Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
I am required to go back to this book every few years. The first book by Delany I ever read was Babel-17 when I was in high school. (Coincidentally read Anthem by Ayn Rand about the same time. Maybe I should write a comparison.) I enjoyed it. I and several high school friends also read Einstein Intersection and were blown away. One step closer to fanboy. Shortly after high school it seemed like every time I went to the drug store or supermarket the book rack had a copy of Dhalgren. This gigantic book with a strange cover. I finally broke down and bought it and was immediately hooked.
It’s interesting coming back to the book after several years. The book is overtly sexual. And not just sexual but polyamorous with what ends up being a threesome among the main character Kidd, a woman named Lanya, and a gang member named Denny. I think that was a partial draw, but the book in general with its setting in a mysterious city of Bellona and the odd interaction in the entire city kept me sailing through what, at that time, was the longest book I’d ever read.
It’s important to state that the book makes no real sense. It’s as psychedelic a book as you might get from the era (it was first published in 1975). I worried that I might be missing something or was too dense to understand some subtext. I was relieved, then, that the latest edition I read included an introduction by William Gibson, no illiterate regarding science fiction, in which he said that as much as he loved the book he didn’t understand it. The book is an enigma, It has a plot, carries along that plot. But what happened in Bellona? No one knows. It’s a city with its own individual apocalypse that doesn’t seemed to have gone beyond the city’s borders. The inhabitants are drawn from different places as if the city demanded their presence. They also seem to have difficulty leaving, or at least of finding their way out. Within the city limits there are codes but no laws. People scrounge for food but no one goes hungry. It’s a dangerous place and yet there’s a newspaper, a higher society, and some semblance of being a city but with no true government. Sexuality is casual and random, but Kidd’s threesome has familial affection for each other.
Kidd is a mystery throughout the book. Arriving in the city with amnesia after an apparent stay in a mental hospital. He finds a partially filled notebook and begins writing poetry on the blank pages. Almost as suddenly he stops writing but a book of his poems manages to get published. He takes work with a family in which the wife, at least, seems to be in denial about what’s happening around her, trying to live a normal life despite the strange noises outside her apartment. Even the name of the book is a mystery, with one fleeting reference to a man with the surname Dhalgren on a list of names.
After finishing the book I became a Delany addict, tearing through all the books I could find. (I’ve seen similar obsessions with Frank Herbert fans.) But I don’t think until I read Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories that I got a grip about what I loved in Delany and sought out in other science fiction or fiction in general: a sense of freedom and a traveler’s eye. I don’t think one really understands their surroundings until they leave them for awhile. And while travelling or experiencing another country (or another world) one gets perspective on what has been so entwined with you that it becomes invisible. The new world, too, seems brighter. Every small detail has meaning and consequence that have been lost in the things you leave behind. This is wonder. This is magic. Delany’s writings have that sense of wonder and magic while still managing to have taken on some of the deeper themes in literature.
And now something just for my own ego. Chip, if you happen to go egosurfing and find this: you changed my perspective on the world and I love you. But not in that way because I get the sense you like it rough.