Apr 13 2010 12:09pm

Formations and transformations: Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren

I went to New York this weekend, down on Friday, home on Sunday, to see the play Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, an adaptation of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975). I am planning to review the play, but first I want to talk about the book, which I re-read on the train on Friday.

Dhalgren is a really weird book. The weirdest thing is that it was a bestselling cult classic. Now I love Delany, but I find it the most impenetrable and the second least likeable of his books. I tried to read it several times as a teenager and couldn’t understand it. I finally made it all the way through, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read it all the way through twice before, very much on the principle of “maybe I’m old enough for it now.” Well, maybe I am old enough for it now, because I didn’t have any trouble reading it this time. I think Delany has written much better books, but even minor Delany is worth the time. But if one Delany book had to be a bestselling classic, why this one?

There’s an American city, called Bellona, in which an unspecified disaster has happened. The disaster, which has included riots and fire, lack of electricity and infrastructure, is still intermittently going on. The disaster may have caused something very weird to happen with time, because sometimes burned buildings are back the way they were and sometimes they aren’t, and the whole thing may be a loop. Time definitely isn’t working right in Bellona. The outside world is, we’re assured, getting on fine, but nobody knows what year it is and nobody is coming in to do anything about Bellona. Dhalgren isn’t a cosy catastrophe—or actually maybe it is, maybe it would be from the point of view of Roger Calkins, who we never see. Dhalgren, like Nova, uses myth to underline science fiction, and perhaps vice versa. The myths it’s using are some of them classical—Jason and Oedipus are both in there—and some of them modern, the kind of myth people may really believe, like “black men want to rape white women” and “women like being raped”. Dhalgren is about sex and violence, but it isn’t titillating about either of them, which makes one realise how much writing about both of those subjects is.

When talking about Dhalgren, it’s very tempting to talk about it as if it made sense. It deliberately doesn’t make sense—or rather it makes sense on a paragraph to paragraph level all the way through but not really on a wider scale. It’s a lot more like a poem than a novel, it’s allusive and hyper-specific. The beginning and the end are weird and experimental, the middle (probably 80% by volume) seems a lot more normal. The protagonist doesn’t remember his name, and even though he spends a lot of the book in a culture where people make up their own names (“Dragon Lady” “Nightmare” “Tarzan”) he never makes up a name for himself but takes one he is given—a name, and maybe an identity. The name is Kid, or the Kid, or Kidd, and everybody consistently sees him as younger than he is (he says he’s twenty-eight) and in the city a notebook comes to him and a pen with the notebook the gift of poetry. Is “kid poet” a role the city wants somebody to play? It’s certainly possible.

I remembered all the details about Kid’s poetry. I could have told you last week that the notebook has right-hand pages written on so he writes his poems on the left-hand ones, and they get published in a collection called Brass Orchids, and he’s accused of finding the poems too, and lacerated by a review. However, I had completely forgotten the whole thing with the Richards family, George, June, the elevator shaft—that was all like new to me. It’s all very vivid and very specific. So are the long rants about art from Newboy the poet and the balancing ones about the world and the moon from Kamp the astronaut. So is the stuff about his threesome, which I had remembered, and about the Scorpion nest which I mostly hadn’t.

The Scorpions are interesting. They’re like Hell’s Angels, or, as my friend Alter put it, like a Thieves’ Guild, only much more realistic than the kinds of Thieves Guilds you see in fantasy novels. In any other novel in 1973, the Scorpions would be the villains. They’re thugs, they’re into sex and violence, they beat people up, they loot and vandalize, they wear hologram projections of heraldic animals and underneath that black leather and chains. They also sort of protect people and sort of keep the peace, when they’re not the ones creating the mayhem. Delany doesn’t see them as villains, he makes you sees them as people, as different from each other, with different motivations. Being a Scorpion is a full time thing for some people, for others it’s something they do for a while. They’re destructive, not creative—but the people in the commune, the people with Projects they’re always trying to get somewhere with, don’t get anywhere either.

