, but no real direction besides the passing of time. And there’s a meta- or circular quality to the book. It begins with a prosaic passage, which later we find is a passage from the notebook. With Kidd’s blackouts, it is unclear if the passage is from another author or his own writing from one of his schizophrenic episodes. Moments of ornate prose in first person appear in the midst of straight-forward third person narration. One chapter of the book is presented as if it has been transcribed from the journal, with multiple entries appearing in the text, indicating multiple thoughts and timelines. If you get caught up in the structure of the book, it can be quite difficult to get through. I had moments when I was confounded by it.
But the book was very readable. At some point, I just let it be an experience. The book never felt like something to trudge through. It became something akin to voyeurism. I never wanted to put it down, and despite the three weeks it took me to read, I didn’t really want it to end. The characters are drawn in great detail. Except for the myriad of gang members, I had distinct pictures and senses of almost everyone in the book.
There is a lot of sexuality in the book. As mentioned before, the main character is bisexual, and there are gay and Lesbian characters as well. Initially, all the explicit sex feels gratuitous. As I say, there’s a lot of it. But as the book progresses, it simply becomes a normal part of the narrative. I wondered if the point was that it shouldn’t be shocking, but integral. Sex is normal and an important part of a person. Just as any other part of this book reveals insight into the life and mind of the Kid, so does his sexuality.
The most confusing part of this book was deciding whether or not this was SF. It’s considered a classic SF novel. I think today, it would be considered post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. I wondered if Delaney’s real premise was that he wanted to write about an alternative society where government has broken down, sexuality is not an issue, and then extrapolate on how people would respond. To ground it in SF, he added a double moon and a giant sun. I think if he wrote it today, he wouldn’t have needed these conceits. It would have fit into the more general speculative genre. But for 1976, it was needed to allow him to explore people in a social situation simultaneously unlike 1976.
A lot of people have written that “Dhalgren” is unreadable, or terse or dry at best. Others say it’s a masterpiece of contemporary literature, not meant to be understood upon the first read. I certainly don’t know what it was really about. I’m sure there’s a ton of symbolism I missed. But I really enjoyed it. If you intend to read this book, I suggest you need to be open to a creative literary style and to an imaginative contemplation of the daily lives of a small group of people dealing as best they can in a bizarre situation. Oh yeah, and not be afraid of sex. I give it 4 stars.