Review: Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany

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I read Samuel Delany's massive fiction Dhalgren many years after it was originally recommended to me by a writer friend, Jon Allison, who thought it had an element or two in common with my rough attempt at short fiction Drawing Hands. It took me to the end of this long book to understand what he meant.

I tried really hard to dislike Dhalgren. It's 800 pages long, and about 400 pages in I suspected Delany had written this big book just to write a big book. The book begins confusingly, and even by the end the mystery is not resolved. At best, by the end you finally see what the mystery is. I suspect the solution, the resolution, if it is to come at all, follows on re-readings. Delany is certainly a master of the English language - a prose poet - but for most of the book it just seems to go from event to event with no sign of a larger, unitary plot. I considered giving up the book about 500 pages in, and now I am very glad I didn't.

The last chapter is something like 150 pages, with no real section breaks. Often it presents two parallel passages side by side, and the narratives in them are different, disjoint, often contradictory. Much of it was fragmentary, and it was sometimes unclear which parts came before the others. Delany wrote the words as journal entries in a book (which Dhalgren itself is supposed to be) written by a character (or many characters) in the fictional world. But then, what we get is what these fictional characters chose to write down - how they saw or remembered or misremembered events - and not how events actually went down (within Delany's constructed fiction itself). This was some of the hardest fiction writing I've ever plowed through.

No larger plot ever came together - at least not in the traditional sense of a murder being solved, a bad guy getting tackled, a quest being completed - but by the end all the little hints and oddities and mysterious word-itches that had been planted along the way finally blossomed into some sort of understanding.

The book follows a character, Kid, as he roams through a strange city somewhere in the middle of the United States that was ravaged by a mysterious disaster, leaving it largely cut off from the rest of civilization - forgotten or ignored. But Kid never finds out what happened to the city, what started it, or how the city works like it does (and it works strangely sometimes). The city itself twists and changes. All of the characters in the book experience what one would experience if one were a character in a book - time passes at different rates for different people, locations shift around, events are remembered differently.

The following may spoil it for some readers, but I don't think this is a book that loses its power for having its conceit revealed ahead of time. It's the kind of book that is meant for re-reading. Anyway, a lot of strange little mysteries start to make sense when you reach the end of the book and see that it wraps up by twisting back around on itself and starting over in a slightly different version. The first line of the book completes the closing sentence on the last page. Little details picked up at the end of the book give meaning to tiny things mentioned in passing at the beginning. Immediately continuing to read from the beginning, having just finished the end, you find a whole new world, a much deeper story put into perspective by what you've just learned.

Delany's conceit here? Dhalgren the book, the story, blurs the familiar territory-boundaries between author and book (here in the real world) and the fictional world created by that author and book, and the characters within that fiction, and their power over it. Early in the book Kid finds a used journal that someone has written in - on just one side of the pages - and he uses the blank pages to write down his own poetry and experiences in the city. But by the end you and he realize that he himself may have written those previous passages, or someone like him going through the same events. In fact, some passages appear to tell his story before it even happened.

By the last chapter of Dhalgren, it's clear that what you have in your hands is supposed to be that journal, after Kid has added to it (and maybe added to it again at a later/different time - or else someone like him going through a similar story?). You begin to wonder if the story relives or retells itself with a slightly different cast each time, as if the strange city is remixing the people (characters) and events over and over. You also begin to doubt which passages in the book are a truthful recounting of events (within the fiction), or where the characters may have written untruths or half-truths (maybe simply because they experienced events differently, noticed different details, paraphrased conversations later with more or less accuracy).

The book itself is consistent, but it is also consistent in its inconsistency. Once you realize what's going on, all the little details fit together but keep you guessing what you are supposed to take as true - as having happened - and what is not. You can't trust what you have in your hand (Kid's journal, Delany's Dhalgren), and that messes with your expectations as a reader. It breaks a sort of implicit contract we have with authors, in a way that expands what literature can do. The story here affects the book, writes the book, which in turn presents the story. The characters are authored by the author, yet within the story they author the story, which is apparently authored before they are around, but not by Delany but someone within his fiction-city. It's a strange loop, a playful tangled hierarchy of ontology that turns an otherwise unnecessarily long and dense book into a fun, exciting, experimental read.

