“Most of the time, conclusions seem to me acts of stupidity.” — Gustave Flaubert
“Penitentiary chances, the devil dances // And eventually answers to the call of autumn” — Kanye West
- It was reprinted by Bantam books no less than nineteen times, both for its popularity, and because it took up til the seventeenth to work out all the little typographical errors remaining in the text, a neutron-star 879 pages in 4 ⅛” x 7” paperback.
- The only two critical texts needed for a close reading of the novel are the book itself (preferably the lead-dense Bantam edition) and “Notes on a Reading of Dhalgren”, by K. Leslie Steiner, who is really Samuel R. Delany. (Our first duplicity.) Steiner is Delany’s alter ego critic he uses to both compliment and criticize himself at a distance — and is, I find, often more articulate than the real article.
- A young man with only one shoe named, alternatively, Kid, Kidd, and The Kid enters the city of Bellona, a midwestern metropolis that has been struck by some mysterious apocalyptic event some years ago. What was a city the population of Chicago or Philadelphia has been reduced to a scant thousand. TV signals, radio broadcasts, and basic astrological events no longer penetrate the atmosphere of the city. Instead, a newspaper prints whatever day it believes it is — gang members called “scorpions” roam the streets with holographic projections of different beasts, and a local deity named George Harrison poses for pornographic posters and has moons named after him. Kid enters this city, writes and publishes poems, takes two lovers (Denny, a boy, and Lanya, a girl), leads a gang of scorpions, and leaves.
- That is what the book is “about” as much as the literal “about-ness” can be stated. The real “about-ness” of the book is something to be groped at, slippery, out of sight, like the poems that are occasionally titled but never given. The “art about art” is nothing new. The question of Dhalgren’s construction and the activities of its hero also do not constitute its “about-ness” — though they come closer — neither is the book “about” gangbangs, communes, dive bars, or schizophrenia, though all those elements are present. The book is “about” the moment Kid thinks he remembers his name, or how he has the certainty of knowledge that “Bill” — the local newspaper reporter — is named William Dhalgren. Those events occurring in sequence, and near the end of the narrative, are Delany’s way of saying — you’re close. Pay attention.
- “The city is built out of words” — Delany says — but so is the sky — it hangs over the streets like a leaden sheet, blocking out all light at night, practically suffocating pedestrians. “The camera is a character in this movie” — similarly — the sky invites itself in the narrative unbidden. The astrologically inclined will love this book. A second moon appears, as foreshadowed, and is named after George Harrison, the seemingly godlike black man who tears the hands off the town clock after a riot starts — started because he fucked poor innocent little June Richards, a nice white girl, in broad daylight. He is bound in space and unmoored in time. Later a giant burning disc issues from the horizon and is just as wide, our sun or some other, driving everyone mad with visions of death, and recedes twenty minutes later.
- June wants it so bad she kills her brother for catching her with a poster of naked George. Pushes him down an empty elevator shaft and turns him into jelly. It was both an accident and on purpose. Everything in Bellona is like that.
- Delany (or Steiner?) insists that the effectiveness of Dhalgren lies, not only in the ability of (the) Kid(d) to charm, but that its trappings lie at the intersection of alien and familiar : Bellona is, among other places: Detroit, post-Katrina New Orleans, San Francisco, Baltimore, the Lower East Side, St. Louis (near the river), and Jackson, Mississippi. The atmosphere of Bellona contains shadows of all these cities — but it is the geography of Bellona that reconnects to the Kid’s psyche — thus, the presence of psychogeography. Do we consider it any coincidence that Kid discovers the monastery he’s been seeking after for half the book just near the narrative’s end? And do we consider it a further coincidence that the mysteriously wealthy and powerful Mr. Calkins — whom we never see — who publishes Kid’s poems unseen, propelled in a fit of caprice to fame, the “ironic desacralization of the text” — is at a religious retreat at this very same monastery? Certainly not.
- It’s not odd, either, to talk about intention in this way. Of course narrative events arise and fall because there is an author of the events that made sure they happen in a particular order, etc. Our author is alive. In Dhalgren this becomes muddled as Kid is the triple-author : of the poems Brass Orchids, of the recto pages of the notebook he finds, we learn, and (we must assume) the narrative, which follows more or less with certain events discovered pre-written in the notebook — not exactly in reverse order, either, as notebook pages fall out and he hurriedly stuffs them back in. Characters in the opening sequence are reflected dully in the sections near the end, and portions of the notebook are almost, but not quite, what is written in earlier or later sections of the novel. Things get worse in the last chapter as our precious body text is pillaged and invaded by intrusions of the pesky notebook, completely untrustable and chronologically unstable. (If you have a copy, you
will understand — a typesetting job I do not envy.)