The thing is that in Bellona civilization has been taken away, and Delany’s looking at what that really means. Civilization isn’t electricity—it’s money, it’s having a job, it’s progress, and in Bellona those things are useless illusions. Anyone can have anything they want, and most people want very little. Calkins wants a big house and a houseparty and distinguished guests and celebrities and a newspaper and a monastery and a gay bar, and that’s why he’s the most powerful and enigmatic figure—we hear him but we don’t see him. Jack the deserter can’t believe he can have anything, and so he’s down and out, begging for a drink in a bar where the drinks are free. The commune—well, John and Milly anyway—want to organize projects but they went somebody else to carry them out, and that doesn’t work. The Richards family, and the people living in the store, are pretending that everything is normal white middle class America, they are living in denial. They are the people who would be ordinary people in the real world, and in most novels, and in Bellona they are the weirdest of all.

Which brings me to the interesting things Delany’s doing with race here. We’re told that the remaining people in Bellona are 60% black. There are a lot of black characters, and everyone, black or white, we get told what colour they are. There are only two Asians, one possibly “Eurasian”, which was a fine term in 1973. Kid’s mother is Native American, or Indian, as people said then. Most SF kind of ignores race as if it has gone away and skin color in the future is merely aesthetic, or else it focuses on it. What Delany does here is to have a group of people in a near future America where there is racism and there is tension and sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe this is one of the reasons I understood it better, because I understand US-style racism a lot better now. There are one and future race riots, there’s a black part of town where everything is worst, there’s the educated activist Fenster and the rapist George Harrison, after whom they name the second moon when it rises over Bellona who mirror each other. There’s a scene where a drunk gay white psychopomp claims he has a black soul and Fenster vividly denies him the right to it. Race, specifically the race relations between black and white in the US, is one of the iconic issues of the book, along with sex, violence, art, memory, civilization and love.

Most books written in 1973 have been overtaken by technology, but Dhalgren holds up really well on that. Clearly cell phones wouldn’t work in Bellona, and the internet wouldn’t any more than TV or radio. Computers aren’t mentioned because there isn’t any electricity. The near-future oooh tech of the chain of prism, mirror and lens, and the portable hologram projectors that work the Scorpion images and Lanya’s party dress, remain pleasantly near future oooh tech. If it wasn’t for Tak showing off his amazing futuristic machine that cooks with microwaves, it could almost have been written yesterday.

Dhalgren is a book long on images and short on explanations. One of the things about it that it isn’t possible to convey is how very specific it all is. Bellona’s light doesn’t vary except when the astonishingly large sun comes up, or the two moons, but the texture and weight of every moment, both physical and emotional, comes over with almost hypnotic clarity. You may not be able to say for sure what order events happened in, cause and effect may be hazy and time might loop, you certainly can’t say why a lot of things happened or what was going on in the larger scale, but it’s all incredibly vivid. We never get any answers about what’s really going on or why, and we never find out Kid’s real name. It’s very much a case of travelling hopefully—but it doesn’t feel unfinished or incomplete or unsatisfying.

For the review of the play, see next rock.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

David Dyer-Bennet
1. dd-b
At the time Dhalgren came out, Delany was one of my very favorite authors. I finished reading this book only so that people couldn't blow off my opinion because I hadn't read the whole book. I have not gone back to it since that time.

I struck me as a tragic waste; it's full of fascinating ideas that aren't followed up.

I can see how it might be considerably more interesting with the time since it was written added into the equation, actually.
Marcus W
2. toryx
I'm sorry to say that Dhalgren is the only one of Delany's books that I've ever read and I only read it because Chip and David Hartwell talked me into buying it at Readercon many years ago. I've bought several of his books since but they're all waiting to be read on my bookshelf.

Dhalgren is one of those books that really opened my eyes to a different way of looking at and writing about things. I was pretty young at the time and just starting to read more challenging books than I was used to and it really blew me away. I didn't undestand it very well at all but I was captured by the poetry of the writing and the bleak yet colorful images that Delany's words provoked. It's one of those rare books that I definitely intend to re-read someday.

Even though Bellona is obviously a fictional city, for some reason I always imagined it as New Orleans, an impression that was sort of locked in by Katrina. I know it's not at all the same sort of situation but when I was watching the news reports and reading the live blogging of people who stayed in the city it felt like elements of Dhalgren were occurring before my eyes which was surreal as all hell.

