Dhalgren

Samuel R Delany

I have been a fan of Babel-17 since I was a teenager, and I read and enjoyed the first two Nevèrÿon books a couple of years ago, but finishing Delany’s 1988 memoir The Motion of Light In Water earlier this year made me want to read as many of his works as I could lay my hands on. So I decided to start with the most notoriously unreadable.

Difficult books are all difficult in their own way: apart from a few pages of Wake-like babble and plenty of discontinuities in the opening chapters, Dhalgren isn’t especially demanding at the textual level, but it thwarts the conventions of sf in a way which would be very frustrating if one didn’t enjoy both Delany’s style and his company. A lot is said about the likeability of characters, but the likeability of the author is just as important for the enjoyment of fiction.

The novel’s setting is Bellona, an American city isolated from the outside world by a mysterious disaster, and its metafictional ambitions – the central character is an aspiring poet who writes in the facing pages of a found notebook which may or may not be the novel itself – impressed me less than its vision of what becomes of an abandoned city. Bellona is a sort of Temporary Autonomous Zone, but it’s also post-Katrina New Orleans or the shattered suburbs of Baltimore in The Wire. The novel has gained other resonances and echoes in the decades since it was published: the scorpions, street gangs decked out with holographic monster projections, come across at times like a New Wave Wu-Tang. (A futuristic genre of African-American thug poets, hyper-masculine to the point of homoeroticism: if hip hop didn’t already exist, Delany would have to invent it.)

Quite unexpectedly, Dhalgren reminded me of Patrick White’s The VivisectorThe books share a certain grottiness – 0ne is always aware that there’s not much running water in both novels – and the sex scenes in both books have a tendency to the grotesque.

Dhalgren is much more of a riddle, and it has its dull stretches, but I found it very hard to put down, and the effect of the final pages was bewilderingly touching in a way I won’t be able to understand until I read it again. Some novels are difficult in the same way that a large bottle of single-malt whiskey is difficult to drink in one gulp: Dhalgren is one of them.

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