I first read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany more than 30 years ago. It became a personal icon for me. I reviewed it for a fanzine, simultaneously the first review and the first piece of fanwriting I ever did. More than that, it became in my memory a measure for what science fiction literature was capable of achieving.
I am now re-reading it for the first time since that first encounter in the mid-70s. I’ve been commissioned to write an entry on the book for one of those massive reference works that no-one ever sees outside the occasional library. Revisiting the book after such a long time is a salutary experience. I expected to be bowled over by one of the most daring works of literature the genre has produced. Instead? Well, much of it does still hold up, but remarkably little happens over nearly 900 pages, and there are passages that are so over-written that it is hard to work out how you are supposed to read them.
It was while he was working on Dhalgren that Delany produced the essay ‘Thickening The Plot’ in Robin Scott Wilson’s Those Who Can (reprinted in About Writing). Despite the title, it wasn’t so much about thickening the plot as about thickening the prose. He describes how to imagine and reimagine every scene to the tiniest detail, so you don’t just open a door, you have to know whether it opens in or out, whether it moves freely or not, whether the hinges squeal or not, what sort of door handle it is, is it loose or tight, what does your hand look like gripping the handle. And on and on, and every single one of these details goes into the story.
Dhalgren is a masterclass in applying that notion of writing to a full-length novel. Even small, relatively insignificant scenes are treated to the same expansive prose style so they bulge at the seams, grow beyond their need. And you can spend so much time watching the way light reflects upon the furniture of the scene that you lose track of what is actually happening. Noticeably, such writerly indulgence becomes less prominent as the book advances and becomes richer in other ways, but it never disappears entirely.
And speaking of indulgence, how did I not notice, all those years ago, that the whole book is an extended metaphor for a young outsider writer trying to make his way through the urban jungle of the literary world? The novel opens with the Kid, a new arrival in Bellona, picking up a notebook (the first words of the notebook are the first words of the novel). All the significant events and encounters throughout the novel are punctuated by the Kid writing in this notebook (though we learn more about the words he excises than about those he adds). The poems (for a long time we don’t know that what he is writing is poetry) acquire an audience. A famous poet gives him advice (suspiciously like the advice the young Delany receives when he gatecrashes a party for a famous writer in an anecdote recounted somewhere in About Writing). In the confusion of the devastated city, Calkins, the editor of the idiosyncratic newspaper, is the person who somehow holds it al together; yet he is also the publisher of the Kid’s book, and as such remains off-stage, a mysterious but all-powerful presence, until very late in the book. And the novel effectively comes to an end with the launch party for the Kid’s first book of poems.
Though maybe I didn’t notice because the Kid (or Kidd, or the kid, the title varies throughout the book) is so like the archetypal Delany hero I’d already encountered in books like The Einstein Intersection and Nova, young, artistic, with bitten nails and a curious weapon/instrument as totem, in this instance a device called an orchid which he often finds himself wearing without ever remembering picking it up.
Critically, I suspect that Dhalgren is the first significant work of science fiction that consciously employed the techniques of postmodernism, but it is not quite as clear-cut as that might imply. The famous opening, in mid-sentence: ‘to wound the autumnal city’ is echoed in the half-sentence ending: ‘Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to’ – other than the repeated ‘to’ the sentences loop together so the whole novel becomes an endless circle. This obviously recalls Finnegans Wake, but structurally the novel more closely resembles Ulysses: we follow the peripatetic wanderings and episodic encounters of one character in a city that is as much symbol as place (though Delany doesn’t make much of a fuss about, for instance, the name of the Labrys Apartments in the chapter called ‘House of the Ax’). Though it is not all within one day, it does occur within a strange unity of time because duration has become meaningless in a city where one character can see events happening within a single day while for others the same events spread across several days. And the whole book ends with an extended monologue, not Molly Bloom’s nighttime speech but a transcription of a notebook, Molly’s lack of punctuation replaced with crossings out, parallel columns, and other orthographic devices.
Yet in making that comparison I recall Brian McHale’s contention that Ulysses is not only the high water mark of modernism but also the first harbinger of postmodernism.
Although we read extracts from the ‘plague journal’ at the end of the novel it is not clear how much this is the Kid’s notebook. This damaged work, for instance, begins with: ‘to wound the autumnal city’, so that the notebook and the text within which it features are united, in postmodernist terms the distinctions between text and world are broken down. But that broken sentence does not appear in the ‘plague journal’, so there are separations also, the novel does not necessarily contain itself. The bulk of the novel, excluding the long final chapter, of course, is told in third person, except that every so often a first person paragraph intrudes. Presumably these are privileged insights into the Kid’s mind, but it is not always clear that this is so.
And perhaps the strangest thing, returning to the novel after all these years, is how vividly it remains in my mind as a whole and yet how few of the actual details I recall. The appearance of the second moon or the sun that fills half the sky come as much of a surprise to me now as I suspect they did 30-odd years ago. The attack on the department store surely did not occur in the book I first read? I recall the consequences of the Kid working for the Richards family, but I don’t have any memory of that sequence of events. With every page it is like I am reading the book for the first time, and yet the overall image I come away with is precisely the same as the overall image I have had of the book ever since I first read Dhalgren.
First published at LiveJournal, 17 July 2009.