In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Dhalgren is a 1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, arguably his most successful critically and most likely his most successful commercially, with over one million copies sold. It took me a while, even devouring SF like I do, to find Delany. This is a shame, as the man really knows his way around a sentence. He’s also fucking insane, or at least wrote a fucking insane novel. To give you an idea of the strangeness inherent in the book, one of the very first events is a guy (the main character) walking down a highway, seeing a naked woman running across a field, going to her, having sex with her, then later approaching her in a meadow as she metamorphoses into a tree. Freaked out by this, he sprints back out to the highway to hitch a ride and talks with a long-haul trucker about artichokes. The trucker drops him off at his destination, Bellona, and it does not get less strange.
Bellona is a midwestern U.S. city that has undergone a vague cataclysm. No one really understands what happened, but a lot of the city burned down, and a lot of people moved away. What’s left is an anarchic-in-the-bad-way-unless-you-are-kind-of-an-asshole type social structure where people are just trying to get by and don’t really understand the place in which they live, but are powerfully drawn to it. Weird things keep happening. Our amnesic protagonist, who ends up taking the name Kidd, sleeps on a rooftop a few blocks away from the river the first night, then wakes up and cannot see the river. He enters a building by one door and leaves by the same door, only it exits in a different place. The city is constantly encased in a roiling dome of ash, smoke, and cloud. The one time this really clears away, there are two moons in the sky. The place is just weird, and the evocation of this strangeness is what this novel does best: it is huge on atmosphere. Reading it, you are as wandering and confused as the main character. The grimness and foreboding of the place flows underneath every word, like dark water through the sewers underneath a city. Also, strangeness never stops.
Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.
Our fearless protagonist finds a notebook in the city, one in which all the right-hand pages are filled in as someone’s journal. Paper is at a premium, so he uses the left-hand pages to write poems as he moves through the city, but he also glances at what has been written, and these pages sometimes reveal a written version of thoughts Kidd has already had. For example, one of the narrator’s thoughts (assumed to be the internal thoughts of Kidd, but who knows) is him reflecting upon his amnesia:
It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.
First off, look at that writing. Secondly, when he starts reading the journal, he finds this written in it:
It is not that I have no future. Rather it continually fragments on the insubstantial and indistinct ephemera of now.
He is amnesic, so he knows even less than the reader if he is the original writer of the journal, and other than tenuous speculation, there is nothing to indicate a final answer. This novel builds mystery and leaves it there, strong and swirling in mist. William Gibson referred to the novel as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Good, because I am nowhere close. (While we’re talking about SF author reactions to Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick called it trash, and Harlan Ellison threw it across the room, never to return, at page 361. I am on page 349. Because it is so weird, it is very divisive in the community – some think it is incomprehensible pap, others think it is the best thing science fiction has ever done).
While we’re quoting, below is the first dozen or so lines of the book, to give you an idea if the style is something that appeals to you or not:
to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.
So, I quit. Well, not really. This book is too much of a landmark, and there is way too much exciting stuff going on in it for me never to finish. It is really good, I just need some time. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “I can’t quit you babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while.”
There’s a reason 73% of American high-school males go through a Led Zeppelin phase. Led Zeppelin is fucking great.
The problem is not that it’s a bad book. It is amazing. The problem is, it’s fudge. Fudge is good. Fudge is an impressive and rewarding concoction. Eating fudge is better than eating, say, a ham sandwich. But if you eat nothing but fudge, it becomes hard to chew, sensorially overwhelming, and the culprit behind severe digestive problems. I need to eat a few ham sandwiches before returning to my 879-page platter of fudge. Delany crafted a highly experimental novel with a lot of innovative features, but digestibility was not one of his goals.
The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.
Quitting a book is the sovereign right of any reader. As I get older, I do it more and more. As a youth, it always seemed like it was my failure if I put down a book. This attitude had me finishing a lot of really terrible, highly acclaimed stuff. Now, it’s clearer that it is more the author’s failure than mine. If the author is not delivering, you owe them nothing, and buckling to the social pressure of what a “good” book is and reading it even when you don’t like it gives you misery you don’t need and wastes time you don’t have. I love reading the Big Books, the ones in The Canon, and it’s fine to have social opinion be one of the determining factors of whether you finish a book, but it cannot serve as the sole support of a bad book (Obligatory: The Corrections was super terrible. “I am a well-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, my life is so hard, won’t you follow me as I explain my psychological hangups? Also, I’m a giant asshole and made all my problems for myself.”). So my hatred of The Corrections is sloshing over the rim of parenthetical address. In it, the main character’s life is messed up because, as a tenure-track professor, he had sex with one of his students and got fired. He broke the rules and regulations of his workplace and got canned. He’s super bitter about it, but what the hell did he expect? Can you imagine reading Crime and Punishment if, instead of going through the psychological anguish of nihilism versus meaning, despair versus hope, and anxiety versus acceptance, all Raskolnikov did was bitch about how that dumb old lady he murdered ruined his life and how unfair it all was? That’s The Corrections.
Okay, back on track. Yes, I am taking a break, but Dhalgren is amazing. Hopefully, I will read the remaining 530 pages, and there will be a companion piece up here in a few months titled “On Finishing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren,” but there doesn’t have to be. Read good books, don’t read bad ones, regardless of the opinions of others. When people read books based solely on reputation, bad writers profit and good readers suffer.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.