Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review - Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Short review: . . . the Kid returns to Bellona, meets people, has sex, writes, bums around, leaves and then . . .

Go to Bellona
Find the crazy people there
Then come back again

Full review: After writing Nova, Delany didn't publish any fiction for five years. After this hiatus, he produced Dhalgren, his most ambitious work, although, in my opinion, not his best. Dhalgren is a very distinctive work, and is probably one of the most polarizing in the science fiction genre, provoking reactions from love, to hate, to contempt.

The book's protagonist, unnamed in the beginning of the book, and known only as "The Kid" through the rest, seems to wander through the decayed remains of the fictional city of Bellona - supposedly situated in the middle of the United States, but cut off in some unexplained way from the rest of the country. In Bellona, the sun is huge and red, there are sometimes two moons, time seems to intermittently flow faster or slower than normal, and an array of odd people try to live in a city where nothing seems to work. Bellona appears to be cut off from outside contact by radio, telephone, or other methods, its only interaction with the outside world appears to be the handful of people who manage to find their way in or out of the city.

The Kid starts his journey outside the city, where he has sex with a random woman, tells her he has lost his name whereupon she bestows him an "optic chain" and promptly turns into a tree. He hitches a ride on a truck, finds the bridge to Bellona, meets a group of women leaving the city who give him an "orchid" (a bladed weapon worn on the wrist) and finds Tak, the unofficial gatekeeper to the city. He hesitantly engages in a homosexual liaison with Tak. And then the book gets surreal.

As one might guess, the book has a fair amount of sexual content, and much of it is pretty explicit. The Kid engages for much of the book in a three way sexual relationship with Lanya and Denny, but there are other sexual elements introduced, like an episode of group sex involving multiple members of the "Scorpions" gang (of which The Kid and Denny are members), and a single woman. While sexuality was touched upon in his previous works, Dhalgren marks Delany's push into the area of sex, gender, and sexuality as major themes in his books. Delany explores several sexual relationships- between the older Kid and young vulnerable Denny; between the older Tak and The Kid; between a young girl and her obsession with her own rapist; between the Scorpions and the women who surround them, and so on.

Dhalgren is a difficult books to understand. The Kid appears to be an unreliable narrator, and although his presence drives much of what story there is, he is mostly passive, drifting from situation to situation, getting lost, discovering new parts of the city, and interacting with a wildly disparate group of people. Everything that happens in Bellona has an odd, dreamlike qualify, and an air of unreality. There is the possibility that Bellona may not exist at all, and may only be a figment of The Kid's deranged mind.

Wandering through the city, The Kid comes across a commune that has taken up residence in a city park where he meets Lanya, who gives him a half-filled book: he writes in the unused pages of the book throughout the rest of the story, seemingly writing the story of the book he is in. He later stumbles into an apartment complex and befriends a family that seems to be in denial about the oddities of the city around them. Here, one finds a union of the normal and what would be unacceptable behavior - while the father of the family goes to a nonexistent job every day and the mother insists on maintaining a normal lifestyle with family dinners, their teenage daughter has been raped by George Harrison (not the Beatle, a character in the book who is a popular local figure, and known rapist), but has become fixated upon Harrison with a kind of puppy love. The Kid, while helping move the family from one apartment to another, witnesses the death of the family's son, an event that has its own unreality about it.

The Kid later interacts with a local poet who tries to get him published by a local newspaper editor (and leader of what passes for Bellonan high society) named Calkins, and eventually drifts into joining and leading the Scorpions (some of whom had beaten him earlier in the novel), a sort of street gang that is made distinctive by wearing light projectors that, when turned on, surround them with images of various predatory and mythical creatures. In keeping with a general theme that The Kid lacks a defined self-identity, his light projector is faulty, displaying only an amorphous, shifting array of light when activated.

The Kid takes his Scorpion buddies to a party thrown in his honor by Calkins, where in a very odd sequence, the street gang interacts with the intellectual elite who reside in the city: a poet, an astronaut, a psychotherapist. The Kid is interviewed by a writer as part of this party. The novel then gets very self-referential, much of the last chapter is taken up with excerpts from the non-poetry that The Kid has written (the novel talks a lot about The Kid writing poetry, but you never see any of the actual poetry), until eventually, the last unfinished sentence seems to bend back to the first partial sentence in the book, making the novel circular in a manner that is almost certainly intentionally similar to Finnegan's Wake.

In some ways, the circular nature means that it doesn't matter where you start Dhalgren. You could pick it up, begin in chapter three, read to the end, and go back and read up to where you started. Though The Kid's path is linear as he drifts from situation to situation, the story references backwards and forwards so often that reading it in this way probably wouldn't change a reader's understanding of the story much. In some ways, the story seems to suggest that The Kid has gone to Bellona before, left it, and then forgotten his experience - when he begins reading the portion of the notebook that was already filled when Lanya gave it to him, and it looks suspiciously similar to what The Kid has written, and the story that he has lived through - making one think that maybe the half-finished notebook was possibly half-finished by The Kid in a previous tour of Bellona. The Kid seems to be something of a cipher, almost without his own identity other than that which he drifts into and which the reader imposes.

As with much of Delany's later work, Dhalgren seems to be concerned heavily with culture, and the preservation of culture in the face of stress - even though Bellona is clearly a dying city, with fires raging out of control in some areas (but oddly, rarely seeming to actually consume anything), the "elite" of the city are cultural figures: poets, writers, newspaper publishers, and of course, The Kid, who spends much of the book reading or writing in his notebook, and Lanya, who is described as an artist (though she produces no visible art during the book). Even the Scorpions, with their flamboyant light projectors, fill in for sculpture and a kind of performance art in the city.

In the end, the novel poses numerous questions, and steadfastly refuses to answer them. Is Bellona real? If it is, why is it cut off from the rest of the world? Is The Kid merely insane? Who is The Kid to begin with? Why does he go to Bellona, and why does he leave? Why does anyone go to Bellona? Are they seeking a sort of hippie freedom to live in a commune away from the workings of the world? Are they merely hedonists seeking pleasure unfettered by social mores? Are they criminals in an underworld where criminal behavior is acceptable? And so on and so forth. It is difficult to recommend Dhalgren as a book to be enjoyed, because some people will almost certainly not enjoy it. It is a significant book, and on that basis, a science fiction aficionado should definitely read it if for nothing else to explain why they dislike it. I enjoyed the book, but I can certainly see the elements that someone might not like, and as a result I give it a recommendation conditioned on the understanding that at least some people will absolutely hate the book.

1976 Locus Award Nominees
1976 Nebula Award Nominees

Samuel R. Delany     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. A nice summary of a book that's impossible to summarize! I was fourteen years old when I first read Dhalgren back in the late '70s. I don't think I ever quite recovered. I'm one of those who love it.

    1. @Michael Ray: Thank you. It is a very difficult, complex book, and is Delany at the top of his form.