The opening words of this book are: “To wound the autumnal city.” In my biased opinion, this is one of the best opening lines in literature. Right alongside the stately “On a dark and stormy night,” and “Midway through our live’s journey,” I can think of no opening words that are better at calibrating the head of the reader for the world of the text than “Dhalgren’s” ominous opening.
“Dhalgren” is a book written by Samuel R. Delany about a fictional Midwestern city called Bellona. The plot of the novel follows the protagonist, named Kid, as he travels through the city. If there’s any propelling force in the plot of this novel, the easiest narrative to name is Kid’s search to remember his name. However, this narrative is rather concelealed, feeling engulfed within this 800-page epic.
As you can probably tell from these opening paragraphs, “Dhalgren” is an odd book. I also think it’s a great one, though. that it is well worth your time. This review is going to be an inverted one: I’ll start with the book, and then move onto the author’s biography as I think that is important to spark your interest in the rest of the novel.
So like I said, this book is odd. I read it this summer as a follow-up to “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce—I can hear the groans now.
The main reason I picked this book as a successor to Joyce’s “book of Doublends Jined” is that it ends (and starts) the same way as Joyce’s masterpiece: two sentence fragments that loop into one another. This isn’t the only similarity between the books that I found, but that’s part of a longer discussion that is not part of this review.
Where Delany moves past Joyce is in both the concept of “Dhalgren” and the way in which he delivers said concept. “Finnegans Wake” is a lot of things, but it most assuredly is a dream of (or maybe from) the city of Dublin. In “Dhalgren,” Delany removes the city by one abstract step: “Dhalgren” is a story about the city as a concept.
The city of Bellona is a fictional one, and for all intents and purposes it is the American city. Something has happened in Bellona that has cut it off from the rest of the world. This event is never explained; the book isn’t about that. Instead, this seclusion of the city is used to study the city itself.
The unifying concept of the book is this study of the city. “Dhalgren” examines how the city itself affects the psyche of those living under the skyscrapers. The characters and communities of “Dhalgren’s” Bellona live in anomic and chaotic conditions where existence itself is infused with a sense of paranoia and dread. The city of Bellona isn’t so much the setting for the novel as it is a completely enigmatic half-character, one whose actions reverberate throughout the novel.
This is the central concept of this brilliant book. Everything Delany writes in this behemoth of a novel is related to how a city cultivates the mindset of its inhabitants. And this is not the gentrified city of the 2000s. Delany was writing his magnum opus as a Black man living through the Civil Rights era.
Delany’s Bellona is a city of bodies: a city where sex, mental health, paranoia and friendships create communities around concrete. In fact, Bellona is not just one city. Delany wrote the city as a mural of cities across the globe. From Baltimore to London, Bellona is truly a city of the world.
Delany writes prophetically of the paranoid amnesiac existence we find ourselves in now. While it might not appear so, everything from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” to HBO’s “Girls” owes itself in some form to Delany’s “Dhalgren.” This poses the question of who was this visionary author.
Samuel R. Delany is a writer known predominantly for his science fiction. “Dhalgren” came out in the ’70s, so if you’re looking for a contemporary of Delany, then Ursula K. Le Guin is the obvious choice. In fact, this comparison is far from out of place: Both Le Guin and Delaney are obsessed with examining human culture, both wrote fantasy alongside sci-fi series and both quote Mary Douglas in the openings of their novels.
What makes these two writers influential for their times (and what makes “Dhalgren” even more of an achievement in my opinion) is that they represented a huge shift in who could get published in the field of science fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin as a woman and Delaney as a Black man.
An important additional note is that both also wrote about sexuality from a non-heteronormative point of view. In Le Guin’s famous “The Left Hand of Darkness,” her protagonist explores the feelings he finds for an alien whose species is androgynous; and “Dhalgren” envisions a community of bisexual, polygamous pseudo-gangsters as a response to the hippy flower-power movement.
This is why I think “Dhalgren” is an essential novel to the literary world. Any novel can be well -written, but “Dhalgren” goes beyond the conventional standards of literature. It was one of the first books of its kind to explore what literature could do during the then-emerging modern age.
This book has something to say on such a breadth of topics that it could only exist as a story that sets out to examine life itself. It’s like if you took Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” infused it with the Romantic tendencies of Mary Shelley, Samuel Coleridge and John Keats, and spiced it up with the then-emerging dialogues of queer theory, dialogues of which Delany was a part of (go look up his name in the library), you would get a stew resembling something like “Dhalgren.”
I highly recommend this novel, and all of its particularities, to any avid reader of scientific literature or someone who has the time to read the lengthy (but worthwhile) 800 pages