"To wound the autumnal city"
So howled out the book to me
And demanded a reading and a read-over after I had finished.
Those who are familiar with Samuel Delaney's long, enigmatic, controversial and to me incredible novel "Dhalgren" will recognize that I have paraphrased the first two sentences to give me my opening in describing this substantial contribution to the literature of Speculative Fiction and to me a book that still seems relevant and was very influential to me when I read it as an undergrad. So I'll state my tendentiousness flat-out in that I am making a pitch for this work, which still seems relevant despite the differences in our society between 1975 and now; how much more ordered and technological and repressed we all have become.
When I read it, it was a time of intellectual ferment for me, familiar I suspect to those who remember their early twenties. Alongside "Dhalgren" I also remember reading Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow", Harlan Ellison's "Strange Wine", and Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", all in their own way influential on me (Please hold the brickbats over the Ayn Rand; I can write about that in the comments section if anyone is interested). I also read a lot of miscellaneous other science fiction and I think during that time I even re-read "Lord of the Rings". And yet, of all those works in terms of the timeliness when I read them, I would have to put "Dhalgren" first in terms of works that really shaped my thinking, particularly in the long term.
To being with, 'Dhalgren' is a long, complex, and highly ambitious work in speculative fiction; written by an excellent writer at the top of his form. I've never read anything remotely like it. The plot centers around an abandoned city called 'Bellona', which is one of many mythological references in the text (Bellona was a Roman goddess of war, sometimes thought of as the destroyer of cities). There has been some cataclysm that has disrupted the fabric of space and time around the city and it is mostly abandoned. Into this dark subversive vision of anarchy - a place where there is no law or system of any kind - comes an unnamed individual who hallucinates or experiences meeting a young woman, having sex with her and watching her turn into a tree but not before being led into a cave and picking up a long chain with prisms, mirrors and lenses on it, which he will wear as a talisman for the remainder of the novel; in fact he encounters other characters who wear it too, although like much in the novel it is never fully explained how or why. He is referred to as 'the Kid' or 'Kidd' because he has a baby face and cannot remember who he is. In fact, he is likely schizophrenic and several times references the fact that he has been in a mental institution, leading me to wonder how much of the novel is his hallucinations
After meeting various characters in the ruined city he falls in with a racially integrated gang that call themselves 'Scorpions' after the holographic devices they carry; and enters into a sexual trinity with a another young women he meets in a commune as well as a young member of the aforesaid gang. He picks up a notebook which will be one of the threads that runs through the novel; he writes poetry in it, but the poems are never explicitly stated. He keeps it as a kind of journal, but several things in it exactly mimic later stretches of the novel so it cannot be merely a blow by blow diary. He interacts with characters in the novel that are clearly meant to represent the establishment, such as it is, even in Bellona, including a family trying to maintain the illusion of a normal life which is shattered on several different levels as the novel progresses. His poems are published by a publisher who also lives in Bellona, but later he overhears several of his friends openly doubt that the poems are his. In the end, Dahlgren ends as enigmatically as it begins with some other catastrophe happening to make kid leave the city and the novel ends with an incomplete sentence that completes the first one at the start.
So what makes this highly bizarre and thoroughly enigmatic novel worth reading and puzzling through for all 879 pages? The prose style for one; reading Delaney can be like being in a room suffused with perfumed incense:
His shirt lay beside him on the bed. He pulled his hands together into his lap, fingers and knuckles twisted around one another - scratched his dark creased stomach together with his thumb. "Look, about . . .being nuts". He felt self-righteous and shy, looked at the doubled fist of flesh, hair, horn and callous pressed into his groin; it suddenly seemed weighted with the bones in it. "You're not, and never have been. That means what you see, and hear, and feel, and think . . . you think that is your mind. But the real mind is invisible: you're less aware of it while you think than you are of your eye while you see. . .until something goes wrong with it. Then you become aware of it, with all its dislocated pieces, and its rackety functioning, the same way you become aware of your eye when you get a cinder in it. Because it hurts. . . Sure, it distorts things. But the strange thing, the thing that you can never explain to anyone, except another nut, or, if you're lucky, a doctor who has an unusual amount of sense - stranger than the hallucinations or the voices or the anxiety - is the way you begin to experience the edges of the mind itself. . .in a way other people just can't".
