Friday, August 29, 2008


It appears under on amazon under the book's listing, but not on my profile itself. What be the deal, peepz?

When I first read Dhalgren, at the tender age of nineteen, I was blown away. I wasn't a particularly ambitious reader at the time, but, due to the SF label (applied due to Delany's prior record, even though it's not really science fiction), I was lured in by this massive, intellectually challenging tome, and I was absolutely taken with it. Never having come face-to-face with such an intellect, my critical faculties weren't really fully in gear. Coming back to the novel nine years later--hopefully at least a BIT less callow!--I think I am better able to understand and appreciate what Delany does well while at the same time remaining keenly aware of his failings. I imagine he's very rarely not the smartest guy in any given room, but that doesn't make him infallible.

The basic premise is irresistible, and it's more or less borne out by the book iteslf. The portrait of a society come loose from its moorings (that has, essentially, lost its historical context) and the people who live therein is very finely-drawn. From the Richards family's hysterical efforts to retain a no-longer-operative order, to the Scorpions' somewhat aimless quasi-gang anomie, to Roger Calkins' attempts at experimenting with social order by setting up his own little fiefdom, to the defiantly utopian menage à trois at the center of the novel, very few stones are left unturned in this regard. I think it bears comparisons to Pynchon's recent Against the Day, which depicts a similar kind of societal breakdown, albeit without the city metaphor.

Furthermore, Delany is really smart in terms of race, sexuality, and gender, and the ways in which such concepts become warped and distorted when the society propping them up is abruptly no longer in a position to do any such thing. The gangbang scene in the last section is more profound than a gangbang scene has any right to be.

ALL THAT SAID: this is far from a perfect novel, and most of that has to do with the central character, the nameless Kid, who just isn't a very compelling or likable guy. One gets the strong impression that he represents a kind of adolescent wish fulfillment ("poet, lover, and adventurer"), especially as regards his prodigious sexual exploits. Many of the secondary characters--eg, Tak, Bunny, Nightmare--are interesting and sympathetic, but they are not the focus of the novel. Kid is, and this gets old after a while. I can't tell you how cathartic I found the section in which fellow poet Frank absolutely tears his poetry apart. And I don't think that such catharsis was Delany's intention.

Furthermore, the aforementioned sex is so omnipresent that it becomes exhausting. Kid's stamina is well beyond that of any human to ever have walked the earth; this may go along with the utopian aspect of the novel, but it also kinda had the effect of making me want to never have sex again, which I can't imagine was the point. His primary partners, Lanya and Denny, are less annoying than he himself is, but they aren't all that interesting either, and I found that one of the novel's central ideas--that a free'n'easy relationship like this can rise above, transcend, and in some way redeem all the chaos around it--was thus undermined by my general indifference.

Delany is a great writer. There's no denying that much. I think "to wound the autumnal city" surely deserves to go down with "a screaming comes across the sky" as one of the all-time great opening lines. But I don't know, at this point in his career, that he was necessarily capable of adequately controlling that gift. There are numerous passages that, while technically impressive, amount to what it might be fair, given the novel's preoccupations, to describe as verbal masturbation. I won't lie to you: it gets old after a certain point, especially in the somewhat gimmicky (if often effective) last section.

But I don't want to get too down on the novel. If it seems like I am, that's probably just because it's easier to criticize than to praise. There is no denying that it stays with you; in places it is luminous, Delany's indulgences aside--and how many really ambitious novels are devoid of self-indulgence? It's no Gravity's Rainbow (which may however be an unfair comparison); still, I think it deserves to go down as one of the better products of postmodern seventies counterculture.


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