Anyway, if this is one of his least likable works, which would you say is the most? I've been wanting to read more ever since but have been kind of wary too.

I'm really looking forward to the review of the play. I'd wanted to go but couldn't make it down to NYC last weekend.
3. DavidA
Jo, this is a very fair and even-handed review of a book you claim not to like much. You've captured what is wonderful about it, and clarified what isn't wonderful or is frustrating, extremely well. Thanks!

I am a big Delaney fan, but I'll admit this is not the place to start. I read this book the year it was published, and not again until last year. I thought it was great and weird each time, but in a completely different way and for different reasons, many of which you capture. But I really hate the ending -- to avoid spoilers, I'll just say I didn't think he played fair with his main character or the reader.

So, Jo, what is Delaney's least likeable book in your opinion? And which are most likeable?
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
Wow, you really captured a lot of my thoughts about this one. I first read it when I was 19 or 20 and thought I could sort of feel the shape of what it was about, though no more. Later re-reads haven't clarified things a whole lot for me. In fact, the only real conclusion I've reached is that the story is a Möbius strip which Delaney has snipped open and laid out flat, allowing us to see one side of it, with hints at what is on the other side. (This may apply to some of the casting choices for the play.)

At one point, I thought we were seeing the hallucinations of someone named Dahlgren who had had a psychotic break. I've sort of abandoned that, though. Actually, the title is another one of those mysteries that are never resolved. There's a bit where somebody keeps repeating the name over and over, until it blurs and the syllables reverse, making it grenDahl or perhaps Grendel. Make of that what you will.
Christopher Key
5. Artanian
I have tried to read Dhalgren at least half a dozen times over the last 25 years or so, and never made it through. I inevitably get about 25-30% through and just...stop. I put it down at the end of a reading session, and when the next one starts I pick something else up instead.

With life being so short and there being so much to read I doubt I'll ever try again.
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
I first heard about the play on April 1st, on the Onion's A.V. Club local entertainment website, and I made the wrong inference. So I am looking forward to your review.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Carlos: One of my LJ friends also thought it was an April Fool and then realised it wasn't when I started talking about buying train tickets.

Where to start with Delany: Empire Star, or Nova, or Triton, or Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, or Babel 17, all of which I love and have previously reviewed on this site.
Marc Houle
8. MightyMarc
I started reading this book thinking that it was some type of allegory about purgatory or hell. Like Kafka's "The Trial". But I just couldn't get into the book and so gave up half-way through. I never finished it.

Unfortunately, this was the first (and only) Delany book I ever picked up. Given what I've read here, and elsewhere, perhaps I should give him a second chance and read another book by Delany. Maybe.
Tudza White
9. tudzax1
The best thing about the notebook portions are where you see scenes from Dhalgren written badly. Then you can say, "Wow, the story wasn't much, but I didn't realize while I was reading it that it at least was written well."
pete hindle
10. petehindle
Like MightyMarc above, this is the only Delany book I've tried to read. I'm slightly reassured by the review and the fact that it's a generally regarded as a bit weird... and usually unfinishable.

There was some great bits in it though, it just wasn't worth the uphill struggle. It reminded me a lot of Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee, except that's a better book in terms of making you want to finish it.
11. Foxessa
Bellona = New Orleans.

In so many ways, post the Failure, for particularly the first year.

Science Fiction, Delany, prescient? Why, yes, this time, yes they are.

New Orleans isn't the only city by any means to have become Bellona, through means as equally mysterious and irrational.

Love, C.
12. Foxessa
There's the New Orleans kid, 'lil Wayne, writing writing writing in his notebook, starting at least by 8, famous for it by 11, his beats and lyrics.

Made him world famous and rich, and now he's in Riker's Island.

Love, C.
13. vcmw
I only read Dhalgren once and that was a long time ago but I remember thinking the whole thing was vividly about how you saw the world as a writer. I didn't get much of the actual political stuff (I think I was 16? 17?) and certainly had no frame of comprehension for any of the racial stuff. But I thought the way time wasn't fixed but every image/scene had a fixed precision made the whole story about writing - how you saw and compiled impressions as a writer and how you reacted to them privately and publicly and how you tried to assemble them.
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
Er. Lil Wayne is now 27.

