Dhalgren- Samuel R. Delany

No laws: to break or to follow. Do anything you want. Which does funny things to you. Very quickly, surprisingly quickly, you become exactly who you are.

In my quest to read complex science fiction novels considered to be incredibly difficult, I worked my way through Dhalgren. Worked is the perfect verb for this book. Although it is filled with beautiful imagery and mind-twisting ideas, Dhalgren tends to be a needlessly dense and punishing novel.

Dhalgren tells the story of the nameless narrator, who ends up going by the name Kidd. He enters the city of Bellona in the midwestern United States. Something has happened to Bellona. The sky is continual shrouded in fog and smoke. Buildings burn but never collapse. The population has fled except for a few remaining criminals and adventures. Landmarks move around. Time dilates and stretch. And nobody knows why any of this is happening. Kidd enters into this strange city and is engulfed by it.

Reading Dhalgren leaves the reader unclear about how much of its difficulty is by design. The nameless narrator of the story is incredibly unreliable, partly due to his mental illness and frequent times losses. If Delany meant to give the reader a taste of the frustration that comes along with those conditions, he did a great job. Frequently Dhalgren leaves the reader baffled and lost, and not for the better.

Part of the exasperation comes from the fact that Dhalgren really does not have a story. By design, a reader can enter into the book at nearly any place and just start reading. That is a cool idea (Finnegans Wake pulls off a similar feat) but can be trying at times. Unlike Finnegans Wake, Dhalgren feels like it should be a traditional story, so the lack of narrative tends to cause some frustration.

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I am probably giving Dhalgren a harder time than it deserves. There are joys to be had within its labyrinthine structure. The imagery of the burning city of Bellona is beautiful, and a sense of dread permeates the book. Dhalgren really shines when the characters experience strange cosmological occurrences such as a night with two moons and a giant sun in the morning. Oddly, the most interesting parts of the book are when the main character Kidd is just talking to people about ideas. Although they would seem boring on a superficial level, the prose is crystal clear during these scenes, a welcome reprise from the chaotic prose of action scenes.

Dhalgren should also be admired for its multi-stable narrative. Early in the book, Kidd receives a notebook that seems to contain the text of Dhalgren itself. Often times the reader is allowed to see what Kidd reads in it, and the text in the notebook follows the text of the novel. At one point, Kidd reads the end, and at the end of the Dhalgren a clever reader will recognize that the end of the novel has the same text as the end of the notebook. However, at the end of the novel, Kidd is writing in first person, meaning that he wrote the end of the notebook and found it later in the narrative, which is actually earlier chronologically in the novel. This creates a kind of Mobius strip, which is impressive, and the most interesting thing about the novel. If it seems confusing, don’t worry. Dhalgren is meant to be confusing.

Overall, Dhalgren is more interesting as a series of set pieces than as a novel. This may have been intentional, but also makes the book terribly dense. That being said, Dhalgren is not a book that should be avoided. For the brave reader with enough free time, getting lost inside of Dhalgren‘s absurd and frustrating structure can be worth it. Mysteries abound, none of which are answered. Form and function twist and collapse. If the reader is left baffled and confused, so much the better.

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