Samuel R. Delany
Dhalgren Cover

Dhalgren - what a long strange trip it's been


I wish I had read Dhalgren when it was first published. It has a certain relevance to the times back then, and to my cultural attitudes as a college hippie. In a conversation with the Kid, retired astronaut Captain Kamp says, "It's better than all those discussions where they ask you whether, as an astronaut, you believe in long hair, abortions, race relations, or the pill." Those were issues of the day. The length of one's hair was a political statement. I recognized some of the characters as being like people I knew who lived the counter-culture in the late sixties and early seventies: John and Millie and all the people who lived in the park were hippies; Tak and Madame Brown and maybe even Lanya also were people who would have fit in with the people I knew then. The Scorpions, though, were something unfamiliar.

Dhalgren is a strange book. From what I had read about it, I half expected that I wouldn't like it, but I did. It pulled me in and I was fully immersed. It is generally classified as science fiction, but It's atypical of science fiction. The setting is unreal - that must be the science fiction connection. Bellona, a major American city, has suffered some strange sort of catastrophe with wrecked buildings and smashed cars and ongoing fires. The rest of the country, apparently, is unaffected. We never do learn the nature of the cataclysm, though it does seem somehow to be related to an infamous rape. The population of Bellona has fled. From millions there are only a few thousand denizens, and many of these are latecomers. There is no economy. Whatever one needs is available in abandoned stores or warehouses. The bartender will serve your drink and refuse payment, a hippie's daydream. The book has much more sex, explicit sex, including homosexual sex, group sex, gang bangs, than is usual in science fiction. One of the situations in the book, which I think must have been bold for the time, is a poly-amorous (thanks for that wonderful word, Stephen) relationship. Even today, among those holdouts who oppose same-sex marriage, this is used as the slippery slope argument.

Dahlgren is a strange book. It opens with dream-like prose, but then it moves into...its kind of hard to call it normal... non-dream-like prose. The story is told mostly in the third person, but with occasional brief slips into first person. The style of these first person paragraphs is more arcane and we aren't sure at first that the speaker is the main character. I found this device to be a minor annoyance. Occasionally, it would slip into full blown gibberish: "They squatted to the furnace, simulatable in every break on those fenestrated, rusty fill-ins. Only for a distance in civet furrow, here hid awfully just a million savants at the pot. An open egret hung around a perch — still she could stay here any night. The honey worts and wolfling braces amazingly lined askew in weevils or along a posthole should report." I think Delany must have sprinkled these in just to see if we were paying attention.

The last part of the book changes style. It becomes a transcription of a disjointed and fragmented journal written by the main character, the Kid. I would have preferred to have continued in the style of the preceding majority of the book. In this final part we find this cryptic passage: "Also wonder if writing about myself in the third person is really the way to go about losing or making a name. My life here more and more resembles a book whose opening chapters, whose title even, suggest mysteries to be resolved only at closing. But as one reads along, one becomes more and more suspicious that the author has lost the thread of his argument, that the questions will never be resolved, or more upsetting, that the position of the characters will have so changed by the book's end that the answers to the initial questions will have become trivial." This surely must be Delany speaking directly to us, telling us not to expect resolution, that resolution isn't necessary. And there are definitely handfuls of unanswered questions, which in the end maybe really don't matter. In a normal book, or a normal science fiction book, we might have learned the answers to minor questions such as: What was the bartender's motivation for tending bar?; What was the significance of the optical chains?; What was the significance of the recurring scratch on women's calves? etc, etc, etc.

In the end we do get hints, only hints, to the resolution of some of the questions. The apocalypse that happened to Bellona, happens again at the end, or maybe it is the first time, re-happening. It has the impression of being an aerial bombing. Or maybe it is an hallucination of an aerial bombing. But the biggest mystery of all is the title of the book. The Kid, has forgotten his name. I guessed that his name must be Dhalgren. The Kid's name, partially remembered in the closing parts of the book seems not to be Dhalgren. But Dhalgren might be the last name of an incidental character who apparently is doomed not to survive the closing calamity.

According to Ernst Newboy, in a conversation with the Kid: "The Three Conventions of science fiction: First: A single man can change the course of a whole world; Second: The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application; Three: The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure. Here in Bellona..."

"What a long strange trip its been." These lyrics could be the theme song for Dhalgren. If it were a novella, I might reread it right away. Alas, I am a bit averse to long novels. Would I recommend that others read it? I don't know. Some definitely will not get it, or will not like it. But some will.