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Probing Dhalgren

“Be glad you’re not just a character scrawled in the margins of somebody else’s lost notebook: you’d be deadly dull.”

The first time I read Samuel R. Delaney’s masterpiece, I didn’t know a couple of things. In 1975, I was neither privy to writing techniques nor did I know that Dhalgren would become recognized as one of the most profound science fiction novels of all time. I was simply riveted by the setting and the characters. When my Lady gave me an unusual edition this Christmas, I re-read that story I remembered so well from 44 years ago. (It never occurred to me at the time that I would see the year 2020 either, but, that’s another blog.)

If you write sci-fi, then you must attempt to read, or re-read, Dhalgren. If the first scene grabs you, you will be reluctant to put it down 800 pages later. Disclaimer: Like Joyce’s Ulysses, you can’t understand Dhalgren until you’ve read it and once you’ve read it, you can’t explain it. But here are three clues.

Dhalgren presents reality on the edge of perception, before we process it. “Even if the quotidian surface sits on it a bit askew.”

+++Finally Dragon Lady called down: “You still okay…?”
+++“Yeah.” Kidd took a breath. “I’ll tie the rope around him. You can haul him up.” He slipped the rope from under his arms, pulled it over his head, but left it around one shoulder; he stepped forward on the oozy filth, stooped, and tugged a leg from where it had wedged between two blackened bumper plates.
+++“… is he alive?” Thirteen called.
+++Kidd took another breath. “Naw.” He pulled at the arm, got a grip around the chest, which was all soft against him. His own shirt front soaked immediately. Blood dribbled along his forearm. Standing, he dragged the body back a step. A foot caught, pulled free; the leg fell back against his thigh — his thigh wet, warm, to the knee. Dragging it, limp, reaching for the rope, he thought: Is this what turns on blood and blade freaks? He thought of Tak, he thought of George, hunted in himself for any idle sexuality: he found it, disconcertingly, a small warmth above the loins that, as he bared his teeth and the rope slid through his sticky hand, went out. “Let me have another couple of feet!” Well, he had found it before in auto wrecks, in blue plush, in roots, in wet wood with the bark just stripped.

In that moment before we process reality, censorship is not possible.

Often, the real world occurs on the edge of a dream.

Ahead, he could see the taller buildings. Smoke had gnawed away the upper stories. Stealthily, he descended into the injured city.
It does not offer me any protection, this mist; rather a refracting grid through which to view the violent machine, explore the technocracy of the eye itself, spelunk the semi-circular canal. I am traveling my own optic nerve.

Note the slip from third person into first person.

The story is show-no-tell to the point where the reader knows no more than is seen through the eyes of the main character, who struggles to understand what he is experiencing.

The smoke was so thick he wondered if the glass were opaque and he only misremembered it as clear–
Well–” Madam Brown pushed open the cracked door– “what do you think of the Richards after your first day on the job?”
“I don’t think anything.” Kidd stretched in the over-thick night. “I’m just an observer.”

In the end, each reader is left with their own thoughts about Dhalgren. “I would never presume to say what they meant,” Ernest Newboy, the poet, says when asked what poems mean. To me, Dhalgren is epic poetry in prose.

And that’s all I got; three clues and an ongoing fascination. What did you take away from this novel?


17 thoughts on “Probing Dhalgren

  1. nothing I’m afraid, I just abandoned it after losing interest at some point not long after it was published. A mate had read it and loaned it to me. The characters and the world just didn’t grab me and there seemed no point in continuing 😦

    Liked by 5 people

  2. atthysgage says:

    I’ve read it several times over the years, the last time maybe three years ago. I didn’t like it quite as well as in the past, but I still think it’s one of the great books — particularly science fiction — of its time. It’s a puzzle box of a book, with, possibly, no solution, but any such solution would be beside the point. Inscrutable, recursive, and damned well written. I get why a lot of people didn’t care for it.

    I think the scene I keep coming back to is when Kid is in the ransacked department store and passes by a mirror. He sees, not himself, but a black guy with glasses he’s never seen before — Delaney himself of course — carrying the same notebook that Kid is carrying. At some other point (it’s hard to keep track of the narrative thread sometimes) Kid reads a passage in the notebook describing the same event, but only as a hypothetical event:

    If an author passed by a mirror and saw a character from one of his books looking out at him, he might think he was going crazy, but at least he would have some to relate to, some frame of reference. But what if the character, passing on the other side, saw the author looking in at him? What possible way could he have of interpreting this event?

