Sunday, February 16, 2020

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

I’ll admit to being mixed on this. On paper it sounds like it should be right in my wheelhouse. I’ve read four other novels by Delany. Whether they were scifi or mainstream I’ve at least enjoyed them all. Nova and Dark Reflections are both great. Babel-17 is an all timer. I also enjoy, for lack of a better term, big difficult novels that take some sorting out, and this is famously among their ranks. And it does live up to that billing, not so much in what happens as in what it means. I often describe my favorite writing as existing in the place where pretentious literary fiction crashes into genre fiction. Again, this fits the bill. There is a lot of poetry and a lot about the process of writing poetry; at random moments paragraphs of prose poetry break the flow of the story, such as it is. This is what I liked best about the book. In 1974 it predicted/predated the current conversation around race and gender to a scary degree. Writers I love praise the book highly: Elizabeth Hand, William Gibson, and Jonathan Lethem to name a few. The only part that in descriptions of the book that gave me pause were the accounts of the frankly pornographic sections, which fall outside of my reading interests (while these were important to the themes of the book, they were extreme). But there are other writers I love (Caitlin Kiernan and, less often, Elizabeth Hand, for example) who veer into erotica at times but whose work I still really love on other grounds. Given my appreciation for the other Delany books I’ve read, I figured I could get past this aspect of the book. And for the most part I could, though if I reread this there will be some strategic page skipping.** The poetic sections, the meditations on art, and, above all, the setting of the city of Bellona were often powerful and moving. But there were also tiring sections. The highs were high but I was not as enamored of the book as I had hoped to be.

The protagonist, who does not know his name, enters the city of Bellona in the early pages of the book. Bellona is somewhere in the middle of America, but separated from the rest of the country by some type of localized event, perhaps magical, or apocalyptic, or both in nature. Reports are that the rest of the country is doing relatively well. But in Bellona there is chaos. No law. Time doesn’t seem to matter. There are gangs that would be at home in Escape From New York or Blade Runner 2049. The protagonist is given the nickname The Kid and he becomes a matter of fascination for the residents of the city across the entire social strata. He receives a notebook early on and writes his poetry on the pages and margins left blank by its previous user. The city is a place where marginalized people find some confusing type of acceptance.

Dhalgren is not the kind of book you can spoil, really. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of sex, a lot of musing on art, on race, on gender, on chaos, and on the nature of society. The poetic sections are spectacular. The reader is put in the middle of all this and told over and over more or less explicitly that it’s on them to sort out what’s important. William Gibson called it a “riddle never meant to be solved” in his introduction. I certainly didn’t understand it, and I can take more than a little solace in the knowledge that Gibson didn’t either. I wasn’t as taken with the book as he was, but parts of it that are really sticking with me. I suspect that rereading it would yield more insight, and there’s a good chance I’ll read this again at some point.

Recommended if that description didn't put you off it. (with a heavy content warning, though I would much more strongly recommend his novels Nova and Babel-17).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 14/75

*A subgoal of my attempt to read books I already own but haven’t read is to get through a few of these big daunting titles (this, House of Leaves and Gravity’s Rainbow) that have been on the shelf a long time. For an idea of how long, I’m pretty sure I bought my copy of this at Borders.

**Not saying that anyone who enjoys erotica shouldn’t, it’s just not my genre.


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  2. Reading through this review again, I have to say that the book has really stuck with me in the months since I read it and I've come to like it more with more reflection.