Difficult Books

Difficult Books: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

By posted at 6:27 am on June 29, 2010 25

coverOf the half-dozen or so fellow readers I know who have attempted to scale the 800-page Matterhorn that is Dhalgren, none have succeeded. Still, when I tackled it myself last month, I kept encountering people in parks and coffee shops and on the subway who would glance down at the jacket, blurt, “Great book,” and then vanish into the urban landscape. It is the kind of oddity to which Dhalgren attunes us: the protagonist whose name we may or may not learn; the abandoned city as densely populated as a Victorian novel; the story-within-the-story that is at the same time the story-outside-the-story.

coverDislocations, discontinuties, and ontological entanglements are clearly central to Samuel R. Delany‘s design. The novel’s setting (and, arguably, main character) is a bombed-out Midwestern metropolis called Bellona – a spatial, temporal, and psychosexual labyrinth in which our Theseus, an amnesiac poet-adventurer known as Kid, will or won’t find himself. And as it embodies the instabilities of institutions, identities, and power relations, Bellona may be the metaphor par excellence for the 1960s. Indeed, though the book sold a million copies as science-fiction, it seems at many points no more distant from our own reality than that other trippy whopper from the mid-’70s, Gravity’s Rainbow. For Bellona, read Detroit.

The comparison to Pynchon is not made lightly. On the surface, Kid’s wanderings in Bellona look as loosely strung together as that other Kid’s wanderings in Purple Rain. His poetics tend toward the Beatnik, his observations toward the dreamy and spontaneous: the flashbulb-red that keeps appearing in the eyes of certain characters; the holographic exoskeletons in which the book’s street gangs armor themselves… But in the monologues by various Bellonians that punctuate and comment on the action, we can feel Delany synthesizing history, mythology, aesthetics, epistemology, systems theory, and the philosophy of language into a singular vision of the human condition on the cusp of postmodernism. It should also be said that Delany’s sinuous prose, by turns fragmentary and efflorescent, is a major attraction.

Elements of his conception, however, will prove difficult for the casual reader. First, there is the purposeful, high-modernist obscurity of the stream-of-consciousness voice that periodically recurs. The book opens with a half-dozen pages written in the mind-voice of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic Kid; the thought of eight hundred more pages of this may lead some readers to jump ship. The novel quickly modulates, however, into the more straightforward third-person that is its main register.

A more persistent difficulty is the book’s pointed pointlessness. My favorite of Dhalgren‘s seven sections, “House of the Ax,” has an actual plot, as does, broadly speaking, the first half of the novel. But in the back half, as the context Kid has constructed for himself begins to crumble, the narrative devolves into sketchy, repetitive vignettes of kinky sex and random violence. Delany may be posing important questions about mimesis and perception, but “Palimpsest” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness” tried my bourgeois patience.

Finally, after so much work, the novel doesn’t resolve, but folds back into itself. It is famously a circular text, in the manner of Finnegans Wake. And yet, unlike that book, Dhalgren generates a fair amount of suspense out of questions of “what really happened.” That answering those questions would compromise the book may not excuse the omission – at least, in the eyes of my friends who never finished. For those Dhalgrenites in the cafes and subways, however, the novel’s radical open-endedness seems to have been a virtue.

The best analogue I can offer for the singular experience of reading this novel is a video game where any teleology, any notion of progress or levels to be mastered, has been stripped away. Dhalgren is pure world, and as such, it represents an enormous disruption on the generally orderly map of postwar literature, as Bellona does to the orderly map of the 20th Century U.S. The scale of the disruption alone will not justify it to everyone. Then again, it’s not a novel that cares to justify itself. I can think of no better way to honor its ambitions than to invoke that koan-like and recursive New Yorkism, “It is what it is,” and to encourage you to give it a try.

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25 Responses to “Difficult Books: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany”

  1. www.ensafh.nl
    at 7:01 am on June 29, 2010

    […] Lês fierder by The Millions […]

  2. Jack M
    at 9:01 am on June 29, 2010

    I read Dhalgren when I was a teenager, and didn’t have too much trouble with it. Gravity’s Rainbow is 50 times more complex and detailed. I would never compare the two.

  3. Dan Whatley
    at 9:32 am on June 29, 2010

    Having finished this last summer, I think you’re right on the spot, being honest about its attractions and the occasionally tiresome 2nd half. Have you read Divine Days, by Leon Forrest? I’m thinking of your take on Women & Men here–they strike me as being kind of bookends of their own shelf. There’s an informative review by Sven Birkerts in the New Republic years ago.

