Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Author: Samuel R Delany
Bellona. One of America's bigger cities. Some undetermined time in the 1970s. Catastrophe has struck, the city torn apart, and evacuated. At the time it was major news. In the way of these things the city lies abandoned and forgotten. The black and poor were left behind to suffer, and they get by best they can among the burning buildings and looting from shops. There are others, those that were too afraid to leave during the riots, those curious enough and wild enough to see what comes next. The latter being the model for those that arrive in the city post-disaster - deserters from the army, gang kids, hippies and wanderers.
Dhalgren is about one wanderer in particular. Part Indian, part white, with a youthful face and ancient hands. Fleeing from something he lost one shoe, and even when he gets a chance to have a new shoe he only replaces the one. Somewhere along the line he has lost some memories - he has travelled the world, he has just come from Mexico, these things he remember - but his name, his name is beyond him. On entering the city he is met by Tak Loufer, a man who likes to think of himself as an iron wolf, who seduces those he can while they are still fresh and gives them the tour of the city. Finding a man without a name Tak daubs him The Kid because of his youthful looks, despite the fact that he isn't that young and he isn't too happy about the name. Regardless it isn't too long before that is the name everyone calls him.
The Kid finds a city outside time. Electricity is sporadic. Clocks are broken. The hands on the church tower clock were torn off during the riots. There is a daily newspaper, but the day, month and year are determined at random by Calkins who publishes the paper and regards himself as the city's governor. The Kid admits he has had mental problems in the past, spent sometime in a hospital even. So against this background he starts to feel like he might be going crazy again - people he talked with that morning tell him that night that they haven't seen him in days, suggesting he is having blackouts.
On the other hand, as he suggests at one point, perhaps this city is different to all people. Various people he meets saying how they will clear out the shelves of a shop, and then come back to the same shop as far as they can tell and find the same shelves full again. Or how one building can be burnt out one day, and untouched the next. But then at least once he catches people changing the street names about. How could anyone remain sane in this environment?
In terms of local celebrity there are two extremes - Calkins and his parties, and at the other end George Harrison. During the riots poor, black George raped middle class, white teenage June. Someone took a photo while it happened, it was in the paper, and George is now notorious. There are posters of George everywhere, a local hero for some inexplicable hero, with his victim June fascinated by him and determined to meet him again some day.
Two of The Kid's earliest encounters shape his stay in the city. Tak introduces him to the commune in the park. There he meets Lanya, a woman he quickly forms a heady and powerful relationship with. The other is with the local gang - The Scorpions. Gang kids running riot, who beat him upon first meeting. Strange kids with strange devices - hologram projectors that cloud them in light, giving them the aspects of strange beasts. Initially the holograms were all of giant scorpions, hence the gang name, though now the devices project dragons, beetles, gryphons and all sorts of other beasts. Through the book The Kid is seduced by the gang life rather than the park life of the commune. Strangely, easily he finds himself leading the gang. Strangely and easily he gains his own reputation, quickly becoming a celebrity to rival either Calkins or Harrison. Not least because he takes a second lover from the ranks of The Scorpions, Denny, a 15-year-old boy - who becomes part of a surprisingly healthy and stable love-triangle.
Dhalgren is a monster of a book. Nearly 900 pages long and mostly plotless, The Kid ambling from one incident to the next. Like Babel-17, which was the first novel by Delany that I read, the main character is a poet rather than some obvious hero. To emphasize and exacerbate the confusion one can sometimes feel reading Dhalgren, the seventh section is a reproduction of The Kid's notebook. Where he has been running out of space to write, and filling the gaps, pages coming in columns, stray paragraphs and patchy events. All of which makes the reader fear for the end. How can Delany finish this? How can he bring it to any kind of conclusion? In that dizzying last section you are thrown back and forth, spun around, and before you know it the end is upon you. And the end, the end comes with a certain perfection, unexpected but just right.
Dhalgren was written in the early 1970's and feels like it. With Delany a black, gay science fiction writer Dhalgren is filled with an explicit and challenging approach to both race and sex. It feels like a psychedelic epic, something along the lines of Moorcock's Chaos novels or Farren's DNA Cowboys. There are parallels to novels like Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World or perhaps more closely Alasdair Grey’s Lanark - stranger, strange land, and a series of near incomprehensible events. At times it is heavy going, there is just so much of it, but at others Dhalgren is just so weird, so wonderful - events are intoxicating, the emotional intereactions between characters so striking - that it starts to overwhelm and consume the reader.
Dhalgren appears to be part of the Science Fiction masterworks in the UK. Though as far as I can see it is currently out of print, with a new version due. I ended up buying it second hand, an edition from 1979 that originally cost £1.25 and I ironically paid £1.50 for.
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