Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading Dhalgren

Recent and current reading.  My original Dhalgren paperback on top of the usual stack of books that always awaits beside my reading chair.  I often read multiple things simultaneously.
I recently finished reading Samuel Delany’s long science-fiction novel Dhalgren for the second time. My first reading was in the early 1980’s, sometime around my college graduation, I think. Back then, it was a challenging read and did not meet my expectations since the narrative was very light on science-fiction, which is what I was predominantly reading at the time.

The novel surprised me on my second reading. I had forgotten almost all of the narrative and this time I read it more as a work of literature than as just a genre book. I found it just as challenging as ever to read but this time it was much more rewarding. The narrative churns in a soup of ambiguity, switching back and forth from third-person to first-person, and the last 100 pages or so contains a sort of novel within the novel where disassociated fragments from a notebook are printed on the same pages with the actual story, giving a cut-and-paste feel that can potentially add to the disorientating effect Delany apparently wants to achieve.

What exactly Dhalgren is “about” is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that this young drifter guy hitchhikes into
a post-apocalyptic city, Bellona. Only, as far as we know, there has not been any apocalypse. The outside world seems fine. It is only once you enter Bellona that time and space seem to change. Streets and buildings are rearranged in different parts of the novel. There are two moons in the sky at night (when you can see them through all the smoke from the various fires in the city) and the Sun is this gigantic swollen ball that takes up a huge part of the sky (burning through all the smoke). Time passes at differing speeds depending on which character’s perspective is being used by the narrative.

The main character suffers from amnesia and cannot remember his name. So, he is referred to throughout the novel as the Kid or Kid or Kidd. He is well-built, lean, wears a boot on one foot, nothing at all on the other, and he looks like he is in his mid-teens but he is actually in his late-twenties. He eventually joins a gang in the city and much of the story is told from the gang's perspective. Whenever Delany shifts into first-person mode, it is always from Kidd's perspective.

This can provide some especially interesting reading because Kidd seems to suffer from schizophrenia and some chapters are written in such a way as to reflect this. So narrative and perspective are radically shifted in parts, though Delany usually returns to a central story that stitches the novel together. It is predominantly about Kid and his notebook and his relationship with Lanya (alone at first) and then with Denny. I accepted the fractured nature of the story this time and I enjoyed the novel more than when I read it in my youth.

The novel is filled with richly poetic passages. Delany demonstrates his prose prowess time and again. Often, but not always, they are the private reflections of Kidd. Here are some examples:

"What is this part of me that lingers to overhear my own conversation? I lie rigid in the rigid circle. It regards me from diametric points, without sex, and wise. We lie in the rigid city, anticipating winds. It circles me, I intimating only by position that it knows more than I want to. There, it makes a gesture too masculine before ecstatic scenery. Here, it suggests femininity, pausing at gore and bone. It dithers and stammers, confronted by love. It bows a blunt, mumbling head before injustice, rage, or even it's like ignorance. Still, I am convinced that at the proper shock, it would turn and call me, using those hermetic syllables I have abandoned on the crags of broken conscience, on the planes of charred consciousness, at the entrance to the ganglia city. And I would raise my head." (page 244)

"Free of name and purpose, what do I gain? I have logic and laughter, but can trust neither my eyes nor my hands. The generous city, city without time, the generous, saprophytic city: it is morning and I miss the clear night. Reality? The only moment I ever close to it was when, on the moonless, New Mexican desert, I looked up at the prickling stars on that hallow, hollow dark. Day? It is beautiful, there, true, fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but it is distorted as distance itself, the real all masked by pale defraction.

"Buildings, bony and cluttered with ornament, hulled with stone at their different heights: window, lintel, cornice and sills patterned the dozen planes. Billows brushed down them, sweeping at dusts they were too insubstantial to move, settled to the pavement and erupted in slow explosions he could see two blocks ahead - but, when he reached, they had disappeared." (pp. 425-426)

"I am limited, finite, and fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on. I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good. That is wrestling with what I have been given. Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?). I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion. But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception. And what in life can rip that? Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands? I am limited, finite, and fixed. I rage for reason, cry for pity. Do with me what you will." (page 647)

"Sometimes I cannot tell who wrote what. That is upsetting. With some sections, I can remember the place and the time I wrote them, but have no memory of the incidents described. Similarly, other sections refur to things I recall happening to me, but kne/o/w just as well I never wrote out. Then there are pages that, today, I interpret one way with the clear recollection of having interpreted them another at the last re-reading." (page 759)

This last paragraph shows how Delany gradually degrades the narrative late in the novel. The word "refurs" is intentionally spelled wrong. The "know" is fragmented with an "e" marked through on the printed page to signify that the author changed the word from "knew" to the present tense. The consideration of a shift in past and present tense is a common theme through the degradation of the narrative. The "o" is separated out by slashes to indicate the preferred change from the "e".

