Review of Dhalgren (1975)

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Samuel R. Delany (writer).

Read in 2021.

A man who can’t remember his own name walks into a lawless “autumnal city” called Bellona in the USA. From it, the sky looks absurd.

This is almost the length of Anna Karenina (1873), but where Tolstoy’s book is polished smooth in its illusionism on the verge of modernism, Delany is gratingly self-conscious.

The author resembles his protagonist. Delany effectively renounced his given name and called himself “Chip”, so his unnamed protagonist gets called Kidd or “the Kid”. Delany was bisexual, so Kidd is bisexual. Delany was of mixed descent, so Kidd is, too. Delany and Kidd have both spent time in mental hospitals, and so on. Kidd is a self-insert character and the story of Kidd is a personal fantasy for Delany: In the span of a few weeks he becomes a poet, a feared criminal, and something like a sexual athlete. As a poet scouted by a near-laureate of the Nobel Prize, he has a collection of poems published just days after he first tries his hand at the art. As a criminal he comes to lead the “Scorpions”, equivalent to a local chapter of the Hells Angels. Being their greatest badass he grabs loaded guns pointed at him on a couple of occasions and is never caught or punished. As a sexual athlete he has many detailed orgies with men and women, and hears many stories about sex.

Mixed into this story is both an element of medieval knightly romance (vague hellish landscape, mystical Daphne and bridge keepers granting artifacts as for a quest etc.) and a more modern US folktale, specifically the one about Billy the Kid. It is not a coincidence that one issue of the local newspaper is dated to 1776; this comes naturally in a US-centric fantasy. There are other elements of typically literary, Ibsen-style symbolism, like the Richards family, greedy burghers unable to process social decay. That social decay is obviously spun off of trends at the time of writing: There is a hippie commune in Bellona, there are army deserters, and there is open reference to the Vietnam War as the source of said deserters. The lawlessness of Bellona is fundamentally a picture of the criminality of the USA in the era of the Pentagon Papers and temporary urban decay; a kind of allegory. There is also a kind of portable holographic projectors, which seems to be the only reason why the novel is usually classified as science fiction.

Outside the skeleton of masturbatory self-insertion and what is required to establish symbolism and social commentary, there is very little plot, but there is a lot of tone and theme. The prose is painstakingly crafted and highly reflective, but not good. The gang members tend to speak like their equivalents in the Elvis vehicle King Creole (1958), only swearing more. There is a fat literary conceit in the novel’s circular structure, where Kidd (Chip) eventually becomes the author of a half-written journal he finds, and the novel’s last sentence is also its first sentence as in Finnegans Wake (1939). From the Joycean style of the book, the namedropping of The Female Man (1975) and the fact that Delany, like Joanna Russ, became a literary academic, I conclude that Dhalgren was conceived mainly to follow then-current trends among US literati, while processing Delany’s personal hangups. It is, in part, a book about writing, and the author openly interrogates almost every part of it, including the egotistical fantasy of Kidd’s success as a poet, which the character Frank points out is not credible. This does not explain why the book sold extremely well.

Those who like the book usually repeat a couple of points. For example, on Twitter in 2019, William Gibson said “Dhalgren was arguably the first work of punk sf”, which would be interesting if true. It’s certainly influential and different from US science fiction up to 1975, but it is no more punk than it is science fiction. The punk aesthetic originated in punk rock, which was famously stripped down. It does not transfer to 900 pages of painfully deliberate writing about writing. Dhalgren is also not political the way punk was. It is punk only in the sense that it deconstructs something older, mocking the wholesomeness and implicit establishmentarianism that had existed in some strains of SF writing up until the New Wave. As such, Dhalgren is more like 1980s anti-folk than punk.

The primary mode of Delany’s deconstruction is transgression: He dwells on blood, faeces, semen, drugs, race hatred and dirt in general. Most of this was omitted by writers like Asimov, Clarke and, to a lesser extent, Heinlein. This could explain the scandal and the sales. Some fans of the book maintain that the sex scenes in particular are de-aesthetized, implying that Delany meant to use smut to alienate and offend the viewer for some higher purpose, but such Brechtianism would not be punk and is not nobler than titillation. I think Delany meant the sex scenes as pornography, in line with the other elements of wish fulfillment in Kidd’s life: His implausible success in his dual career, which he attributes, uselessly, to a “reality” that will “distort” to make him “a hero”.

Some of the sex-adjacent motifs, including one scene where Kidd flirts and gets an erection while he is cleaning a child’s corpse, have the air of confessional literature rather than pornography, which would imply a deeper kind of punk honesty than the less explicit sexual fantasies of Robert E. Howard or even Heinlein’s contemporary adult-facing work. I see some value in extreme honesty, but it is dull and incompatible with the aforementioned wish fulfillment. There is some historical importance in the prominent mere inclusion of non-cishet sexualities without moral condemnation, which is functionally unrelated to the grotesquerie.

Dhalgren is primarily a work of fabulism. The holographic projectors in it are effectively irrelevant to the plot. Though I have not seen it spelled it out, the misclassification of Dhalgren as science fiction implies a kind of deconstruction separate from the addition of smut and LGBT motifs: The removal of the extrapolation and logic associated with SF in previous decades. Compare the novel’s “Daphne bit”, where a woman simply turns into a tree and there are no consequences, to the contemporary “Standing Woman” (1974), where people are deliberately and systematically turned into trees by a corrupt government with the technology to do so, which has consequences. Philip K. Dick, who had schizophrenic ideas similar to Delany’s and incorporated them into his fiction, at least preferred the latter mode and did not like Dhalgren. I’m with Dick on this.

Omitting solutions and consequences is not an effective form of deconstruction. Delany doesn’t stop there. The huge red sun over Bellona might seem, at first glance, to suggest worldbuilding or a mystery. It could have meant something like The Drifting Classroom (1972) and could have had a cause as in that narrative. It could also have been an eerie portent in the mode of myth, like the black sun of The Last Man (1826). It would then have been a mystery, but in fact it is quickly contradicted to the point of losing all meaning. No part of the localized apocalypse in Bellona is ever explained or cast as explainable in the light of any hypothesis, nor is anything portended. All of it, including the shifting of time and space, is self-contradictory. As one character puts it, “here, conclusion itself is superfluous”, because reason is not applicable to the story. There is no key to the mystery of the local apocalypse because there is no mystery; stuff just happens for no reason, as with the non-sfnal “Daphne bit”.

The larger question of what is going on elsewhere in the USA is similarly not to be solved. Even the smaller, less important questions of Kidd’s (full) name, William Dhalgren’s identity, Mr. Richards’s job, the Godot-like Calkins etc. are dropped on the floor, never to be tied up in a bow for the reader. This might be a kind of prank or “stunt art”, scoffing at the idea of a contract with the reader. You might see it as a witty comment on illusionism or unrealistically “easy answers” in an unfair world, but it’s done without even that much purpose.

I don’t think Delany was trolling. I think that he wrote the book as a narcissistic exercise in extended anti-lyrical prose poetry, and there are faint glimmers of interest in that. It’s genuinely resonant with the state of the USA at the time, albeit in cynical caricature, wallowing in angst, pessimism and self-importance. As the non-realist bestseller of its day, it corresponds loosely to Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and therefore has its place in history. At a third of its length it would probably have been worth reading.

References here: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Endless (2017).

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