the ten pillars: dhalgren

Many years ago I was asked to write a series of short reviews of science fiction novels that I thought were particularly deserving of praise. The first one I chose to write about was Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, even though it was not in print at that time.

This is the review I wrote:

Dhalgren By Samuel R. Delany (1973, 879 Pages)

When this novel came out, I had several friends who were real science fiction fans. They were in science fiction clubs, put out APAs, and went to conventions (all things I didn't do, though I did read a lot of science fiction). From what those friends told me, this book (coming after some very popular short stories and the novel Nova, which they all loved) was quite controversial when it came out. They all read it (or at least started it, some quit half way through), but it was not popular.

Too long. Too experimental. Maybe even too downbeat. Science fiction closer to William S. Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the science fiction fans that I knew back then were not reading Naked Lunch or Nova Express, I can tell you. Or Ulysses or Finnegans Wake for that matter (Delany deliberately evokes Joyce here, as he did in other works from this period). Nor were they reading Gravity's Rainbow, which was also published in 1973. Delany's novel is more similar to Pynchon's than it is to any other "science fiction novel" published that year.

In a year that might or might not be 1975, a loner comes to a city called Bellona. Some disaster has happened there, cutting it off from the rest of the United States. The outside world has mostly forgotten about Bellona, out of sight and out of mind. There are only a relatively few people left living there (many were killed in the unspecified disaster, many of the survivors moved away). There's no gasoline, only sporadic electric power, no official law or government. The sky is covered in clouds of smoke that hide the sky (and, in the one moment there is a break in the smoke cover, two moons are visible).

The loner has no name. This could be a cliche, but Delany carries it off by making him an individual from the beginning, (with almost all of his memories, he just can't remember his name) and by focusing most of his attention on what he's seeing, not on him. Not having a name only bothers him from time to time. People start calling him Kid (spelled Kidd in the first half of the book, Kid in the second half). He finds a notebook (many of its pages already written on) and uses the blank pages to write poems. Eventually he loses track of which pages are his writing, since all of them seem to relate to his experiences.

There are cities in literature which function almost as characters as well as settings. Dublin in Joyce's Ulysses is one type of example, Personville/Poisonville in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest is another. Bellona (the city is mentioned in other of Delany's works from this period as well) is really part of the fabric of the book. There are a lot of people who stayed there after the disaster, either gamely pretending things were still more or less normal, or using the complete freedom to live in some way they couldn't otherwise. And some people (like Kidd, it seems) have come there because of what's happened. It's a way for them to reinvent themselves, either for a while, until they feel like returning to their real lives, or because they just don't fit in anywhere else.

Later, I wrote more about Dhalgren:

While I am always willing to hold unpopular opinions (that Casino Royale [1967 -- not the Daniel Craig one] is a great movie, that the supreme achievement in music since the year 1900 is the organ break from Del Shannon's "Runaway," that radio was not really improved by adding pictures to it, etc.) it is always gratifying to find out that at least some of those opinions are shared by others.

I've been raving about Dhalgren since it was published. I'm perfectly willing to continue to do so without any help or encouragement from anybody else. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon The Ash of Stars, the first book of critical essays about Delany's writing that I've seen. Of course, I immediately read the two essays about Dhalgren.

In reading these essays I am struck by two things. One is the number of references (mostly deliberate) in my book to Dhalgren (some of them have been there for so long that I forgot where they came from). The other is the extent to which I am, in doing this, following Delany's lead, since Dhalgren is full of references to other works (and to various mythologies and even some real people), including the references to James Joyce (and, of course, Ulysses is full of these types of references as well).

There turns out to be a bit of serendipity to all this referencing, by the way. "Bellona" in Dhalgren is a city on Earth (in his book Triton it is a city on Mars). I have used the name for a country on Earth (we'll pay a visit there eventually), where there is a war going on, a war which some of my characters follow and others try to ignore. It turns out that, according to one of these essays, the name Bellona is from Roman mythology. She was the sister of Mars, and was the goddess of war.

And was mentioned in Finnegan's Wake. Damn.

Anyway, if what I am attempting here is simply an accurate representation of the inside of my own brain, it becomes increasingly obvious that the brain in question has never been exactly the same since reading Dhalgren.

The series "The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature" originally appeared in the novel U-town. It will be re-posted here on an irregular basis.

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