Review Of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/06


  Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is generally considered a science fiction novel, but, in a real sense, it’s more of a fantasy than science fiction- hard or not, and it is not a particularly good piece of sci fi, set in the then-near future of the late 1970s. Instead, it is a weird amalgam of the worst of High Modernism and proto-Post-Modernism. No, Delany’s a bit better of a wordsmith than the dregs that have spanned the decades from Donald Barthelme to David Foster Wallace, but he’s not a master, nor a ‘poet’, nor anything of that grandeur that his apologists declaim. As for his storytelling abilities, the actual ‘story’ of Dhalgren is rather inert and bogged down in the naïve sexual politics of the Vietnam War era. As such, the 801 page book, first published in 1974 by Bantam Books, feels even more outdated than an earlier classic of the post-Apocalyptic genre: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, which was published over two decades earlier.

  Dhalgren is both a post-apocalyptic and dystopian novel that is divided into seven sections. The first, Prism, Mirror, Lens, starts with an amnesiac wandering just outside of the fictive city of Bellona, a post-Apocalyptic hellhole the geographic dead center of the nation. He meets a sexy woman with a scar on her leg and they have sex- it’s a random sex act that is repeated many times during the course of this anomic work. Then they hide in a cave, and find a chain made of the titular elements. He then looks for his sex partner and sees her becoming a tree, and takes off for Bellona. On the way he meets Tak Loufer, who calls him The Kid. This is a hint of the low level of the writing and sets the expectations for the reader at a low level. Only in bad sci fi novels do such character names exist. Later on we find out that other characters are name Tarzan and The Ripper (ala Jack). Tak shows Kid around the weird blighted city, including violent scorpion gangs whose disguise themselves with hologram projectors. Kid hears of a weird newspaper publisher called Roger Calkins, who is an enigma. At a commune, Kid meets Lanya Colson, who becomes his lover. Already one can see sex and drugs has a greater influence than that of science on this book.

  The next section, The Ruins Of Morning, has Kid finding the notebook of an unknown writer, or maybe it’s his own? Some of the text of the notebook seems to have been dropped within the main narrative, including the opening of the book- which starts mid-sentence, ala James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Then, the Kid suddenly decides he’s a poet and Delany proceeds to indulge all the worst clichés of the profession. Thankfully, he does not try to gift us with any of his own ‘poetry’. At this point other characters drift in: another ‘poet’ named Ernest Newboy, and a black rapist called George Harrison. Yes, like the Beatle. Many characters appear but they’re all poorly sketched and rather interchangeable, all speaking in very flat and unwieldy dialogue. Newboy, the ‘great poet’, continuously spouts this sort of trite garbage:


  All good poets tend to be idealistic. They also tend to be lazy, acrimonious, and power-crazed. Put any two of them together and they invariably talk about money. I suspect their best work tries to reconcile what they are with what they know and feel they should be- to fit them into the same universe.


  Soon, we get a hint that Bellona may not be on earth. In one scene the omnipresent clouds above the city open and there is a second moon in the sky. Later in the novel, the sun appears to wax and wane in size, landmarks seem to move, and time itself twists and moves. This has led some critics have suggested that Bellona exists on a planet inside a black hole or naked singularity. By this point, though, the book is already bogging down in gratuitous sex scenes- such as characters indulging in, then talking about, eating their own cum, that are not so much shocking, as poorly written.

  The third section, House Of The Ax, sees the Kid get a job moving furniture for a family called the Richardses, whose daughter was Harrison’s rape victim. Death comes by the end of the section. The next section, In Time Of Plague, has the Kid poetically mentored by Newboy, and he gets a book of poems published. This is, for me, the worst portion of the book, with conversations on art that drag on and indulge the worst ideas that bad artists insist on. Delany simply has no ear for convincing dialogue. His conversations are banal, unfocused, yet dominate this book more than any other work of sci fi I’ve ever read. By section’s end the Kid joins a scorpion gang led by someone named Nightmare. If you can see early cyber-punk on the horizon you’d be right. The next section, Creatures Of Light And Darkness, sees the Kid become the head gangster and bisexual pedophile, inviting a young teen boy named Denny into his and Lanya’s bed. The sixth section, Palimpsest, finds the Kid’s gang crash a party at Roger Calkins’ mansion, and not having success as a gang leader.

