Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney

This book is 800 pages long and still manages to have an abrupt ending.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a sci-fi novel with such strong character development. If you want to nitpick, you could remind me that this isn’t technically science fiction, but magical realism. Whatever – it was in the science fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a really talk-y novel, but in a good way – I know I said that Honor of the Queen was talky, but it’s a palpably different kind of talky. Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren unearths your deepest thoughts and opinions on all aspects of humanity, putting them on a pedestal or crushing them.

I don’t know where to start with this novel. Definitively post-modern, its plot isn’t so much an arc as a straight line. Every moment is equally weighted.

So, I’ll try to explain. The novel is set in Bellona, a made-up city somewhere in the continental United States. It’s also the location of a recent but unspecified disaster of near apocalyptic proportions. This event has destroyed not only large parts of the city’s infrastructure, but its entire socioeconomic hierarchy as well.

Basically, Bellona is an anarchist’s paradise. Money and property have virtually no meaning or utility, there’s no organized justice system, no jobs, no schools. You get the idea.

Depending on who you are, this is either a dream come-true, or an absolute nightmare.

(I’m still on the nightmare side, though this has more to do with my own personality than the novel’s actual portrayal of the circumstances.)

Bellona is occupied, it seems, by drifters with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, plus a few stragglers who didn’t immediately leave when the city was demolished. Many of the drifters have taken to travelling in roving gangs, calling themselves “Scorpions” and going by individual nicknames.

The novel follows one of the aforementioned drifters named the Kid, who is so called because he can’t remember his real name, but has a pretty intense baby face – everyone thinks he’s 17 when in reality he’s at least a decade older (though anyone’s age in Bellona is a point of some contention.) Kid hitchhikes his way to Bellona, presumably out of curiosity and a lack of anything better to do.

The citizens of Bellona are extremely easygoing and open, not only from a social standpoint but from a sexual one as well. Beginning the moment he arrives in Bellona, the Kid falls into a number sexual relationships, whether temporary or ongoing.

He falls in with the Scorpions, who, in spite of being feared by the non-Scorpion residents, are instead a loose group of people who live together and function as a sort of “gang” out of necessity. They have no one and nothing else, and take on a pack mentality, living in dens, and appointing unofficial “leaders” not by diplomatic vote, but through unconscious, animalistic shows of dominance and submission.

The Kid’s bisexuality is introduced circumstantially. His first encounter with another man happens early in the novel and doesn’t seem entirely consensual. At the time, I was unsure if I felt it was because Kid isn’t into men, or if he just wasn’t into that man and that circumstance in particular. Kid doesn’t openly discuss his own sexuality until about a third of the way into the novel, and even at that point there’s no definitive “label.” He just notes that his encounters have always oscillated between genders. I enjoyed, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy a character who could be labelled bisexual, but is never actually defined.

Dhalgren’s plot has no arc because it’s not so much a story as a case study, a hypothesis for a social experiment. Bellona is not only a fictional place, but a fictional circumstance, wherein all the arbitrary social laws and dances that we’ve built up are torn down, and humans are allowed to interact with each other as they might, without considerations for class, race, compatibility, relationship structure, or any number of other apparently false restrictions.

The result is interesting and sort of heartening. Dhalgren is definitely an exploration of a spectrum of human sexuality, not only in terms of orientation, but in terms of how much our desires are dictated and repressed by societal rules, and by that measure, the wide range of formerly deviant activities that become normal once you remove constructed stigma.

Kid almost immediately falls into a relationship with a woman, Layna. Circumstance adds a third – Denny. Despite vastly different pre-Bellona backgrounds and a wide age gap (Denny is only 15), for the rest of the novel the three are the sweetest and most ideal example of a poly triad that I’ve ever come across in any media. It was lovely.

Again, the three never strictly define themselves as anything, though there’s no strict denial of a structured relationship, either.

An aside – apparently at some point or region in the 70’s, “balling” was slang for having sex. At some point in the novel, about halfway through, Delaney starts using this word almost every time sex is mentioned by anyone in any context.

I, as a millennial, had previously ONLY heard this word as a slang term for being, basically, “cool” (wealthy, talented, lucky, well-dressed, whatever constitutes coolness) i.e. wish I was a little bit taller/wish I was a baller, etc.

This lack of context made the term jarring at first, and slightly annoying thereafter. I still don’t like it as a term. It seems kind of silly. I mean, I can see the connection, obviously balls are frequently involved in sex, but it’s clear to me why this didn’t catch on.

ANYWAY.

If someone asked me what Dhalgren was about, I’d say: human interaction, and writing. While in the city, the Kid is struck by a sudden compulsion to write poetry and by virtue of community isolation and being basically the only actual writer in the city, his book of poetry published. There are many passages that seem to come directly from the psyche of the author, meditating on the price of having your writing recognized, the reasons one writes, the constant balancing act between begrudging compulsion and actual enjoyment of the craft. As a writer myself, I was surprised that these all managed to be interesting and insightful, and only once or twice, for a brief moment, did they feel overly masturbatory.

Especially important are the moments in which Kid realizes that perhaps people are being dishonestly “nice” with their opinions on his writing. He asks for honesty, but is hurt by the response. It’s a very telling struggle between blissful ignorance and the knowledge we’re led to believe we actually want.

The last 100 (200?) pages of the novel devolve into a simulacra of a “found journal,” with different trains of thought overlapping in different fonts on the same page. In order to read each page fully, the story itself became necessarily fragmented. I found these extremely annoying to read, which I take to mean they were extremely effective.

I won’t say how it ends partly because I don’t want to give it away and partly because I still don’t really know how it ended. It’s as if Delaney was working with a set number of pages and he ran out before he was able to tie things up.

The ending of Dhalgren left me gasping and certain that I would have to read it again.

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