    The one consistency is the notebook. Kid finds it when he enters the city, adopts it as his own. By the end of the novel, the notebook has become the text. I’d argue that the notebook is not only the novel, but the city itself. It may be the only place where Kid actually exists, but since he’s also — eventually — its author… well, draw your own conclusions. The book is the city is the puzzle is the key is the character.

    Too much? Maybe. But I have to give credit to a book that engenders that much thought and consideration. Speculative fiction indeed.

    (Also, for the record,I found the characters and plot compelling and believable within the context of the established premises of the novel, but that’s just personal opinion.)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Atthys, Thanks.
      I found myself nodding yes to everything you said. It is one hell of a story. Everything, especially the unbelievable, is believable. (Once, I believed Kidd was still back in the mental institution.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. MamaSquid says:

    Was surprised to find I’ve never heard of this one. Wikipedia says it’s his most controversial novel, which… really? Hogg isn’t more controversial? Yikes.

    I’m intrigued by the prose you throw out here, but it sounds experimental with form, and possibly pretentious, so I’m on the fence about whether to dive in. Maybe I’ll check it out after I finish Leviathan Wakes.

    Liked by 5 people

    • MAMASQUID, Maybe, go to Amazon & read the first few pages? That will tell you if you want to dive. The mood of the story grabs you or it doesn’t. If it does, be prepared for a world so immersive you won’t forget.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. @GD: You have provided a most intriguing key to the novel’s tricksy metafictive techniques.

    We had a very good discussion about Dahlgren back in the Book Country days. I confessed I started the novel three different times (something kept drawing me back, eh?) but never made it through the entire 879-page tome. My loss, to be sure.

    Wildly divergent opinions on the literary worth of Dahlgren from “The Greats” (as posted on WIKI): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhalgren

    With over a million sales, Dhalgren is by far Delany’s most popular book—and also his most controversial. Critical reaction to Dhalgren has ranged from high praise (both inside and outside the science fiction community) to extreme dislike (mostly within the community).[13] However, Dhalgren was a commercial success, selling a half million copies in the first two years, and over a million copies worldwide since then, with “its appeal reaching beyond the usual SF readership.”[13]

    William Gibson has referred to Dhalgren as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”[14]

    Darrell Schweitzer stated, “Dhalgren is, I think, the most disappointing thing to happen to science fiction since Robert Heinlein made a complete fool of himself with I Will Fear No Evil.”[15]

    In 2015, Elizabeth Hand characterized the novel as “a dense, transgressive, hallucinatory, Joycean tour-de-force”.[16] By contrast, fellow writers Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison hated the novel. When the book appeared, Ellison wrote: “I must be honest. I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further.”[17]

    Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, a stage adaptation of (or sequel to) Dhalgren, was produced at The Kitchen in New York City in April 2010.[18]

    Also, this: https://themillions.com/2010/06/difficult-books-dhalgren-by-samuel-r-delany.html

    Excerpt: The comparison to Pynchon is not made lightly. On the surface, Kid’s wanderings in Bellona look as loosely strung together as that other Kid’s wanderings in Purple Rain. His poetics tend toward the Beatnik, his observations toward the dreamy and spontaneous: the flashbulb-red that keeps appearing in the eyes of certain characters; the holographic exoskeletons in which the book’s street gangs armor themselves… But in the monologues by various Bellonians that punctuate and comment on the action, we can feel Delany synthesizing history, mythology, aesthetics, epistemology, systems theory, and the philosophy of language into a singular vision of the human condition on the cusp of postmodernism. It should also be said that Delany’s sinuous prose, by turns fragmentary and efflorescent, is a major attraction.

    Elements of his conception, however, will prove difficult for the casual reader. First, there is the purposeful, high-modernist obscurity of the stream-of-consciousness voice that periodically recurs. The book opens with a half-dozen pages written in the mind-voice of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic Kid; the thought of eight hundred more pages of this may lead some readers to jump ship. The novel quickly modulates, however, into the more straightforward third-person that is its main register.

    A more persistent difficulty is the book’s pointed pointlessness. My favorite of Dhalgren‘s seven sections, “House of the Ax,” has an actual plot, as does, broadly speaking, the first half of the novel. But in the back half, as the context Kid has constructed for himself begins to crumble, the narrative devolves into sketchy, repetitive vignettes of kinky sex and random violence. Delany may be posing important questions about mimesis and perception, but “Palimpsest” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness” tried my bourgeois patience.