As far as I can tell, the outcomes of the charges against him have been much more lenient than they would have been for (say) me, as a result of his money and fame -- e.g., his sentencing at Rikers was delayed for a month while he underwent extensive tooth implant surgery, he's serving his time at Rikers as a suicide prevention aide, and he's got a police escort with a "panic button" acting as a bodyguard, just in case.

The poète maudit narrative is in my opinion a little too pat for Lil Wayne. (If you asked him, he'd probably say he's been blessed, not cursed.) Though you're absolutely right that Delany uses that trope extensively in Dhalgren, and in his work through Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand -- where his early fascination with Elizabeth I's poetry wins out, I think.
Steve Downey
15. sdowney
Just be aware if you start Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand, that it's the first half of a diptych that WILL NOT BE FINISHED.

For places to start, I have a fondness for The Ballad of Beta-2, which I have in a double together with Empire Star. The Fall of the Towers trilogy is also a good place to start, I think.
David Levinson
16. DemetriosX
For a place to start, I think I would pick Nova, Triton, or Babel-17. I never really warmed up to the Fall of the Towers. If you tend toward fantasy, I like the Neveryon stories, though they do have a strong New Wave flavor.
Marcus W
17. toryx
I've got both Nova and Babel-17. I'll have to give one of them a shot.
18. Foxessa
CarlosSkullsplitter, I am not getting your point.

Lil Wayne was sitting on the piano at Piety Street Recording Studios when he was 8, with a notebook and writing. The guy who owns the studio and runs it and does production and recording is our long-time friend and he described this to us back in 2003. I thought of the Kid in Dahlgren at that moment.

Lil Wayne got like 20 root canals. He got his grill removed, because you don't take a million dollars of gold and diamonds into jail. He's in protective solitary because, well, you don't need much imagination to understand why. If a cop who sodomized a Haitian with a broom handle can get this treatment why not Lil Wayne?

If you do what Lil Wayne does, with that much cash flowing, you'd have a gun on your tour bus too. Somebody is gonna try to jack you, jack. If you don't deal in cash in these venues you're gonna get jacked another way. The music biz, ya gotta love it.

The gun was legal, for this purpose, registered in several states. But. Not. In. NYC. Dumb. Very dumb on their part. But so par for the course.

Which probably accounts for his sentencing and treatement -- not to mention the weather.

Love, C.
19. graywyvern
i read it when i was 20 or so, & enjoyed it, as one enjoys (1) a dream that has nightmarish aspects but isn't frightening; & (2) something that (with naked lunch) showed me a way to write about my own realities that i couldn't find in more traditional narratives.

saw that it had been reprinted of late; maybe i will look at it again with katrina/peak oil in mind. i'm sure it's more to the point than cormac mccarthy.

for delany neophytes: i've several times given away copies of nova, saying "it's the greatest science fiction novel ever written".

hope to god they never try to make a movie out of it.

20. embryomystic
This is really the last place I'd ever expect to find a discussion of Lil Wayne. I confess, I'm quite amused.
Paul Eisenberg
21. HelmHammerhand
After reading Dhalgren, I figured it was Delaney's reaction to the late '60s, early '70s hippie culture, and to me had more of a San Francisco feel to it more than New Orleans.
It really encompassed everything that had awakened in the public realm over the previous decade, from civil rights to acceptance of sexual proclivities.
The fact that it didn't make sense made sense in that the times didn't really make sense, if you get my drift.
Of course, I was born in 1971, so what do I know?
22. AirIra
Hands down, Delany's best book is The Einstein Intersection, although Nova is a close second, followed very closely after that by The Fall of the Towers and The Jewels of Aptor. 40 years later and The Einstein Intersection still resonates with me with its mix of myth and sf. It would make an amazing movie, if someone had the guts to get it made.
23. Ron Henry 2
To those speculating on what city Bellona "really" stands for: you can never pin this down because the city is deliberately a blending of characteristics of many different major cities of the time: New York, SF, Detroit, New Orleans, London. SRD has said as much in many interviews (and he was widely-enough traveled over the years that his melding of the locales was well-informed). Imagine a quantum many-worlds situation, but instead of many time-lines, it's many geographically distinct cities of 1974, with their various manifestations of race issues, urban blight, pollution, hippies, liberal idealists, middle class families, artists, and gangs. Then imagine those many urban possibilities collapsing into a single city when subjected to the gaze of the observer (which could be you the reader, Delany the writer, or Kidd/Kid/Kyd the character). That's Bellona. Or think of it another way: when a fiction writer comes up with a character, that character is usually not taken solely from impressions or traits of a single "real" person, but most often a fictive blend of characteristics from many observed people, to synergistically create a new and original fictional individual. So too was one of the main characters of Dhalgren -- the city of Bellona -- created.

