Some time ago, during shopping for books on Amazon, I stumbled upon the series called SF Masterworks. One of the titles immediately picked my curiosity — Dhalgren by Samuel Delany. Science fiction novel with weird fiction elements? Count me in! Was it worth reading? Let’s find out.
Dhalgren is one of the most controversial sci-fi novels I have heard of — some call it a masterpiece, while others consider it to be incomprehensible gibberish (for instance Philip K. Dick thought so). Well, I think it’s a little bit of both.
You have confused the true and real
First of all, let’s take a look at the times in which Dhalgren was created (1974). Those were really intense year in the United States — protests against war, the fight for human rights or the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Also, shortly before writing his most know novel, Samuel Delany suffered a serious nervous breakdown. All aforementioned factors inspired a book, which William Gibson, the author of, for instance, Neuromancer) called a riddle not meant to be solved.
The action takes place in a ruined, fallen city called Bellona, which brings to mind associations with the nightmarish Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hill. Due to some disaster, the town’s population fell from two million to about a thousand. The remaining inhabitants created bizarre communities, they don’t have even the slightest idea what year is his (tho local newspaper changes the randomly changes the dates every day), two moons are visible in the sky, and in many places, you can see posters of some well know rapist. Moral principles don’t exist anymore. The picture of destroyed, mysterious Bellona is, in my opinion, the most impressive element of this novel and it stayed with me for a long time after I had finished Dhalgren.
The main character of Samuel Delany’s novel is a man in his late twenties, schizophrenic who does not remember his name. The author repeatedly shows us ambiguities concerning him — a hero and criminal, gentle and brutal, poet and a cheater or the fact, that he looks much younger than he actually is. While reading Dhalgren you can notice some similarities between the main character and Samuel Delany himself — for instance, mental illness or problems with determining his sexual orientation. How will the stay in surreal Bellona end for the man? Well, the novel doesn’t really offer the answer to this question, or at least not in the traditional sense.
Dhalgren also reminded me of the works of David Lynch. In the novel, you can find the overwhelming, oneiric atmosphere, strange, even absurd at times dialogues and dream-like visions, natural for this director. However, when it comes to accessibility, Delany’s book is much more like Inland Empire than for example first two seasons of Twin Peaks. Despite their absurdity, most Lynch films tell a story and in one way or another, reward the patient viewer who decided to make an effort and delve into the world depicted in the movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way with Dhalgren.
There is no articulate resonance. The common problem, I suppose, is to have more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear. 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. This is not a useful city. Very little here approaches any eidolon of the beautiful.
I definitely agree with William Gibson and his opinion, that Delany’s novel is a mystery without solution and after finishing it, we fall into the loop which leads us straight to the beginning of the book. The disturbing vision of the world without rules, overexaggerating the events which took place in the 1960s and 70s, elements of various mythologies, distorting people and their sense of morality allowed Delany to create a place, where weird feels known and normal, while the reality as we know it seems strange and distant.
There are many theories trying to solve Dhalgren’s riddle. Which one is correct? Well, in my opinion, there is no one right answer to this question. I think that Delany’s main goal was to give us certain weird experience and if it’s true — he definitely succeeded.
Despite the fact that during my adventure with Dhalgren I often doubted if I will be able to finish the book (especially in the second half which is really brutal) and no real answer to the novel’s riddle, I don’t regret reading it. As I said, Delany’s book is a piece of art, it’s aim is to leave us with a certain feeling. For me, the fallen city of Bellona is one of the most haunting literary experiences and a real treat for every weird fiction fan. I think, that Dhalgren is at worst worth giving it a try.
Have you read this book? What do you think about Dhalgren? Please let us know in the comments.
You can buy the book here: