dhalgren

A book can travel a long way with a person, physically carried through space, and psychically, carried in one’s mind.

I recently finished re-reading, Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany, for, perhaps, the fifth time. Dhalgren is definitely one of those books.

Below is a picture of my old copy, at one time duct-taped together, now left with a grey, duct-tape residue, the back cover gone, the spine completely circular (like the story). I bought it when I was 15, out of a “5 for $5” bin in the back of the Second Foundation, an old hole-in-the-wall SF bookstore, now lamentably gone. This dingy paperback has been with me through a dozen moves, all my various relationships, cross country, through babies and marriage, and has been living lately, squished into the back of an overcrowded bookshelf, in the yurt. And with a sticker on the cover from “Interlude Books,” presumably yet another bookstore, who knows how many hands it went through before landing in mine? Next to the old copy is the new copy that I bought last week, when the mold smell on the old one started making me sneeze (I still read the old one while in the bath—the new one was so pretty, I was afraid to get it wet.)

I remember sitting at my desk in my mother’s house in Hawaii, reading Dhalgren (instead of doing some idiotic homework assignment that I have long since forgotten—now which was a better use of my time, long run?) reading it for the first time with the experience of having my head softly blown apart. I remember walking around my high school with various of its sentences stuck verbatim in my head. I remember that feeling of the world looking different to me, when I finished. And I don’t think the world has ever gone back to its old shape.

This most recent reading, maybe ten years since the last time, I keep noticing things—thoughts, ideas, images—that have occupied my mind for twenty-some years now, things that I had forgotten came from Dhalgren, including fragments of images that have shown up in my own writing, or writerly moves I hadn’t realized I had learned from Delany. Which is cool. This is a book that clearly takes a long time to digest.

The plot is simple—a young man with partial amnesia enters the burnt out remains of a city that has undergone some disaster, though it is unclear what that disaster was, and whether it was a human creation (riots are mentioned) or semi-mystical (strange moons appear in the sky, the topography seems to change, time seems altered). The young man moves through the landscape, meets people, has experiences, and leaves. But the events are not really what the book is about—how the cast of characters relate to each other and their world is more important than the events themselves. Race, sexuality (graphically portrayed—you have been warned), money, leadership, sanity, and art are some of the issues explored. The writing is gorgeous and complex. The story seems to fold in on itself, giving an experience of temporal shifting in the reader that mimics what the main character, who is possibly insane, experiences. The end of the book appears to be what comes before the beginning of the book. My mind folds in on itself with wanting to understand, always coming out the other side with a question instead of an answer. But this, oddly, doesn’t feel like a problem, but rather a revelation.

William Gibson, in the prologue of the new edition, says Dhalgren is a riddle that isn’t meant to be solved. I like that. But I would add that the impulse to solve the mystery of the book, the way the back of my mind has chewed on it for over twenty years—finding new meaning and depth with each re-reading—that action of engaging with the book, itself, changes the reader, has changed me. Like an oyster making a pearl, only in reverse—instead of covering over, something is exposed. Perhaps this action, my brain following the path of the book around and around, is the point.

With over a million copies and 30 years of availability (though it was out of print for a period in the 80s), Dhalgren is undeniably an SF classic, and Delany, winner of the Nebula (four times!) and the Hugo, is undeniably a classic SF author. But Dhalgren is also like some bastard child that SF loves to hate. With its wandering non-plot, over 800 pages, and no clear order of events, it is certainly… different from most of SF. Harlan Ellison famously declared, “I hated it! I threw it at the wall!” And it does have the reputation as a ‘difficult’ book. I don’t know about that—to me it is compulsively readable. That probably says more about me than the book, but it must be true for some others out there, with such a long publication history. It is not a clean, neat reading experience, with ends tied up and points clearly made. It’s a journey.

I highly recommend the journey.

And for fun, here is an on-line exploration of the book, based on the Dhalgren MOO of the 1990s.

If you’ve read Dhalgren, or are reading it now, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

5 thoughts on “dhalgren

  1. Geoffrey Dow

    Hi there,

    Found this essay in a roundabout sort of way. I’m currently re-reading (for the first time in more years than I care to concede) Joanna Russ’ *The Female Man*, in its original paperback edition. Like *Dhalgren* (which I first read in grade 7, if memory serves; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve *re-read* it), “A Frederik Pohl Selection”.

    ANYway …

    One thing leading to another, I was reminded of the laughable copy on the back of my now-long-lost copy of the Bantam edition, the one which was nothing but a litany of lies about the content of the novel itself.

    Something like, “The world has gone mad, all that was familiar is strange and different …” and concluding with the only thing which *did* occur between the covers, “A young drifter enters the city.” (I know I got the first part wrong but I hope I caught the tone.)

    And so, google. And so here I am. And it occured to me to ask, do you still have that battered copy pictured above? If so, and if the back cover is the one I remember (I think they changed with the 10th printing or so), would you be willing to type it out for me? A strange request, I know.

    Meanwhile and whether or no, I may pop up here again. I confess that yours is a new name to me, but your bio (do you really live in a yurt?) and your taste in literate suggest there’s much good reading here.

    Thanks for your time.

    Geoffrey Dow

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hello Geoffrey,
      Thanks so much for stopping by! My copy is a 7th printing, but alas, the back cover has long ago been lost, leaving only a ripped up last page. Otherwise I would gladly type it up for you! I know how these things can get into one’s head. I remember that text though and how it said, basically, NOTHING about the book, haha.
      Good luck on your quest!

      Reply
  2. Billy Ransom

    I have yet to actually get more than 100 pages through this thing, based on how damned difficult and confusing it is. But I LOVE the prose in it. I don’t know what more there is to say. The only thing I can’t get behind is the elements of erotica. It’s not that there’s a lot of homoerotic stuff in it, it’s the explicit detail of the sexual nature, period.

    Other than that, this is a great novel. I’ve skipped around, because I’ve read that it doesn’t take away from the experience at all; in fact, some interpret that you can read it from the middle, and go any which way you please, hopping around as much as you’d like, and the ‘journey’ is just as pleasurable (and it’s true–so far as I can tell).

    Reply
  3. Noah

    Hey,

    I would love to hear YOUR thoughts more, as well. I am working on a graduate thesis currently that revolves around Dhalgren, and any perspective that is personal and non-academic is very much in need!

    Feel free to email. Take care.
    Noah

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      It’s funny you should drop by and comment on this old post, Noah. I was just thinking about Dhalgren the other day and thinking maybe I wanted to read it again. I wish you well with your thesis!

      Reply

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