  The last section, The Anathemata: A Plague Journal, sees Delany totally run out of narrative and creative steam. The annotations from the notebook and the textual interplay do absolutely nothing to energize nor heighten the main text, although it does dupe the simpleminded into believing the work is ‘edgy’. The reader is subjected to the disjunct and first person ravings in the Kid’s notebook, which ends mid-sentence, as the Kid leaves Bellona via the bridge he entered it, to circularly end, and suggest that the whole book is like some giant Möbius Loop:


  But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the hills, I have come to


  To say that this was expected and trite, especially considering the fractured opening sentence, would itself be expected and trite. As for the notebook, it contains such ‘gems’ as this:


  That is why I am hunting in these desiccated streets. The smoke hides the sky’s variety, stains consciousness, covers the holocaust with something safe and insubstantial. It protects from greater flame. It indicates fire, but obscures the source.


  As I said, the years have not treated this work well. Aside from the awkward attempts at poesy, such as above, it reeks of the years of its creation, with hippy bikers, blacks being called spades, and who have huge afros, much free love, and ‘male chauvinist pigs’. In a sense, it reads like some horrific screenplay hybrid between the worst sorts of quasi-pornographic blaxploitation flicks, in terms of the anomic violence and pointless sex, and the most pretentious sorts of hours-long Andy Warhol Factory arts films. Some have termed the book a proem, but I guarantee you that it was not a poet that stated that. The conversations in the book are so prosaic and banal, and go on so long, that to say there was any ‘poetry’ to them displays an utter lack of knowledge as to what ‘poetry’, either technically or colloquially, means. You know it’s not going to be in any way poetic when you just read its self-consciously bad first poetastric lines:


to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.


  So many scenes, especially the dialogue, which a good writer could have pointedly sketched in a paragraph, find Delany just going on….and on….for pages. And the dialogue, slang, and drug-addled worldview is so self-consciously 1960sish that it dates extremely poorly. A Clockwork Orange, by contrast, written a decade or so earlier, goes all the way in pushing the limits of its futuristic slang, and thus its combination of gutter Russian and Cockney is still fresh. Delany’s is not. The characterizations of Dhalgren are very weak, with all the main characters merely aspects of the naïvely idealistic anarchy of the sort that was in vogue during the social upheavals of the years it was written.

  Some critics have claimed the book is dense and/or opaque- but it’s not. It amazes me how many times bad critics who simply do not ‘like’ a certain work toss out such terms. The narrative- what little there is- is rather minimal and very easily perceived. Another myth seems to be that this was a ‘seminal’ work. Perhaps in the sense that the things High Modernists were doing for years in literary fiction were finally applied to sci fi, but seminal also implies that the work not only tried something first, but succeeded at what it was attempting. Dhalgren does not succeed as an experiment, nor as anything resembling a work of great art. A minor character wails, at one point:


  Oh my poor, inaccurate hands and eyes! Don’t you know that once you have transgressed that boundary, every atom, the interior of every point of reality, has shifted its relation to every other you’ve left behind, shaken and jangled within the field of time, so that if you cross back, you return to a very different space than the one you left? You have crossed the river to come to this city? Do you really think you can cross back to world where a blue sky goes violet in the evening, buttered over with the light of a single, silver moon?


  There is no real story, and the imagery (see above), even by the mid 1970s, was stale- as was the idea that civilization ends and natural laws are suspended. The wanton violence and sexual excess- orgies and individually in all varieties, gets boring after the second time a throbbing cock longs for lips to surround it. In many ways, this book reminded me of the 1985 post-Apocalyptic film from New Zealand called The Quiet Earth, save that the film was far more cogent and less filled with pretentious themes- although it deftly dealt with racism and sexism, as well as sex, and was far better than this novel, even including its own enigmatic end. What the film lacked, that the book has in abundance, was the reams of execrable dialogue and philosophy.

