Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dhalgren - Samuel R. Delany

From the edge of the sidewalk, three-quarters of the disk was visible above the houses. The clouds dulled it enough to squint at, but it went up, covering the roofs, and up, and up, and up. What they could see of it filled half the visible sky. And, Kid realized, half of the sky is huge! But that fell away into impossibility. Or unvertifiability, anyway. The rim was a broil of gold. Everything was like burning metal.

Bantam Books, January 1975
Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany was an undertaking. This is a book that pops up from time to time on lists of difficult novels, long novels, cult novels, whatever. It has crossed my orbit for many years, the first time being in 1979 when I was in 10th grade and a history teacher in high school gave me his copy. I didn't have what it took then to finish it, and it moved in my collection through the years to finally getting lost somewhere in the middle of the road in someplace I shacked up in. But this year I finally decided it's a book I should give a go at reading. Just to say I did it. 

Published in 1974 (or so) this is Delany's look at the 60s in a long (long!) long-winded novel of an amnesiac and possible mental patient who enters the city of Bellona and lives among its outcast residents. Known only as The Kid, our hero has sex, writes poetry, runs a gang, has sex, helps a family move, talks about poetry, has threesomes, and...Yes, this means there is a lot of talking and sex in the novel. The city of Bellona is a terrific creation. It burns, its streets and parks shift inexplicably in relation, buildings crumble, stores remain stocked, its population is migratory, and time inside is relative. The passage of years is meaningless, the measure of time is pointless. Things move forward to refract inward. Society is broken down among straights, gays, men, women, gangs, recluses, whites, blacks and racial tensions and mutual survival. Kid crosses currents with each layer through the novel, and is corrupt or insane or...Well this is left to the reader to determine. 

Since this is the 60s within a drop of water under an 800 page lens, refracted through a prism and reflected from a mirror there is one omission that I couldn't help noticing. That being the Vietnam War. Or maybe that war is the burning ruins of Bellona and the roving Scorpions therein? 

A lot has been made of the sex in the novel. I didn't mind it, wasn't bothered by it, and think that sex would have been more shocking to Sci-Fi readers in 1974 than in the 21st century.

What I could have skipped? Well that would be some of the mind-numbing long passages that detail the mundane routines of people interacting. Lifting a cup, turning a bedsheet, moving a box, putting on pants, repeating questions. All the things that editors would slash from a manuscript today. I'll give that it's there for a reason, and I'll accept that Delany deliberately made this novel an effort to finish. Some readers don't mind that. Other readers will toss the book aside. 

If you came here looking for answers I'm sorry to disappoint.