- There are some ideas, of course : more than once Kid loses a few days to what he assumes is his mental illness or some machination of Bellona. Those missing days do hint at being recorded in the notebook, if you’re willing to break every section down and map it across the novel. A spurious critic at Kid’s book launch party (a heartwarming mix of moneyed society and Kid’s raucous and half-naked gang) accuses Kid of only finding the poems written in the notebook, since Kid can’t exactly remember writing them down. But if we believe the notebook was always Kid’s, then he wrote and discovered them — the real question being in what order that happened.
- It’s a novel that’s also been derided for its gratuitous sexual content, which Delany takes pretty personally : “Thirty-five odd of Dhalgren’s near nine hundred pages do deal with copulatory mechanics”, he admits, which by my count leaves out the long, nuanced, genuine conversation between Lanya and George Harrsion — on the subject of his crime of rape. The rest, I will say, is not exactly pornographic, but does wander into a territory that few will brave besides Delany: the character as psychologically fucking. (Much is made of Denny’s hot, dry skin; Lanya is as eccentric and erotic as her harmonica-playing. Kid as prism reflects them both, eventually at the same time.) Besides the section mentioned above, the book is blessedly and staunchly anti-polemical on sex (save it being common & pleasurable) as well as race: Kid is half-Native American and half-white, which leads all the white characters to think he’s white and all the black characters to think he’s black. Beyond this
there’s a mix of all kinds at the neighborhood bar, the white refugees of the city have taken over a department store called the Emboriky and have guns, and a few of the crazier ones try to come to the black slums of Jackson to shoot some people from the rooftops. This is, in all ruined cities like Bellona, simple matter of fact. Again, like the sexual politics, we must not mistake the presence of these elements as indications of their religious seriousness: in Kid’s nest a young white scorpion is named Tarzan because he hangs exclusively with… you get it.
- Dhalgren’s popularity and mystery are, I think, closely interlinked. Harlan Ellison reviled it — William Gibson claimed it was an unsolvable riddle, essentially a piece of crumbling urbanist Dadaism. Delany claims that it is a multistable perception, a piece of art that works from multiple perspectives, but only one at a time. His image of choice is called a Necker cube.
- The idea being — we can see a cube with its front face in the southwesternly direction, or in the northeasternly direction, but not both at a time. We are forced to “see” one at a time, with neither being more “correct” than the other. A facile example would be a Choose Your Own Adventure novel — all the narratives in it are “true”, but only singularly true, not all at once. Where there was a garden of forking paths, Delany has built a Möbius strip hedge. So if we compare the written events to what is “possible”, Kid could not have done all the things both he and his notebook claim to do. It is impossible to meet and say goodbye to the same people on the bridge to Bellona — impossible that the woman he receives the bladed weapon called an orchid from is the same woman he tosses it to on his exit from the city, impossible that the mysterious woman he re-enacts the Daphne myth with turns out to be his psychiatrist Madame Brown. So we must choose. And the facts of our choosing — what
we do and don’t believe is real — has many more facets than the above figure can possibly express.
- The “optical chain” is the symbol of this idea, a strange piece of metal jewelry with dozens of sparkling prisms embedded in lengths of chainlink. Kid dons one early in the narrative, and each other character wearing a chain expresses a curious reluctance to say how they came of it. A popular superstition in the narrative — removing the chain causes bad fortune up to the point of death. Extending the symbol — one can imagine the kind of pain you would endure seeing all points of the multistable perception at once, each as glitteringly real as the other. Just as every new experience brings a certain level of discomfort. Too many views destroy the eye.
- One of my favorite scenes — one of the more spine-tingling — is when Kid ventures to a warehouse with Germanic leather-clad engineer Tak Loufer and finds spool after spool of optical chain rolled up, as well as the scorpion projected shields and red contact lenses — the same red eyes Kid frightfully sees in the occasional pedestrian. So is Delany Kid, the engineering firm, the mysterious notebook-writer, or the city itself? We are being toyed with, now, as Don Quixote sees the printing press spitting his own great and noble deeds. Draw back curtain! Zoom back camera!
- And are we as really as stable as we pretend to be, or merely multistable? The schizophrenic is blessed with the “splitting” — multiple viewpoints at once — That dream of staring intently into a mirror a spiderweb forming upon it myself shattered re-reflected two thousand twenty times and dropped to the floor, the hole in my head bloodied forever, and what is the source? A man hammering a nail through the wall of the room just across. I read something I wrote and don’t know myself. We all do the same.