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Carl; I think the reviewer’s impatience with the second half of the novel had less to do with any devolving of the plot than with frustration with the structure and style. I’m pretty sure the book is no more violent or kinky in the second half than it was in the first (difficult things to measure, certainly). But events become more disjointed, and the flow of time less of a constant. In the final chapter, the journal itself becomes the text (transcribed — apparently — by some future editor for no reason that is ever given). It’s a hodgepodge with multiple narrative streams occurring side by side on most pages, obscuring our sense of temporal progression. But this process occurs throughout the book. Different people seem to be experiencing time at different rates. (This is most notable during one passage where Lanya angrily confronts Kid because he disappeared for five days. He, on the other hand, clearly remembers seeing her that same morning, and he can remember the entire day without any gaps.)

      It is generally recognized that the end of the book loops us back to the beginning. Less obvious is a second, internal loop. Roughly halfway through the book, Kid attempts to leave Bellona, only to find himself entering the city again. This reentry begins a second narrative arc, with many events seemingly paralleling earlier occurrences. There is also, at the end, a scene where Kid meets a young woman entering the city even as he leaves, who seems to be a sort of rough analogue of himself. He gives her his weapon and departs, but I think it’s clear that he too will reenter the city yet again, suggesting yet another, even longer double loop including both of their stories.

      Yeah, it’s convoluted. and these are only random observations. I really have no grand unified theory of what Delany had in mind. Nor did I need one to enjoy the book.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Haven’t read it but am intrigued. An article I just read about the book included the following observation: “The best analogue I can offer for the singular experience of reading this novel is a video game where any teleology, any notion of progress or levels to be mastered, has been stripped away.” GD, I know you are no stranger to video games and I’m wondering if immersing oneself in the world created in this book is similar to exploring an RPG environment.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The article’s observation is interesting, Victor. But the world of Dhalgren (published in 1974) preceded our world of video games.
      As Atthys points out, the city of Bellona itself is bereft of contiguous time. There is no predictable cause and effect. My sense is of a world similar to dreams, where things happen, each event complete in itself. Delaney’s genius was to connect all those dreams into one believable story.

      Liked by 3 people

      • @GD: Have you read van Vogt? The prodigious, monarchy-loving (heh!) sci-fi writer A. E. van Vogt “claimed many of his ideas came from dreams; throughout his writing life he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes during his sleep period so he could write down his dreams.”

        As some wag later commented (Silverberg? Damon Knight?) this explained much re: his logic-defying, plot-hole-riddled writing.


        Liked by 3 people

        • Carl, Yup. A. E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Damon Knight -early SciFi writers wrote simply from their imaginations & dreams. The fun story writers never worried about scoffers. (I think) it was Roger Zelazny, author of “The Dream Master,” who wrote wonder-filled stories about a guy in an old pick-up, toodling along time’s freeway. The exit signs were marked with the year. You could turn off 🙂 pardon the pun 🙂 anytime.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I’m still trying to imagine the hell of being awakened every 90 minutes to write down dream content. Good grief! If true, this means that van Vogt kept awakening himself just as delta-wave REM began every sleep period. Just how deep were those black circles under his eyes; how intrusive and reality-warping the borderline psychotic, perpetual hypnagogic state that must have comprised his everyday sleep-deprived consciousness?!

            Liked by 2 people

  6. Samuel R. Delany, commenting on Dahlgren and other related topics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6kc-0Qg6oQ

    Also, this (from the New York Times):


    The travels of an amnesiac drifter through a burnt-out, alternate-reality America. There may be no other novel of the 1970s, or since, that so profoundly captures the dire atmosphere of a nation in economic and political free fall, and the persistence of love and the survival of eros amid such total brutality.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. mimispeike says:

    I do love the approach. I’m trying to come to grips with coming to grips with the story. I haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe I need a longer sample, to find my way in this mysterious world.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. DocTom says:

    I read Dahlgren in college and was very impressed with the quality of the writing although I admit that it didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense at times. I kind of thought that was the point. I still remember the elevator scene (partly included in GD’s post), and the characters suddenly seeing not one, but two moons when the clouds part. After over forty years that says something about the writing, since I haven’t read it since. I do remember that I was so impressed I ran out and picked up a few other Delany works and read them all.

    Liked by 1 person

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