That's something the Kid says near the beginning; he then proceeds to have a homosexual encounter, described in fairly explicit terms with the large man he says it to. .. and then experiences/hallucinates this man developing eyes that become solidly deep red.
I should now say that I have met Samuel Delaney when he was at Cornell, as well as hearing him speak and running into him at various book signings. I also helped create a SF magazine called Visions while at Cornell and naturally, Delaney was our first interview subject. We asked him about 'Dahlgren' and yes, he confirmed that he gets about five times the fan mail on it than anything else he's written. People write in to tell him that the book is like them or their friends, or their life, and he isn't sure why; he said, and this is a reasonable quote that he liked to think the novel had the resonance it did because of the questions he raised about the American Dream and what it really was worth; but, he said, he hadn't raised questions in the novel, either, and so he couldn't be sure exactly what made it as good as it was in the eyes of others, except to add that he wrote it with all the skill and craft and heart he could muster.
He brings this craft and heart, and I should say experience when he deals with the theme and subject of sex - better than just about any writer I've read this side of Philip Roth - better even than Roth in a way because it is so immediate and graphic without being exploitative and realistic, in all its sweaty grandeur and anatomic farce. Because as I said earlier, the novel gets graphic about sex in various manifestations, and the long-running 'threesome' that Kid has with a young woman he meets early in the novel and a teenage boy he meets later on in it gives Delaney the opportunity to describe the details of this kind of liason that in a lesser writers hands would be simply pretentious porno. And yet here it isn't; the language is often poetic, never exploitative, even when he describes group sex or orgies. This after all is the man who wrote "Aye, and Gomorrah" about people who work in space who have been neutered, and about the sad, lonely people who have an attraction to them precisely because they are neutered and can do nothing.
There is much else in the novel which despite its length, never feels padded or overly wordy. There are insights into mental illness, like the one I have quoted; there are insights into the creative process; a nice line about how cluttered the literature Nobel prizes have become with 'mediocre writers who have neither depth nor charm; readability or relevance'. Characterization rich and profuse. There's even a line I've used ever since to describe when someone I admire says or does anything I think beneath them:
My first reaction was that Tak, who had always seemed a pretty big man, became much smaller. Later I realized that the big man simply contained many components, among them a small one
I'll make one last point here that seems to me very current: There is a scene in Dhalgren where several of the characters are discussing life in their 'city' and one of them states a paragraph about who can't live there: Not only those who crave order, but those who are dependent on a certain daily something which only normal life can bring: a cup of coffee, the daily newspaper, listening to the radio to put them asleep at night. And so they miss out. To make this real in our iculture, I can say this as well: There is no internet in Bellona. You couldn't log on there; there is no screen to hide behind. So if you needed it, why you yourself couldn't live there. Maybe this is as good a way of saying you actually need to go out and live real life as opposed to virtual as anything else I can think of.
So to return to the theme about life changing books. There is an interview given by Sidney Lumet near the end of his life when he is asked whether he thinks his movies changed anything, or whether art ever changes anything. He says, unequivocally, 'No'.
But they do. And they do because you can't watch 'Network' and not think a little differently about what network news really means. You can't watch 'The Pawnbroker' and think about holocaust survivors exactly the same again. And then you act a certain way which is different from before. The art may not change the status quo, but it changes the person, who sometimes does change the status quo, or in my case contributed in some small way to the changing of it. And so, by introducing a fresh breath of anarchy and an illustration of how people actually interact to a somewhat rigid and shy person, a mind was opened a little wider than before. I thus commend Dhalgren in the hope that it can do the same in a sad joyless time that in my view so desperately needs it.