Stalking the Behemoth: “Dhalgren,” by Samuel R. Delany

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
By Samuel R. Delany, 1974
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Samuel R. Delany has never quite had that same household name status as other sci-fi authors. Everyone knows Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guinn, but not so much Delany. Yet he’s still a big name in the right circles – he just made his fame with a different crowd. See, unless you count Gravity’s Rainbow, Dhalgren is the first sci-fi book to find a spot in my “Stalking the Behemoth” series. Now, there’s a reason for this – excepting my sideline into the Brothers Karamazov, which was just too good to pass up, I wanted this series to loosely track the development of the postmodern novel from Don Quixote to the present day. Make no mistake, Dhalgren slots right into this discourse, and probably fits more into it than conventional sci-fi, which might explain why sci-fi heavyweights like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison loathed the book when it was released; meanwhile, the book’s praises have been sung to an exulting degree by cyberpunk kingpin William Gibson, whose efforts to modernize the genre are still being felt.
So let me just throw this one out there: while Dhalgren is a pretty well-known sci-fi novel, anyone looking for a more conventional sci-fi experience might not be satisfied here. As I see it, much of this novel’s sci-fi credentials come from two sources: earlier Delany novels like 1966’s Babel-17, which while by no means conventional fits the genre better, and the presence of speculative technologies like the holograms gang members use to disguise themselves. For whatever it might be worth to you, Delany’s speculations on technology are always impressive, and these shields are no exception. Mostly, Dhalgren‘s aims are more in surrealistic social commentary, sexuality, and a journey of self-discovery whose end doesn’t by any means come easy. The self-discovery might not come at all, if you interpret the novel as circular, which is possible based on the ending.
Summarizing Dhalgren‘s plot is difficult, as it always is with these novels, but here goes. A young man identified only as “the Kid” (or kid, or Kidd, depending on when you catch him) arrives in a city in the Midwest known as Bellona. An amnesiac, he arrives with no idea of what might’ve driven him toward this city, which has become the center of bizarre unexplained events; gangs and prophets who wrestle for control over the city, buildings that never stop burning but remain unconsumed by these fires, ominous red moons, and so forth. During one memorable chapter, horrific violence is heard but not seen just outside of a rich family’s apartment while they keep up idle and ultimately inane chatter. Through all this, the Kid moves through a series of identities – wanderer, worker, gangster, poet and hedonist – but comes no closer to any sort of self-discovery. Identity is key to this book; the Kid’s race (he’s part black and part Native American) and fluid sexuality both come into play throughout his changes.
The other center of Dhalgren, besides the mysterious city, is an equally mysterious journal the Kid wanders across toward the beginning of the novel. This journal repeats the events of the first chapter, a sexual encounter, and predicts and parallels later developments as well; it’s to the point where it could have been written by the Kid himself, working from either a future or alternative timeline. The journal invites all sorts of complicating questions to an already complex novel, raising ideas of identity and warping reality – it becomes arguable in points that the book switches from its own reality to the events recorded in the journal, and the final chapter is a textual labyrinth built around the journal; its fragmented approach and play with the formatting of text must’ve been an influence on House of Leaves.
Delaney’s treatment of Bellona itself is a wonder to behold. The book is often compared to a labyrinth, and looking at how this city is treated, it’s no wonder; it gets knottier and knottier as the novel progresses, revealing more violence, more portents, more wild surreal imagery. Furthermore, the city’s character seems to change as the Kid passes through his various identities. When he’s a gangster, it’s violent and chaotic. When he’s a poet, it’s ancient and hushed and as close to romantic as it gets. When he’s a hedonist, it cloisters itself off. When he works with a family, it’s a den of denial and distance from reality. So Bellona becomes one with the Kid’s arc, and in many ways becomes the kid’s arc. No matter what mode the Kid’s in, the place teems with life.
It’s also striking how the people in this novel react to the weirdness around them. Most of them only seem to care about what effects them directly, whether it’s the church’s power trip or the security of the rich family. This makes for strong and compelling social commentary, but it also works excellently on an aesthetic level. Not only is Delany free to plunge deeper into the lower depths of human consciousness and the good old human experience, he’s also allowed to create even more bizarre of a city, a city where the bizarre has become expected. For as strange as things get in Bellona, life in many ways is allowed to go on. There are a lot of vignettes about how ordinary life works in a city such as this, and it’s fascinating to see them play out. Still, I have to admit this aspect is sometimes the slightest bit overdone. You get plenty of conversations that run in circles about what given characters make of a new phenomenon or what they might do on a particular day. I see what purpose these exchanges serve, but I feel they could’ve been tightened up just the tiniest bit.
Let’s also take a moment to look at the Kid’s character, because Delany hits a nice balance here. As I mentioned above, his racial and sexual identities are key to this book. Yet for all the sex (and there is a lot of sex in Dhalgren, between whatever configurations of genders you can imagine) and talk about race (also frequent; the Kid identifies himself as all sorts of things over this book’s course), the Kid is also allowed plenty of character that has nothing to do with race or sexual preference. In fact, that’s sort of his motive; an attempt to find himself as himself and not as a mascot or spokesperson.
But enough story, how’s the prose? Plenty of sci-fi novels with intricate storylines have been sunk by prose that ranges from indifferent to poor – much as I love a good Philip K. Dick book, he’s guilty as anyone. Luckily for prose-hounds like me, Delany can write. He has a way of riffing on words and sounds, letting syllables and vowels slip into each other, leaving us with a smooth and often energetic glide of words. For example, take the passage “a prism nipped my wrist.” Simple as it may seem on the surface, look at how he makes those words dance. It’s not just pretty language, either: it also lends to the novel’s dreamlike tone.
So how do we take all this? The possibility of it being a book about America can’t be ignored. Racial tension runs rampant through this novel, especially at a party held by the cult figure George “Not That George Harrison” Harrison, whose influence and power are feared by Bellona’s white community. I read this book in April of this year, and I don’t think I need to tell you how that scene is relevant to today’s world, not to mention how relevant it was in 1974. Couple that with the indifferent-rich scene that has struck me so much, and you’ve got a pretty striking condemnation of America’s class divides. This is part of what makes Dhalgren a classic of postmodern lit – I’ve talked about systems novels earlier in this series, and Dhalgren fits the bill.
Yet this novel also makes all sorts of challenges to the sci-fi institution . Its ambitious length and formal trickery, which place it in line with the John Barth of Lost in the Funhouse and whatever Borges masterpiece you might compare it to; its use of a protagonist outside the sci-fi square-jawed-male hero we associate with Frank Herbert and co.; and the sophistication of the writing, structure, and character arc make this a blow for the more intellectual sci-fi practiced by the best handful of sci-fi authors. Sci-fi takes a lot of criticism from the literary fiction crowd, and while I’m a card-carrying member of that crowd, I have to admit not all of it’s justified. Books like Dhalgren are what keep me coming back to the genre when its more irritating tendencies overwhelm me. So trust William Gibson on this one, not Philip K. Dick.