DYSTOPIA DOWNSTREAM – DHALGREN, SAMUEL R. DELANEY

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Open Road Integrated Media

Publication Date: January 7, 2014

coverDHALGREN

In The Recombinant City, A Foreward, William Gibson says of Dhalgren:

It is a literary singularity … a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it. This has never caused me the least discomfort, or interfered in any way with my pleasure in the text.

It caused me discomfort. A lot.

Maybe if I’d read Dhalgren in 1975, I’d have liked it more. I was 28, part of the youth culture, active politically and close enough to my college days that Dhalgren would have resonated and had context. But that was nearly 40 years ago. The world and I have come a long way since then.

When Dhalgren was originally published, I didn’t read it. I was working, taking care of my son, possibly too stoned to focus on a page. It was like that. Back then. Hey, how old are you? Have you qualified for Social Security? Almost there? Minimally, you have your AARP card? If not, you probably won’t understand this novel — and even if you are old enough to have been there back when, you may find — as I did — that the time for this book has passed.

To use an analogy, I read Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward Angel when I was 14. I adored it. Pure poetry end to end. Five years later, you couldn’t have paid me to read it. The story was perfect for an adolescent trying to grow up in a world that didn’t understand her but was irrelevant to a young, married woman in the suburbs. Context counts.

The writing is beautiful and the analogy to Wolfe not accidental. Like Wolfe, Samuel Delaney wrote prose that is pure poetry, rich with symbolism. Nonetheless, this isn’t a book I would have chosen at this point in my life. I might have loved it at a different age and stage.

The story centers on a bunch of kids in a city called Bellona in which something very strange and evil occurred. Exactly what? Well, something. The TV, radio and telephones don’t work. Signals don’t work. People have reverted to a sort of feral hunting society, in an urban way. The Kid (whose name may or may not be Kidd) comes down from the mountain. He meets other kids. They talk about stuff. Poetry. People. Random events. Think Thomas Wolfe on purple haze with a beer chaser. Beautiful words, haunting images. Poetry that never ends and a plot that never begins. 

The publisher puts it this way:

In Dhalgren, perhaps one of the most profound and bestselling science fiction novels of all time, Samuel R. Delany has produced a novel “to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s” (Jonathan Lethem).

Bellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there…. The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. And into this disaster zone comes a young man–poet, lover, and adventurer–known only as the Kid. Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel and groundbreaking work of American magical realism.

It may be all those things and I’m not sufficiently intellectual or appreciative of art to enjoy it. After the first couple of hundred pages, I found it meandering and more than a bit pretentious. But to be fair, it’s a matter of taste. I have friends who really liked James Joyce and actually read Ulysses, not the Cliff Notes. Go figure, right?

This edition includes a foreword by William Gibson as well as a new illustrated biography of Samuel Delaney.

Dhalgren is available in paperback, hardcover and Kindle.



Categories: Arts, Book Review, Literature, Poetry, Reviews, Sci Fi - Fantasy - Time Travel, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. You have said enough, and well, that I will pass buying it. I read Catcher in The Rye twice, one of one hand that I have. Last time at least twenty-five years ago. My wife is threatening to read it now for first time. We shall see, I am a preppy, she is not.

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    • This is one of those books that is definitely not for everyone. But it has achieved some kind of renown despite its lack of a plot and being 800+ pages long. Obviously someone out there loved it. Just — not me. I remember loving Salinger back in the day, but I don’t know if I’d like him now. Interesting how tastes change over the years.

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  2. I don’t have the desire to reread books I loved years earlier. Every time I’ve tried, I was disappointed. I’d moved on to other interests. I’m old enough to have read Dhalgren, but I didn’t. In fact, from the above description, I was probably too old to have enjoyed it. Like you, I was already married. I was thinking about children and reading about my husband’s home country: China.

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    • Most of the books I loved when I was really young are intolerable now. I had a lot more patience when I was a kid … and a willingness to plow through some pretty turgid stuff that you really couldn’t pay me to read now. Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy. Wolfe. But as a kid, I enjoyed them. I got married young, but even without marriage I had begun to lose my enthusiasm for Serious Literature by the time I turned the corner to 30. My husband and I have the same problem with movies we loved and now find embarrassing? Sometimes awful. What were we thinking?

      Like

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