Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany seems to have many detractors as a work of science fiction but I find it a powerful portrait of a fractured mind, of a poet in dystopia, of a city broken the way its main narrator feels he might be breaking. Known mostly as the Kid, because he has forgotten his name and he looks much younger than he is, the narrator struggles not just to write his poems but to understand the relationship between writing, his mind and the world around him.
In a lyrical, almost incantatory opening section, a nameless young man meets a shadowy woman who asks him where he is going. He doesn’t know his purpose, other than to survive each moment with his consciousness intact. The strange woman has sex with him, draws out a bit of his background. Though he’s forgotten his name, he recalls many fragments of his life.
“It’s not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now. In the long country, cut with rain, somehow there is nowhere to begin.”Kindle Edition, Page 10
She guides him to a cave where he finds a long chain beset with prisms and opaque glass that he wraps around his body. By the time he gets out of the cave, the woman has disappeared, but he finds her in a meadow beside the road he is taking to the broken city of Bellona. She is turning into a tree right before his eyes. Much later, we hear the Kid relating this as a dream, but he is not sure if it was a dream or real.
That is a driving theme through most of Dhalgren. The Kid finds a notebook with half its pages blank, but we are not sure if the book is new to him or if he had written the entries himself and simply forgotten. He uses it to record his thoughts at times and also to draft poems. In the last section of the novel, he interrupts narration of apparently real scenes of increasing violence and destruction with a running commentary on the limits of language to capture what is happening.
The Kid reveals early on that has spent time in a mental hospital, and he worries that he might be losing his mind again in Bellona. A woman named Lanya, who becomes his lover, confronts him at one point with the fact that he has been missing for five days, yet he experienced that period as a single day. In many ways, she becomes a touchstone for him, a link with reality. One day, he tells her that Denny, the teenager who is part of their threesome, said he was in love with them.
Walking with Lanya today, I told her that. She beamed: “Yes, he’s said it to me a half-dozen times too. It’s charming.” “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t understand it. He loves you. He loves me. What the hell does that mean?” She looked surprised, even hurt. Finally she said: “Well—when somebody uses strange words to you that you just do not understand, you have to listen for the feeling and get at the meaning that way!”Kindle edition, Page 682
Another touchstone for the Kid is the sex he shares with Lanya and Denny, among others. It is long, intricate, sometimes transgressive, sometimes just too much. But like the sporadic violence the Kid may erupt in, it’s one of those immediate experiences that comprise an undeniable reality when so much else in his life and mind is so shaky.
The text is broken into fragments, somewhat like the city. Streets upended, buildings burning and filling the sky with smoke. Yet some area have a strange normalcy about them, except for the fact that most of the population have left for other parts of the country where normal life is continuing.
We never learn what has happened to Bellona, but its strangeness deepens as we spend more time there. A second moon appears in the sky. A huge flaming sphere climbs into the sky one day only to set a few minutes later. Through the smoke and haze of the city, a bus keeps operating, strange cars appear and disappear, a sniper on the roof of a locked up department store fires randomly at people below.
Long stretches of Dhalgren follow a few key groups. There is the Richards family that is trying to preserve the sense of normality at all costs. There is a gang known as Scorpions, who wear chains like the one the Kid found and lamps that project huge holographic images that conceal them – strange insects or lizards or fantastical shapes – making them a terror in the streets.
There is the poet Newboy, the newspaper editor and apparently governor of the city, Calkins, a psychologist named Madame Brown and the remnants of polite society that often gather at Calkins estate for overnight parties.
Each of these is rendered brilliantly in Dhalgren with a distinctive style of speech and pattern of thinking, each living in their own version of reality.
Yes, Dhalgren is an experimental novel, but it’s the sort of experiment that only a very brilliant mind can produce. Yes, I found parts of it tough going, not because it was hard to follow but because some scenes are just too long. But the spectacular final chapter brings everything together in a powerful finale that links back to the very beginning of the book.
Is this flow of reflection, poetic prose and crazy action a continuous loop that keeps replaying in the Kid’s mind? It made me think a bit of the recent TV series, Legion, in which it’s hard to tell reality from mental distortion from time travel. Dhalgren resists any easy formula, but moment by moment it offers absorbing richness and dozens of well-drawn characters.
There is little in the way of plot, especially since one of the characteristics of Bellona is its unpredictability. It’s more like a picaresque novel. Mostly, it reminded me of the German classic, Simplicissimus. The dystopia facing that book’s hero is the very real landscape of the Thirty Years War where death and chaos are the norm. In Dhalgren, we always face a question, as the Kid does, about what has really happened, what has been dreamed, what forgotten and re-experienced in fragmentary form.
We can’t know what might happen next because the Kid doesn’t know what he might do next, even though much of the text consists of his questioning what he is doing and the limits of the writing to capture his experience. This novel raises endless questions it cannot answer about reality and identity and the act of writing itself. Don’t go into it expecting a typical science fictional adventure. You have to let its vision of dystopia envelop you. You will learn from the experience. Though written in 1974, it is one of those timeless books that never stops challenging your sense of the world.