Dhalgren: Samuel R. Delany’s Tour-de-Force is Still Ahead of Our Time

It may be said that the novel that most reflects what Samuel R. Delany preaches in his 2005 compilation About Writing is his 1974 tour-de-force Dhalgren.

I took up Dhalgren several years ago, but only got about half way through before dropping it despite the fact that I’ve read at least ten of his other works. This time, after reading some sections in About Writing, I stuck with it––in part because I had a better idea of what Delany was after.

It’s easy to get caught up in the story––the nameless young man wandering into a large city in middle America that has been cut off from the outside, the unusual circumstances of life in Bellona, the sexual adventurism, the protagonist’s Joycean minute-by-minute portrait of sights, sounds and feelings. As interesting, however, if not more so, if it can be separated from the story, is what Dhalgren teaches us about the novel.

Dhalgren exemplifies Delany’s three rules about fiction writing, which are “don’t overwrite,” “don’t let your writing become thin or superficial,” and “don’t indulge clichés.” In particular, Delany’s prescribed writing process is exposed in Dhalgren in the way he incorporates into the text the protagonist’s self-edits, showing his search for the precise word or phrase that describes what he has seen, heard and felt.

What makes the novel difficult reading is that Delany seems to invent circumstances as he goes. Although there are recurring themes and situations, he is lightly bound to them; sometimes they repeat, sometimes they do not. Time has little efficacy––the local newspaper appears with arbitrary dates. The physical characteristics of the city shift without warning or explanation: things once near become far, fires break out and devour blocks, street names change. The outside world does not impinge except one day there are two moons, another day a huge sun fills up most of the sky and then sets.

In Bellona, bereft of social institutions from police to money, things boil down to their essence. Without the need to work for a living, residents take what they need and do what they feel like doing. Throughout the novel there are no food or water shortages that cannot be remedied by moving to a new location. People form groups for protection, comradeship and power. Sex can occur with anyone or several people at any time day or night.

In the midst of this chaos, the protagonist, Kid (or Kidd or The Kid), writes poetry and later keeps a journal. Dhalgren reflects Delany’s ongoing interest in the role of language––written and spoken––in society. Part six is entitled Palimpsest, the definition of which describes The Kid’s journal style––borrowing from and writing over previous entries. It also suggests a lack of linearity which is what the reader has to deal with in the final section, The Anathamata, where pages are divided into columns, each containing unconnected entries, only the last of which is chronologically fixed.

One is tempted to interpret Dhalgren as a social commentary, having been written during the counter-cultural revolution that produced protests, Hippie communities, love-ins, and the like. But other than an implied defense of bi-sexual relationships, Dhalgren does not read either as a defense or condemnation of the Hippie life-style. Neither is it an Americanized Lord of the Flies. Civilization breaks down, but not to the point where the weak are systematically exploited by the strong. As the leader of the nest, the building where a group that call themselves scorpions live, Kid defends and protects oddballs, including one who has committed murder.

What makes Dhalgren worth reading forty years after its publication? Imagine yourself in a world where all boundaries have disappeared, where your past doesn’t define who you are. On that level, Dhalgren is an adventure story that can be read to see how people deal with these circumstances. It’s also a mystery in which the reader searches for clues to make sense of what’s going on and it is a treatise on art and literature, a disquisition on sexual and race relations, a study of human nature and an imaginative portrait of an alternative reality.

Like the best works of fiction, Dhalgren has not aged. It is still in many ways ahead of its time––an exploration of the American landscape, stripped of social conventions, including labels (names), stripped of the structures technology, time and place impose on human interaction. Dhalgren asks who we are and how far will we go when free to act when unencumbered from quotidian considerations. Delany offers hints, but with his usual sense of modesty, he does not try to impose answers. He allows us to explore these questions by his side, pointing out landmarks along with way, but letting each of us try to make sense out of the chaos.

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