  4. K. Frazier
    at 1:19 pm on June 29, 2010

    Very nice overview of Dhalgren, one of the great novels from that too-brief science fiction new wave of the sixties and seventies that also included some of the best writing from J. G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess and Philip K. Dick. I also want to echo Dan Whatley’s praise for Divine Days, a brilliant book that is indeed an appropriate companion for Women & Men.

  5. Josh
    at 6:51 pm on June 29, 2010

    Delany in Silent Interviews: “But Gravity’s Rainbow is a fantasy about a war most of its readers don’t really remember, whereas Dhalgren is in fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned-out areas of America’s great cities. To decide if Gravity’s Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time in a library, mostly with a lot of Time/Life book, which are pretty romanticized to begin with. To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile of your own town’s inner city. So Dhalgren‘s a bit more threatening–and accordingly receives less formal attention.”

  6. Josh
    at 10:20 pm on June 29, 2010

    I should add that I don’t agree with Delany’s read of Gravity’s Rainbow. But the claim that Dhalgren is threatening makes sense: I was spontaneously approached by a guy in a bookstore once who just wanted to denounce Dhalgren; and a couple of my friends have had similar experiences. I wrote a little about Delany’s thoughts on why the novel is threatening in this profile of the author a few years ago.

  7. Tom B.
    at 11:35 am on June 30, 2010

    I still have my first printing of Dhalgren. I was a teenage sf fan when it came out. I recall a particularly vicious review by, I think, Lester Del Rey in Analog magazine. It was a very threatening book to the older writers who made up institutional sf — many of them defined sf as consisting of things that could be possible — the impossible was the purview of fantasy literature. (Of course, this was bunk — many of the same writers used literary hand waving to justify things like faster-than-light travel in their own fiction.) Plus, there was all that sex sex sex in Dhalgren.

    After the ’70s, the genre regressed a lot and has never quite recovered. Some blame Star Wars, which caused the genre to look backwards to capitalize on the commercial potential.

  8. Matt
    at 1:25 pm on June 30, 2010

    Glad to see the Difficult Books series back, but please in the future not so long between entries!

  9. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans
    at 11:11 pm on June 30, 2010

    […] maybe this: there’s a feature on The Millions called Difficult Books which returned this week featuring Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany and, well, yes it’s a hard […]

  10. sr
    at 8:19 am on July 2, 2010

    I read Dhalgren around my freshman year of high school, and it took me two tries to get through it. While the first time was a struggle to get even half-way through, the second time I read it, I fell in love with it. It was the first book of truly good 20th century fiction that I read outside of class, and it was one of the books that has had a lasting impact on me. As much as I love it, I always am hesitant to recommend it because of the the things that were mentioned.

    However, this post reminded me that I couldn’t get into Gravity’s Rainbow when I initially tried it, so maybe I’ll give that one another try.

  11. No Present Like Links « Torque Control
    at 6:33 am on July 9, 2010

    […] Dhalgren: a difficult book? […]

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    […] up is sci-fi classic Dhalgren, often referred to as difficult. Exciting! Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)NICK […]

  13. Mike
    at 9:21 pm on December 29, 2010

    Dhalgren is probably my favorite book, that should give you an idea of how odd I can be. Every time I read it (about half a dozen times now, I think), I notice something new that resonates with the rest of the book. But I admit that trying to figure it out can be frustrating, it’s not just a puzzle with some of the pieces missing, it’s several puzzles, all mashed together. And not a corner piece to be found.

    But I think the reason that I re-read it so often is that it causes me to think in ways that few other books can do.

  14. Men In High Castles: The Politics of Speculative Fiction in International Relations « The Disorder Of Things
    at 11:08 am on February 26, 2011

    […] clean encounters in galactic star-chambers here. As with otherly interactions in Le Guin, Dick or Samuel R. Delany, the lines here are blurred at best. The authorial voice refuses the neatly-potted histories of […]

  15. Tracy Keith Flemming
    at 1:12 am on March 15, 2011


  16. Pier Paolo Puxeddu - UXE
    at 12:13 pm on April 10, 2011

    Hi, I read Dhalgren some years ago, and last year I trasposed some chapters in music. You can listen three of them on my youtube channel. You can post your comment. Thanks

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    at 3:03 am on June 3, 2011

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  18. [Pt] : : Dhalgren « NOTES on the written world
    at 6:45 pm on July 25, 2011

    […] I’ve been on this one a while. I figured if I told someone, then maybe it would help me finish it. It’s not that it isn’t good. It is. Real good. It made me feel better when I read that Dhalgren made Garth Risk Hallberg’s list of difficult books over at The Millions. […]

  19. Georgie
    at 10:07 am on November 7, 2011

    I read it in my late teens and again later and loved it both times, but skipped the last chapter both reads as it made little sense that I could see.
    Today was the first time that I ever met anyone else who had read it – a guy in my bookstore – and so I Googled it and found this page. It is pretty interesting to see other readers reactions to a very unique book. .

