Our book today is Samuel Delany’s 1975 masterpiece Dhalgren, and I’ve chosen it in part because it’s the longest really good science fiction novel ever written (L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is even longer, but it’s one of the worst science fiction novels ever written, so its length is no consolation), and I love good long books. I read very fast (not speed-reading – never learned how to do that or wanted to – just really, really fast reading); a book of average length usually takes me only a bit more than 90 minutes to finish. That’s really, really useful when it comes to keeping abreast of lots of new stuff that’s being written, and it definitely comes in handy for freelance reviewing assignments, so I’m not bemoaning it by any means. But there’s one element of the reading experience that absolutely doesn’t activate in only 90 minutes: the element of submersion. Oh, I can still intensely love reading a book in that time (or less time! I dearly love at least three-quarters of the novellas Ingrid Norton just finished touring at Open Letters), and I can just as intensely dislike one. But the added element of ‘getting lost in a book’ – an element I treasure as much as any other reader – just isn’t possible when the pages turn at such a rate.
If the book is not only really good but really long, I get to luxuriate in it just like everybody else. It’s an uncritical reason to like a text, but there it is. And I’ll even admit that there are books I’m quite fond of primarily for their length, books I know perfectly well have precious little literary quality (the first one of you who can accurately guess any such book will get a free copy of it from yours truly!) … but that’s not the case with Dhalgren, which is so over-brimming with quality that even after multiple re-readings, I’m still finding strata that completely eluded me before, reading and sub-readings that would no doubt come as surprises to the congenial author himself – but that’s the way of labyrinthine texts, as he knows better than almost anybody.
Dhalgren is a dreamscape of a novel – post-apocalyptic only in the sense that its world is partially shaken, partially melted, only fragmentarily recognizable as having once been our own. The setting is the beleaguered city of Bellona, around which reality itself seems to have collapsed and draped like a deflated tent. Miasmic fog fills the streets, and people wander into and out of the crumbling brickworks of each other’s fantasies, and all of it is evoked in prose that’s by turns precise and sensual. Time itself blurs and blends into “the terrible and vivid ephemera of now,” and the narrative slows often to lyric pauses like this one:
Look for a shadow in this double-lit mist. A dark communion in the burning streets between the landscape and the smarting senses suggests more sterile agonies. Clouds out of control decoct anticipation. What use can any of us have for two moons? The miracle of order has run out and I am left in an unmiraculous city where anything may happen. I don’t need more intimations of disorder. It has to be more than that! Search the smoke for the fire’s base. Read from the coals neither success nor despair. This edge of boredom is as bright. I pass it, into the dark rim. There is the deceiving warmth that asks nothing. There are objects lost in the double-light.
(Those of you who might wonder if you have filthy minds can relax – you do indeed! In addition to a poetic meditation on the collapse of order, that passage is also serving up an only slightly disguised description of something quite deliciously raunchy – the entire book is like that: constantly trying to slip you a mickey)
Losing yourself in this book is a very hot-summer hallucinatory kind of experience as characters of both genders and all ages move from shelter to shelter, coupling sometimes at random and always in exquisitely described detail (I’m trying to remember if there were comparably graphic same-sex scenes in any mainstream sci-fi novel before this one, but none are coming to mind – although in this as in all things, Star Trek fan fiction blazed the, er, trail). There’s a grimness that underlies virtually all of it – as in most even vaguely post-apocalyptic stories, nobody’s happy that they’re living in post-apocalyptic times – so I’m always struck by how much humor there is in Dhalgren, as when gruff old George is complaining that the neighborhood has gone straight to Hell:
“God damn, sometimes I think there ain’t nobody in the city no more ain’t a faggot but me.”
“Is that a standard male, heterosexual fantasy?” Lanya asked. “I mean, to be the only straight man around when all the others are gay?”
“I ain’t got nothing against faggots,” George said. “You seen them pictures them boys made of me? Something, huh? Some of my best friends is -”
“George!” Lanya held up her hand, her face in mock pain. “Come on, don’t say it!”
“Look -” George’s gestures became sweepingly gallant – “I just like to make sure all my friends is taken care of. If you wasn’t getting none, see, I was gonna volunteer to make an exception in my standard methods of procedure and fit you in my list. We got to watch out for our friends? Now, don’t we?”
“That’s sweet of you,” Lanya said. “But I’m royally taken care of in that department.”
And as with most epic and deliberately unconventional novels like this one (Gravity’s Rainbow being the obvious example, although in this case I think The Recognitions is a closer parallel), the author indulges in his super-large canvas to take some stylistic and rhetorical chances that would sink a shorter, more pointed work. One of the most persistent of these is also one of the ones I find most enjoyable: characters – especially a rather sexy pedant called Newboy – very often step off into long, almost uninterrupted flights of quasi-academic lecturing, and as off-putting as that sounds, it’s never less than fascinating:
“But let me pose you an example. You know of Wilfred Owen?” Newboy did not wait for Kid’s nod. “Like many young men, he wrote his poems during the War; he seems to have hated that war, but he fought in it, and was machine-gunned to death while trying to get his company over the Sambre Canal when he was younger than you. He is generally considered, in English, the greatest war poet. But how is one to compare him to Auden or O’Hara, Coleridge or Campion, Riding or Roethke, Rod or Edward Taylor, Spicer, Ashbery, Done, Waldmen, Byron or Berrigan or Michael Dennis Browne? As war – the experience or the concept – stays a vital image, Owen will stay a vital poet. If war were to be both abolished and forgotten, then Owen would become a minor figure, interesting only as a purely philological point in the development of the language, as an influence on more germane figures.”
An almost equally lengthy digression on Golding’s translation of Ovid follows, and it’s all the more wonderful for being so disjointed from its setting. There’s a quiet wonder in how surely Delany pulls it off.
Dhalgren is very much a product of its times, in some regards – this is very much a fever-dream about how large cities warp the reality of those who live in them. But what’s impressed me the times I’ve read this after the ’70s is how much more there is to it than that. It’s one of the most urban sci-fi epics ever written, true (ironically, far more so than books like Perdido Street Station, even though such books are carefully, almost fetish-style obsessed by their imaginary streets and buildings), but its sprawl contains multitudes of other registers. And I can sauna myself in it for the whole length of a lazy afternoon, which is no small attraction.
I can’t recommend it strongly enough; you should go to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy (the latest trade paperback is boring-red). And as usual, if you’re broke I’m happy to send you a copy.