A book that’s really like no other I’ve read, Samuel R. Delany‘s Dhalgren is technically a Sci Fi novel –but I think that’s super misleading. While it’s true that traditional SF elements abound (multiple moons, plague journals, cool multi-bladed hand weapons, gangs clad in mirrored chains roaming the streets enclosed in holographic dragon shields), would anybody ever strictly classify Naked Lunch as SF?
An amnesiac meets a woman in the woods and they have sex right away. She leads him into a cave where he discovers a chain of prisms and mirrors which he wraps around his body. The woman runs off and the amnesiac chases her, losing one of his sandals somewhere along the way. He picks up her trail in a field where he catches her just as she turns into a tree. He hits the road and is picked up by a trucker who gives him a lift to the edge of the city. A lot happens over the nearly 900 pages that follow. The amnesiac enters the city of Bellona, which is somewhere near Texas or Oklahoma, it’s not quite clear; something has happened to the city, either a man-made or natural disaster (it’s never explained), but there’s no phone service, no radio or television waves can pass in or out, the national guard has left and the residents have been evacuated – most of the residents that is, a number of folks remain, and there are frequent visitors.
Who would choose to live in a lawless city? Hippies, gay bikers, delusional yuppies, drag queens, poets, disaffected teens, drug users, AWOL sailors, psychologists, would-be publishing magnates, ministers, department store owners, astronauts and poor African Americans, these are the characters that the amnesiac –who becomes known as “The Kid”, Kidd or “Kid” encounters.
But I want to make it clear that Dhalgren isn’t a really tale of post apocalyptic survival, not like Mad Max or even A Boy and His Dog are, and even though there are gangs and there’s violence and there’s rape and there’s massive suns threatening to envelope the earth and lightning fields and earthquakes, there’s mainly page after page of literary acrobatics and conceptual language work that constantly lurches between the pretentiously inaccessible and the really dirty. In fact, this is the most sexual book I’ve ever read. Not only are the sex scenes graphic (to say the least), Delany is acutely interested in sexual psychology and much of the book deals with exactly why some residents and churches are decorated with massive posters of a naked black guy named George (the posters feature his fully erect penis), a man made famous in Bellona when photos of him raping a white girl hit the cover of the local newspaper – but even that little detail is loaded and not reflective of the myriad of complexities Delany works into the book.
Even more than sex, the book is about writing, it examines art criticism and art making with the intellectual rigor that David Foster Wallace (having never read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest is the closest thing I can compare Dhalgren to, they share major ambition and SF elements –but the comparison is a bit misleading) applied to ball-hitting theory; Delany crafts pages and pages around Kid’s writing process, as Kid goes from erasing his way through early drafts to proofing galleys. A visiting celebrity poet, a pain in the ass semi-successful poet and a newspaper man all play key roles in Kid’s conception of art which, because he is a 30 year old amnesiac who seems to have spent time in mental institutions, is pretty much zilch when the book begins.
And it’s reflexive: buildings that have been burning for days are suddenly restored, street signs are suspiciously inconsistent, then deep, deep into the novel Kid discovers a warehouse full of the very props that have made the city what it is; it’s truly confounding. You’ve got to get to a point where you stop even looking for the kind of context clues that inform the plots of regular books. It doesn’t even matter what’s going on, plot-wise, because not only do events unfold in an inconsistent, semi chronological order, the final portion of the book is printed in a particularly infuriating format: the pages are split vertically in an attempt to recreate Kid’s fragmented notebook – when he discovers the spiral bound notebook in the park early on in the book, it’s already about 40% full, Kid pens the poems that are anthologized in Brass Orchids on the flip side of the pre-written pages, then squeezes journal entries into the margins, in between poems and around preexisting lists and such. This final section is introduced in a way that implies that the notebook had been converted into a manuscript which was later discovered by scholars and published with an almost academic introduction – but that’s misleading, it hints at some kind of a familiar structure (like Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub) but it’s important to note that even though the “discovery” of the notebook is inferred, no real narrative satisfaction can be gained from this device.
This is literally the diametric opposite of seminal SF works like Dune, plot and story take a secondary role to the incredibly engrossing and occasionally infuriating character development. Kid meets so many people, and interacts with them in such profound ways that even though I’ve probably (unintentionally) described this as more of a chore than a pleasure read, the four or so months that this will take you to work through it are well worth it. This is a thoroughly unforgettable book – and big thanks to Sarafina for tipping Brittany off to it.