For Those Who Have Read Dhalgren

I thought I'd mention some interesting observations I noted as I turned back on the early pages having just finished the end.

Kid arrives in the city after having sex with the oriental girl (who, it's mentioned in passing, has a scratch on her leg). Having been in the city a couple days and met Tak and Lanya and company, he meets Faust under the broken clock and it is here that Faust says the clock was broken during the riots when the lightning was happening, "the first night, I guess it was" (i.e. the first night of the disaster that turned the city into the devastated shell it is).

But lightning and a riot and clock-breaking all happen on that final night at the end of the novel, long after that first day when kid has sex with the oriental girl and then enters town. Also, the original rape happened on that first night according to all accounts throughout the book, but when George finally meets June again on that final night of the book and has sex with (rapes?) her a second time, it is during the lightning and riots, just like the first time. Faust early on describes the riot as starting with a building falling or a plane crash, with a sniper on a bank building, with buildings burning - and that is precisely what is happening at the end of the book. In other words, the first night and the last night in the book are the same night, despite all those weeks of time and events passing during the novel.

The book wraps around on itself in some odd way, though. It doesn't merely restart or loop; it changes. At the beginning of the book, Kid is coming into town (after having sex with the oriental girl) and gets the orchid from a group of girls leaving town. At the end of the book, Kid and his group are leaving town and give the orchid to the oriental girl, who is just going into town. Yet the description and word choice and conversational events of both these times mirror each other isomorphically. There are hints that the oriental girl is misperceiving aspects of the outgoing group she is meeting on her way into the city (mistaking the gender of one, e.g.), which suggests Kid may have had similar misperceptions on his way in.

Another angle that further muddies the book though is Kid's apparent schizophrenia. Fragments in the book, and fragments in Kid's poetry, suggest schizophrenic speech patterns, and his messed up knuckles fit the man in the mental ward (described by Madame Brown) who tried to help other patients escape a fire and banged his hands against the door. Kid says throughout the book he doesn't want to be sick again, and admit to other characters he was in an institution before. Maybe Delany intended the journal (what you have in your hand as a reader) to have been written by some unnamed schizophrenic character in an institution. Maybe that schizophrenic patient put himself and others from the institution (i.e. Madame Brown, the social worker) into the story, into the city, and his delusions involve remixing familiar characters in his fantasy world. But even that explanation might be over-simplified given some other elements of the book.

Who wrote the journal, within the fiction of the journal? As dictated by whoever wrote it (allegedly Kid, at one time or other), Kid found the notebook, writes on the blank parts, may have written on the earlier-filled parts (though he is sure he didn't, and it's not the same handwriting, though Newboy suspects aloud at one point it may have been him). Maybe it was written in previously during another cycle of the city/characters/events. We know that Dhalgren (being perhaps at any given time the notebook's text itself), describes in third person Kid writing in the notebook presently (but if Kid did write in the notebook as described, then that present-tense action was described by the actual author of that part of the notebook later on (not during the action described in the present tense). Thus even at the best it could be misremembered, paraphrased somewhat inaccurately, etc. (especially given how Kid seems to feel time pass differently than others sometimes).

Any of what you the reader reads could be untrue - meaning it could be fictional even within Delany's fiction, not just that it exists in Delany's book. Which is all to say that the integrity of all the events and dialogues in the book have to be questioned by the reader.

In fact, when we get to the final chapter and it switches to first person narrative from third person, and the book is directly suggested (by some unknown editor) to be a transcription of Kid's notebook mentioned earlier, that is when we see that the conversations and events described are themselves commented on in later conversations (the parallel passages on the pages where two passages or fragments are presented side by side). But of course those later conversations commenting on the original must themselves be even later transcriptions of those conversations, within the fiction. And we find in the second conversation described, the characters suggest that (having read some of Kid's recent scribbling in the book) Kid's written paraphrasing of events is highly accurate. In other words, it is made crystal clear that we are reading transcriptions of conversations about transcriptions of conversations, and throughout all those levels any number of factual (within-the-fiction) errors may have occurred.