  You know you’re in trouble with a work of art when its defenders claim that it’s not meant to be understood, as William Gibson claims in the book’s Introduction. Of course, the book fails precisely because it’s understood, but just not that well written. What is most wrong with the book, though, is not that it’s a metafiction, that one is not sure whether the Kid wrote the notebook, or is imagining himself within it, as if he’s psychotic and projecting himself into a bad sci fi novel, but that it’s a bad sci fi novel that is….well, just boring as hell. Having recently read David Foster Wallace’s über-dull sci fi monstrosity Infinite Jest, I can say that Delany’s book is not that bad, but it’s no masterpiece. Far from it. Among its many flaws, for example, is the list of names that appears early, and several times, in the novel, but is never picked up upon for any greater purpose. This narrative lack is just sloppy, since there’s no symbolism behind it, like the laundry list in A Canticle For Leibowitz. Yes, it does give the only clue as to the book’s title, in that the Kid is probably the named William Dhalgren, elsewise why that as the title, but- so? Again, nothing is made of this fact, metafictively or not.

  This is often what bad artists do, they hide behind claims of depth via obscurity when really the works are simply sloppy and their claimed ‘impenetrability’ is merely a way to smear the manifest flaws away with smug claims, such as that the work is somehow about ‘authorial intention’, the ‘indeterminacy of reality’, or ‘sexual freedom’, are just that, claims; not anything that the work itself imports. Too much of the novel reads like third rate Penthouse Letters (which should not surprise, since Delany is also well known as a Queer Activist with an admitted penchant for pornography), whose only point is whether or not The Kid is a deep person- hint, no! Here’s a sample of the impoverished ‘erotica’, from early on:

  He kissed her; she caught his wrists. The joined meat of their mouths came alive. The shape of her breasts, her hand half on his chest and half on wool, was lost with her weight against him.
  Their fingers met and meshed at his belt; a gasp bubbled in their kiss (his heart was stuttering loudly), was blown away; then air on his thigh.
  They lay down.
  With her fingertips she moved his cock head roughly in her rough hair while a muscle in her leg shook under his. Suddenly he slid into her heat. He held her tightly around the shoulders when her movements were violent. One of her fists stayed like a small rock over her breast. And there was a roaring, roaring: at the long, surprising come, leaves hailed his side.


  Aside from such bad writing as this there are the endless descriptions, such as that of a recording session, or the pretentious arts dialogues that reveal just how vapid the characters and their author are. Yes, like the crap that is Finnegans Work (the rantings of a syphilitic) or that of Infinite Jest (the imposture of a fraud), Dhalgren has its apologists who will claim that the book is really about the experience of living inside a novel the characters are unaware of, or a sci fi autobiography of Delany- sort of a fantastical Remembrance Of Things Past- Marcel Proust on acid, or an exploration of mental illness from the inside out. Yet, not a single of these often claimed posits can be convincingly upheld by the text of the work itself. Dhalgren is really a novella shamelessly bloated with preening and forced magical realist lard.

  But, worst of all, it’s a work devoid of such qualities as irony and humor, which are almost essential to the greatest of literature, and most of all real intellectual depth. Works of depth are actively about things, although their art is how those ‘things’ are represented. Dhalgren is positively arid, and one can only wonder what an underrated sci fi humorist as Kurt Vonnegut could have done with the trite concept this novel foists. Then, again, considering the brilliance and outrageousness of such masterpieces like Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos, I doubt he would have even been enraptured by such stale ideas. As this book was recommended to me, I hoped that I would encounter the first published work of science fiction that was truly great literature first- in the way that Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn are. Vonnegut’s works are literature first, with sci fi tinges, and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy puts sci fi so far in front that, despite its greatness, it can rarely be perceived as literature foremost. Unfortunately, all I read was yet another vastly overhyped work that was in need of a rigorous editing to bring its few good ideas and sections to the fore. Would that that reality was only a fantasy.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]

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