  20. skottu
    at 12:47 pm on January 24, 2012

    “Dhalgren” was the first novel by Delany that I ever read. I only read it once, nearly 30 years ago, and the images it cast are still very clear in my memory. The feeling of Kid travelling through the world wearing just one sandal always stuck in my mind — the same idea also shows up in “Nova”.

    I’ve always been a fan of distopian science fiction but until I started reading “Dhalgren”, I didn’t think that anything like this was possible to conceive. This book is a masterpiece.

    As I later started to read more about the author’s life, primarily details of his education and lifestyle, the events in the novel and the style of his writing began to make more sense. I wonder if this epic work could ever be produced as a screenplay.

  21. Theo
    at 12:43 am on April 25, 2012

    This book, which I literally finished reading a few minutes ago, left me oddly fulfilled and completely hungry for something substantial. It’s hard to explain how this book is so easy to read, yet impossibly difficult to understand. It’s as circular a text as you can ever read, yet very rewarding for the look inside the author’s mind.

    Just like Infinite Jest, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, only valiant readers will fight to the last page, but the feeling of accomplishment is immense.

  22. ‘Moeilijke’ boeken – Hoeveel heb jij er gelezen? | Scriptgirl.nl
    at 3:25 am on August 9, 2012

    […] 1969: The Dream Songs by John Berryman 1969: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov 1974: Dhalgren by Samuel R. […]

  23. Stephan
    at 6:40 pm on November 19, 2012

    “Dhalgren” … myself born 69, I got that book in 81, simply the content / price ratio made me to make the German paperbook my birthday wishes meet, then, huh. Soon I found out that … “Dhalgren” made me suppose that I eventuelly had to experience (a bit) more before I dare to “understand” … but it seems as I, well …
    30 yrs later, I finally did it. I read it. I mostly laughed about it, especially thanks to the German translation,which is to fail whenever there’d been a cause to be mistaken.
    But in a quite uncertain way I felt, on reading, that I read this all before … so it must be that … some reading at the age of 12 … (when I started to write on my own) … influenced my mind, on writing. Like coming home to a state left abandoned, even though this novel is … nothing but ridiculous and sophisticated the same time. What happens (?) is part of my dreams while I sleep, is part of any future I may imagine for tomorow’s misery.
    To decline, to deconstruct, to bore, to neglect, to give a shit …
    OMG, this book is so boring, yet arbitrary … and there’s the key:
    as far as I got it … less pretentious than other fictional text, recently (oh, I envy D.F. Wallace for his skills), “Dhalgren” is INDEED what Theodore Sturgeon said, ” an experience to go beyond”.
    Oh not at first sight, not on drugs or else.
    It is a novel lacking almost anything one’s may expect, including parts of pseudo-philosophical non-sense (to make sense), discussing the failure of poetry and human conditions, utmost ugly explicit sex included (just cause of mentioning pubes, ugh!).
    Anyway, it took me some days, time, to read “Dhalgren” … I often thought that I am simply wasting my time, that I should concrentrate on something else.
    But … the scene sets the setting and I won’t call it a day with this novel, to be discovered in some post post post time, in dust and “huh” to come … soon!

  24. Publications | Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 10:45 am on April 5, 2013

    […] Games *  Julia Child – The Way to Cook * Lydia Davis – Varieties of Disturbance * Samuel R. Delany – Dahlgren * Helen DeWitt  – Lightning Rods * E.L.Doctorow – Creationists / William H. Gass – Tests […]

  25. wallum
    at 4:45 am on April 22, 2014

    First read this book when I was seventeen, and have read it several times since over the past 20 years. I was in awe when I first read it, I didn’t believe anyone thought or experienced the world in the way which Delany presented. It remains my favourite novel. I love the atmosphere it presents, the feelings, the visceral experience one is engulfed by for years after reading it.

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