If that's unclear, let me be more specific. On one page of Dhalgren, Lanya - one of Kid's lovers - is described in a conversation with Kid (first person present from his perspective) as saying X and Y. Then on a later page, we find Lanya again in conversation with Kid (first person present from his perspective) where she's talking about having read what he wrote in the notebook he's always writing in, and that his memory for conversations is surprisingly accurate - that the previous conversation went about like it is transcribed, which is to say about like it was presented to us in first person back on that original page. But of course, this current conversation (about the original transcription's accuracy) is itself in the notebook, transcribed necessarily at some future time (not during the conversation we are reading in present tense) presumably by Kid (or maybe some past or future incarnation of him or someone else in his character role in the city's story).

Some other interesting details: people are wary to tell where they came from - especially those with the mirror-prism-lens chains. Faust tells Kid he'll meet lots of people upset if he asks too much about where they came from before the city. Yes, the end up having backstories - much like characters in a book have backstories - but they hold on to them carefully, they don't like to talk about them. Perhaps because they are just characters and not real full people who came to the city?

The names in the story, in Dhalgren, are remixes, again remixed. Kid finally figures it out right near the end, when he realizes he knows Bill/William's last name already, despite never being told it. It has to be Dhalgren, because there's a William Dhalgren in the list of names in the notebook that he's been obsessing over (written before he found the notebook). Lanya Colson's name likely comes from a remix of names on the list: there's a Colson last name, and an L first name. There's a George and a Harrison on the list, which obviously gives us the rapist George Harrison. There's a Newman (implausibly similar to Newboy). There's a Frank on the list and Kid interacts with the writer Frank. Near the end Kid finally remembers his real name, Michael Henry F-something, and there is indeed a Michael on the name-list in the notebook. Not to mention there's a Kit Darkfeather, with Kit being close to Kid and the Indian name Darkfeather fitting with Kid's Indian heritage.

It's not just the names that are remixes, but as I've said before, the people/characters seem to be remixed into the story. The oriental girl has a scratch on her leg (mentioned in passing). On one of his first days inside the city, having just met Milly, Kid sees a scratch on her leg. She says John did it on accident with an orchid. But way later in the book Kid has a flash or memory or dream of John reaching out and slashing her (Kid couldn't have been there when it happened the first time - but by now most readers have probably forgotten the brief, passing mention of Milly's scratch that first time he meets her). Toward the end of the book, we find Madame Brown with a really odd scratch in the same place. That's when Kid starts really feeling weird and freaking out, right as he's obsessing on her scratch. Why would three female characters have the same scratch in the same place? Because they were remixed.

However, it may not be that the events happened multiple times, that the story of events does in fact relive itself slightly different over and over. Maybe the one story came together as a mashed up whole by an inaccurate author; maybe the characters are developed from little details which got mixed up by the author recounting it later. There are a few parts in the novel where Kid - a budding poet - muses on how traits he's noticed in some unimportant acquaintances show up in other minor acquaintances, often startlingly. He looks at how he describes those people to himself, and wonders to himself that if it is the same thing you would expect to find if an author writing a book slipped up and reused some interesting little character trait detail that stood out (i.e. applied the trait twice, forgetting it had been used on some other character).

So maybe rather than seeing Dhalgren - and the notebook it represents - as showing a story relived over and over in slightly different remixes by the city, you can see it as one story that is transcribed and passed along in a somewhat jumbled, misremembered, imperfect state, and so we end up with these mysterious isomorphisms (the beginning and the end being the same events, but not quite the same) and these mixing of details across characters (the leg scratches and naming of characters).

Maybe it will become clearer in future re-readings, but if anything looking through some earlier details in light of the end has cemented my feeling that Delany was very careful and deliberate about what he did here, and as mentioned before, he was consistent in his inconsistency. It's a somewhat jarring little trip, this long, wordy book, but it is delightfully fun and perspective-shattering.

Originally Written: 01-24-07
Last Updated: 01-24-07