Delany reminds me of Proust at times not only for his descriptive brilliance but for committing vast stretches of prose to seemingly minor plot matters. For example, about 200 pages of the almost 900 page novel centers around Kidd helping what seems to be an ordinary business-class family (feeling more inconvenienced than trapped or filled with doom while living in this meltdown of a town) move their furniture up a few floors in an upscale (but dilapidated) building. The novel moves like Proust's 200-plus page party section in The Guermantes Way. Only in Dhalgren this doesn't really seem to amount to anything. Delany puts it in apparently for no other reason than to show the passage of time for Kidd inside Bellona. It allows the city to transform around him as the character meets others, has freak-out episodes, and the relationship between Kidd and the notebook, between his experiences and the written words, is solidified.

The most enjoyable part of the novel for me was the depiction of the ménage à trois relationship between the Kid, Lanya, and Denny. I have never read a finer development, detailed interplay, and exploration of such a relationship in all of literature. It is erotic, human, soft, harsh, harmonious, conflicted, funny, mundane, and very tangible in often subtle ways. In fact, the relationship strikes me as being something close to a metaphor for the weird and fluctuating occurrences of Bellona itself. Kidd is bi-sexual and has sex with both Denny (and another male character on occasion) and Lanya.

He more often has sex with Lanya alone, however. The relationship is a complex, free-love, hippie thing, typical of the times Delany wrote the novel - 1969 to 1973. Nevertheless, it is a terrific piece of writing and unmatched in my experience in terms of defining what a relationship of that nature must be like. There are a lot characters having sex with each other and sex is big part of the novel. But, while certainly the hippie dream does not pervade young adults today, the open, wild sex remains highly prevalent. In this regard Dhalgren is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1975. It is a future-proofed postmodern novel whose relevance only increases with the passage of time.

In addition to the changing nature of time and place inside the city, there are gangs. Some neighborhoods that are under siege with snipers killing people and buildings burning. These passages of Dhalgren read sometimes like a news reports from Syria today. Delaney was writing about another time in American politics when anti-war demonstrations turned violent. But his prose is very relevant today and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this long-forgotten part of the novel. Delany puts you in the streets of armed urban fighting just as vividly as if you were watching
a PBS documentary on the battle for Aleppo.

Equal in importance to the Kid in the story is this mysterious spiral-bound notebook that is given to Kidd shortly after he arrives. This notebook takes up a great deal of the narrative and, indeed, becomes the narrative itself at times toward the end of the novel. The notebook is a character in itself. It shows up in all sorts of conditions, gets passed around between characters, but mostly the Kid writes poems in it. About halfway through the novel a book of poetry by Kidd is published in Bellona and Kidd's creativity becomes a subject of critique in the novel, both among Kid's gang buddies and among a whole cast of characters at a high-brow society party held in honor of the Kid's new work.

The notebook is both a part of the story and the story itself. Passages of the novel turn up inside the notebook. These often represent revisions and corrections and, therefore, something Delany is saying about the writing process itself. It's creative fluctuations, rewritten concepts and dialog, embedded in the novel such that, just as Delany freely shifts from first to third-person, the notebook is an object in the narrative and the container of part of the narrative. I really think this aspect of the novel is fascinating.

Dahlgren is a product of the late-1960’s sexual revolution and drug counterculture movement. Though I believe the novel to be relevant in the Now, it is nevertheless filled with concepts and phrasing that has a nostalgic feel to it today. But, this is true of any other classic work of literature I have read. Moby Dick or War and Peace do not read as if they written today's more sophisticated world. So, this is not a shortcoming. Rather, it places the novel in its proper context, as literature not as just another science-fiction novel. Besides the weirdness of Bellona and a few little pieces of cool weaponry and technology there is nothing sci-fi about the novel.

Dhalgren infamously begins with last few words of the first sentence. The novel ends with the beginning and rest of the first sentence.
The novel ultimately loops around to itself. An important moment in the story comes when the characters read a portion of the notebook that reads like the last sentence in the novel. (page 292) So it is in the notebook that Delany first completes his clever sentence strategy. Only on the final page is it repeated. This is just one example of how the narrative spills over to the notebook and back into the story. For full effect, though, I am going to cut out the entire novel except for this one sentence but I am going to present it as Delany does to the reader.

"to wound the autumnal city. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come"

It strikes me as a work about the process of writing itself. About how objects and characters drift and change, are struck-out and re-written by every author. Although the author is not present in the story and the toying with the narrative is not overtly stated, the narrative does change frequently as if it were being rewritten even as you read the story. This invests the reader as something more than a witness to the narrative. The reader becomes intermingled with the narrative, which is what any great work should accomplish anyway. I did not appreciate this when I read the book in my twenties. Now, however, I would rank Delany’s effort up there with any other great piece of literature. Though not an easy read, it is a tour de force in its own distinctive right and solidly recommended.

1 comment:

Roger said...

I enjoyed reading your column/post on Dhalgren. I had just picked up Dhalgren for the 4th (?) time and appreciate its pleasures in a completely different way each time (when I manage to get all the way through). I agree it's closer to poetry than simple SF, capturing the human condition in an uncertain cultural landscape that can be described as a warzone, a commune, an apocalyptic future.

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this confounding, fascinating book. R