Yes, it’s time to get out that retro-review.
The occasion was listening to Samuel R. Delany on Episode 241 of the Coode Street Podcast.
He discusses Joanna Russ’ dislike of modern literary theories, his contemporaries Thomas Disch, Russ, and Roger Zelazny, his life in academia, and the futility of driving readers to your books. It’s the first time I’ve heard audio of him. He seems an interesting fellow (“interesting” is a favorite Delany word but I don’t think our ideas of “interesting” would coincide much) and engaging (perhaps because his speech patterns remind me of a friend’s).
As for my review, I would not change a thing since I wrote it on March 10, 2006.
Well, I would change one thing — the last sentence. It turns out I underestimated the appeal of an undecodeable story with an Ouroboros plot.
Review: Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany, 1975.
What to make of a novel once called “a vast monument to unreadability”?
First, I confess to not being a Delany fan. I think some of his popular science fiction criticism is worthwhile. He has a great talent for titles, and some of his descriptions have real poetic power. One need to look no farther than the opening page of his Babel-17 which heavily inspired the more famous opening to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But his fiction leaves me cold, and I find it unmemorable for the most part though this one, the worst I’ve read, will stick in my brain.
It’s not accurate to say Dhalgren is unreadable. Large chunks of it make sense and seem to be following a narrative pattern — at least until the final “plague journal” segment. Our amnesiac hero, the Kid, wonders into Bellona, a city suffering from a recent and never specified disaster, meets some strange people, has lots of sex, takes up poetry and leading the Scorpions, a quasi-criminal gang. (Someone recently remarked on Bellona’s resemblance to post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s probably not entirely coincidental given that Delany wrote part of the novel in that city.)
Nor is it precise to say Dhalgren is incoherent.
The ruling metaphor seems to be the peculiar chains of prisms, mirrors, and lens several characters, including the Kid, carry. Just as those optical devices spread light out, reflect it, and focus it, Delany’s narrative does that with notions of truth, authority, or consistency. Besides the above mentioned narrative uncertainties, there are elliptic conversations; Kid’s possible madness; the oddities of the setting with two moons, irregularly lengthened days, an anomalous sun peering very occasionally through the overcast; the ignoring of Bellona by the outside world. The Kid’s journal, basis for our story, is fragmented, out of chronological order, and not even entirely by the Kid. All this serves to scatter any thematic statement other than reality not being knowable, the narrative a metafictional game. Yet, at other times, Delany has brief asides about the nature of our reality: the place of the engineer in society; the idea of a megalithic republic so big its inhabitants seldom leave it as opposed to smaller countries outside of China, the USSR, and America; or the oh-so-seventies notion of essential male-female identicalness. None of these sections has the tone, confidence, or entertainment of a Heinlein lecture at his most hectoring. The question of race is mentioned since most of the remaining inhabitants of Bellona are black. Yet here, and in the section pointing to the threesome of the Kid and his lovers Denny and Lanya as a new type of sexual relationshp, Delany seems to want to bring issues into focus. The same holds true for the relationship of the artist to society since Kid is a celebrity poet. But Delany’s vagueness says nothing remarkable about race. Many people admire Kidd’s poetry without reading it, and Delany deliberately gives us mixed messages about it. We see none of it, and it may be as bad as one character says. Delany’s ambiguities undercut his frequent and annoying equation of artist as outlaw. Scorpion leader Kid may not be all that bad of a criminal, but he also may not be that great of a poet.
So, judged as conventional fiction, this novel is incoherent. But, if Delany’s intent is metafictional puzzles, the constuction of a confusing story whose conclusion is a sentence fragment that melds with the novel’s opening fragment, than his structure and technique do cohere.
Delany is guilty of one of three things here: incompetently attempting to convey a message beyond tedious metafiction, pulling the literary con of passing off obscurity and bad writing as a puzzle too difficult for the reader to solve but for which a solution exists, or not fitting the pieces of a real puzzle together well enough.
And Delany certainly seems aware of how most will react. A sentence toward the end: “… as one reads along, one becomes more and more suspicious that the author has lost the thread of his argument, that the questions will never be resolved, or more upsetting, that the position of the characters will have so changed by the book’s end that the answers to the initial questions will have become trivial”.
Read this novel only if you’re working your way through one of those lists of recommended science fiction classics. And I suspect this novel will show up on fewer and fewer such lists as time goes on.
[Note: This is a review of the 14th printing of the Bantam edition. There have been several corrections to the text throughout the novel’s printing. The Wikipedia entry for the book claims the 17th Bantam printing was the most accurate version put out by that publisher.]