Oh, and by the way, his last name is "Delany," with one "e."
Bob Blough
24. Bob
Excellent review. I haven't read it since it first came out and felt much the way you do. I may have to re-read it to see if anything has changed in me to like it better. Read everything else by him that you can. STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND was the only SF novel that felt to me like a novel of contemporary literature that Delany picked up way in the future via time travel. Absolutely amazing and absolutely criminal that he never wrote part 2 (although I understand his sentiments).

Anyone else notice that Jo read DHALGREN in one train ride into NYC? That feat is almost as daunting as the book itself!
25. CarlosSkullsplitter
Foxessa, I don't think there's much textual evidence in Dhalgren that the Kid is also an ambitious, well-liked businessman with a net worth of $50 million dollars. It makes your analogy a little strained.

It's not to say that Delany hasn't written that sort of story. See "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones".

Also, you seem to want to use Lil Wayne as a symbolic judgment on aspects of American society. It's a very reductive use of a person's life. I know I view people who have used my life or the lives of my loved ones to score a cheap and obvious political point as rather disrespectful of us as individuals with agency. It's a form of dehumanization in its own right. Is that really what you want to be doing here? In the context of *this* novel?
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
Bob: It's a fairly long train ride.
27. Wereviking
Amazing that I haven't come across this one before. And now it's a stage play?


Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose
Liza .
28. aedifica
I somehow missed this review when it was posted!

Dhalgren was the first Delany I read, and it's one of my favorites of his, which seems to make me the odd one out, here. :-) I like the way it plays with structure (and with my brain).

That said, I probably wouldn't have stuck with the book the first time if it hadn't been highly recommended by someone I had just started dating (and was all starry-eyed about), but because of that recommendation, I expected the book to be worth the effort--and it was!

The last time I read it I posted about it (a ways down the page, at number 37). One quote from that entry: "This time through it wasn't the same book I read before. That's partly because I was nineteen or so then and I'm thirty-one now; it's also partly because this time I had expectations built on my memories of the previous reading, and that shaped and eased this reading. To put it another way, the first time through I was building the book's structure at the same time as I was climbing on it; this time the structure was already there for me to climb."
29. jonku
Just re-read Nova in Vintage paperback, I picked it up at the Strand while in the city a few weeks ago. Also got a small stack of JG Ballard.

Delany lived in New York's East Village at some point, although Nova is signed off as Athens 1966, New York City 1967. Wikipedia tells me his friend Russell Fitzgerald had the "Black Studio" on East 2nd Street, which became the Hell's Angels clubhouse that it is now. The two hung out there, Delany writing Nova and Fitzgerald painting.

So the East Village is, and surely was at that time a facet of Dhalgren the city, anarchic.

Incidentally, I was in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge (actually Fort Hamilton area) one day, driving past the entrance the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge (i.e. "The Bridge" or at least one of them) and to my surprise saw a street sign for "Dhalgren Place."

Quite an image, it recalled the novel that is still very real in my memory, some 35 years since I first read and re-read it. Great piece of work, the mechanism of dual narratives on different columns of the same page is echoed in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest with its extensive, often multi-page footnotes.

The street is directly under the overpass which leads to the bridge.
30. jonha
I have to say that this is only one of two books I've never finished -- and I made it through the unabridged versions of War and Peace and Les Miserables.
Like others who enjoyed Delaney's writing, it was just too convaluted to get through.

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