Shortcut #58: Dhalgren

I really like Samuel R. Delany.  I first read his The Einstein Intersection, then found out that he wrote criticism and so enveloped myself in his exquisite book The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.  After that, I read Babel-17 and Empire Star.  I liked everything.  I loved everything.  I saw him on a panel at a convention (either AWP or MLA) and he presented his argument in diagram form and passed out handouts for all to see the glorious madness of his intellect on the page.

Which is to say that I’m both a little bit in awe of and in love with Mr. Delany.  And so I enter the wounded novel

Shortcut #58: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

and find myself adrift.  This drifting is a deliberate part of Delany’s method.  In many ways, the novel (at least in terms of genre) is an anti-novel.  Nothing really happens.

To be clear: Nothing really happens for about 900 pages.

Amazingly, for most of the time, you are (I was) convinced that something was happening.  The main character (who is nameless, but goes places, meets people, has sex with them, and generally wanders about both inside and outside his own head (the latter in truth since he often is told of events that he was an integral part of, but that he doesn’t remember).  The novel gestures towards a plot, but those gestures are never followed through.  They are the near-unconscious movements of someone dreaming, or drugged into another state of mind.

Again, this is a deliberate part of Delany’s method.  Why do I have such faith in him?  Because I know that he can twist myth around and around and dress his characters in such veils that we’ll see them both as themselves and as complete constructions at the same time (The Einstein Intersection). Because he can make linguistics the central struggle of a Space Opera-ish novel (Babel-17).  Because he can include fragments of his own journals in the text and have them effectively speak to the reader, the plot, and to his own experience all at the same time (Einstein again).  Because I know that he is a writer who fiercely embodies his emotions and his ideas equally in his writing.

Delany’s Triton is an anti-utopia.  For the first thirty or so pages of that novel, there is no real clue given as to what it’s about, but the text is gripping, and the world Delany created thrills in the smallest details.

With Dhalgren, there is no easing into the action of the novel. (Yes, I know I told you that nothing happens in it, but what I didn’t tell you is that the nothing happens at a rapid pace and never lets up.)  The language of the novel batters at your senses, calling you to pay attention to it, never letting you glide over what’s being said without really seeing it.

And this is fitting, because instead of a re-working of essential myths or an anti-utopia, Delany has in Dhalgren the closest to a meta-fictional modernist novel I’ve seen in science fiction.

The basic premise (which I never stopped loving or being fascinated by) is that one of the biggest cities in the United States has had something strange happen to it.  Bye, bye, Bellona.

Never heard of Bellona?  That’s part of the point.  This city of millions exists, it’s just that if you’re away from Bellona then you generally ignore it.  The US government has abandoned the city because they don’t remember it.  It slides over our collective consciousness.  People learn about Bellona in dreams, or through rumors in the counter-culture underground, or through the stories of artists, but there is no real knowledge of the city anymore in the world at large.

What happened to Bellona?  That’s part of the confusion, since no one knows.  The people who were in Bellona when the happening happened (Thank you, M. Night Shyamalan) are fuzzy about the details.  The city has been covered with a gray fog since the event (at least it sounds better than “happening”), veiling both the time of day and the change in seasons.  And the city itself seems caught in a dream.  Buildings will burn one day, but be whole the next.  A ransacked grocery store will be full of goods the next time you look.  People do seem to die, but even that fact seems up in the air.

Here’s what locked me into finishing the novel (despite long and graphic sex scenes, despite a main character who, as he gets to know himself (he’s amnesiac, for the most part) becomes less and less likable rather than more): the main character enters Bellona and finds a notebook, and in that notebook is a wealth of prose that mimics his own thoughts and experiences that we (the readers) have also experienced.   Example: Description in the first few pages — given as the main character’s thoughts about his surroundings — is reproduced, but with a few key details changed.

I realize that the more I try and describe Dhalgren, the more I can’t.  This is a book that, in many ways, is the closest to a poem I have read.  The only way to really know the book is through reading it, though knowledge, in this case, isn’t understanding.  Delany here is not working with plot as the end all, be all, but with a study of motion (all the elements of the novel in rotation with and against each other) that replaces plot.  And for me, that closely examined sketch of characters and ideas in motion is as (and perhaps more) important.

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