I’ve read Dhalgren so many times. Every time is different. Sometimes I devour it, blocking out everything else going on around me. Other times, I read it slowly, with long breaks, dipping in here and there, and savouring each section as I go, as if it was just a collection of stories. I’ve been reading it again in 2018, and not surprisingly, this time felt completely different.
One thing is for sure about Dhalgren, it is regarded as Samuel R Delany’s masterpiece of science fiction, but from what I can tell, very few who read it actually like it. It’s weird, it jumps around, and there is no reliable narrator. It’s Joycean. Its narrative is circular, and rambling, and often feels pointless or repetitive. Even Kidd seems a mash-up from some of Delany’s other bard-like characters.
There’s a lot of sex, some of which includes a questionably consensual relationship, (poly-amorous with an underage partner) and a clearly not consensual situation (a gang rape) which goes on quite explicitly for far too many pages. Delany himself has made some questionable life choices, which have put him on the outside of polite literary circles for a while, but I just can’t quit the circular mythology of The Kid in the ever-morphing city.
There’s no good way to describe the plot of Dhalgren. There’s a guy, who wears only one shoe. He can’t remember his name. He enters a city that is in some sort of apocalyptic fugue state, makes some friends, makes some enemies, and starts writing poetry. A lot of the story feels rooted in the 1970s in which it was written, so it can feel quite dated—but maybe not. In many ways, Dhalgren has aged well because parts of our twenty-first century world feel quite like they city of Bellona and that’s scary to think about. The world of Dhalgren is not white, it’s not straight and it’s not clean or polite. Some people can live in Bellona, and some can’t. It takes a certain type of person to survive there. Delany anticipated our current shifting cultural mores more than forty years ago and he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope.
Like the characters in Dhalgren, there are people who refuse to admit that our world is a fuçked-up place, and others who want to push everything just a little bit further into a seemingly war-torn hellscape, just for the fun of it. Sometimes, they are the same people. At it’s heart, that’s what Dhalgren is about. In Bellona, there are two moons—or, is it just one moon, reflected back on itself? The story is the same. I am different.
Tagging this one “Throwback Thursday.”