Book review: Dhalgren

Note: This review covers adult subjects and I use some frank words.

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney. A million copies have been sold, accounting for many more than a million reads as I assume many get this book from the library or secondhand. I have read it, twice. The first time I read Dhalgren was when I was in high school. I remembered it as a foundational work, a standout. Amazing. Now, some forty years later, I re-read this book (after recommending it to one of my kids, oops) and I think, what the hell was I thinking?

TL;DR: This is an otherworldly, often entrancing work by a very talented artist. Pros: very detailed characters with an accurate ear for verbal styles (though some are dated or stereotypical). Some passages are cogent, gripping, intensely visual. Eerily realistic presentation of mental illness as presented from the inside. Delaney delivers compelling scene descriptions, though this is often overdone, wordy, and heavy-handed. Cons: the book explores dissociative reality by foisting very turgid syntax on the reader and repeatedly scrambling the narrative, throwing the reader into different parts of the timeline or obscuring it. There is no plot beyond a passage of the protagonist through reality in a post-apocalyptic city (Bellona), where every experience is questioned–by the protagonist, his associates, eventually by the narrator/author. Meanwhile, the reader must patch together violently fragmented chunks of text in search of the narrative. The book is interspersed with extremely detailed and intimate scenes of sex in multiple flavors/styles/body count that drag on way too long; pages, in fact. Many of the themes that do come through crisply are dated.

I finished the book both times I read it. This time I can say that, though I did not enjoy it, I found parts of it alternately rewarding, horrifying, and engaging. However, the glue is faulty, and there is a lot of glue.

My main beef with the book is with the techniques used to bring its atmosphere and imagery into the mind of the reader. I say ‘atmosphere’ as this is not a plot-driven work. It is experiential and, I believe, intentionally ‘difficult’ for the reader. Delaney leans heavily on several techniques which I refer to as MFA wanking: deeply obscure vocabulary, intensely detailed description of everyone’s minutest move; cold character lead-ins (character intro’d with a pronoun, for example); mumbo-jumbo prose poetic passages with variously fractured syntax. Then there are the long, super-detailed (TMI) sex scenes that really get tiresome.

As far as theme, the journey that the book brings the reader along? It’s a fascinating read at times. A book could be made of it, yet the cogent bits that hint at themes do not close the loop; odd for a book which itself is literally a closed loop (the end dovetails into the beginning). The themes that do come to the fore are dated and often stereotypical. Often, Delaney builds up tensions and then wipes them away with a new and unrelated phenomena. He avoids delivering satisfaction to the reader and loads said reader with a ton of baggage.

I’m going to start with the sex as that’s what annoys me the most. And I like sex, I think it is wonderful. I have not done group sex or some of the edgy stuff in this book, and though I’m fine if others do it, I would not go out and seek descriptions of same. Some authors (Anais Nin and Henry Miller) use sex with effect. Others (Marquis De Sade) become tiresome. Delaney is in the latter camp. As with the Marquis, Delaney spares the reader no detail. This is cock-sucking, cum-eating, finger-up-the-asshole kind of writing. More than that, the heavy (seven, eight pages long) scenes really don’t bring anything new to the table….it’s often the same people, doing the same shit, over and over, and does the reader really have to know how and when Denny put his hand on the Kid’s hip for the 50th time? We get it, he and the Kid and Lanya are a thing, they’re tight…we don’t need 10 or 12 multipage scenes of them screwing. They screw a lot. Most of the characters are sexual dynamos who never tire, never get abrasions, herpes, never get chapped or even tired for heaven’s sake. This is a 70’s counterculture dreamscape. It’s hard to square with reality, and the best fiction works because it can be related to by the reader.

It’s also creepy that Denny is 15, Lanya 17 and the Kid 27 and a no-safe-word S&M thing is going on between them. Then there’s the group sex and gang-bang scenes. Convincingly rendered–you can believe the author has lived it. This sort of brutally in-your-face repetition of intimacy smells of the author showing off, ‘swinging his dick’ as we would have said in the Army. Does it serve the reader? That’s the challenge I give any author and I don’t see it here. Going further towards de Sade, when Delaney recounts the Kid’s  uncomfortable defecation (p. 696) , what’s the point? Sure I appreciate when writers allow their characters to use the john (page 566, Raven peeing in the sink because someone is in the bathroom does give an Animal House grace note to the scene), but did Delaney need the Kid’s defecation scene to advance the plot (there isn’t one), atmosphere (we’re choking in it), or convey the Kid’s gastric troubles? It’s the first and last we’ve heard of them, so, no.

Okay, that done, let’s get on to the MFA wankery. One thing I have come to appreciate about good writers: they have technique, but the technique does not get in the way of the reader. Delaney flaunts his technique constantly and consciously makes the reader’s job more difficult via ornate vocabulary and convoluted syntax. Here is an example of the syntax he uses quite frequently at various lengths:

(p. 587) ‘What I have fallen from, perfected by memory into something only possible, I do not want to falsify anymore than that.‘ For a poem about the ephemera of memory, this would be fine. In an 800 page book filled with paragraphs like this, not so much. At least that made sense. On the other hand (p. 104), ‘New moons come, he thought, and all of heaven changes; still we silently machinate toward the joint of flesh and flesh, while the ground stays still enough to walk, no matter what above it.’ Poetic, but heavy to read by the page. The joint of flesh and flesh? Is he just alluding to sex again? Likely. One more I highlighted:

I am limited, finite, and fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on. I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good.‘ I’ll unpack this: the future is scary; I can’t remember shit; I can’t change but I try. Whew.

Care to sample some gobbledygook perhaps? There is plenty. Referring to sensation of touch (p. 743): ‘“…what in me can order gets exhausted before it all.”‘ Or (p. 761) ‘The honey worts and wolfling braces amazingly lined askew in weevils or along a posthole should report.‘ Must be better with heroin–I just used Scotch to get through some of this muck. This example goes on for a page or so. To what end?

On to the vocabulary. I don’t mind if someone throws a tessellation (8.2 on Gunning Fog index) at me now and then (Delaney does twice), but lacustrine (p. 736)? Who in their right mind uses a word like that? I read a lot, I’m 57, that’s the first time I have come across that word, as I’m not a geologist. I mean, the guy was looking at a weedy lake: ‘When I turned back from the lacustrine decay, he was putting his hood further down his forehead with thick thumb and waxy forefinger.

That last bit also brings us to another beef, intensely detailed descriptions of things that don’t seem to have any bearing on anything. Delaney describes thumbs a lot. He has a thing for deformed digits. Also, as someone in an Amazon review stated, EVERYONE sucks their teeth, constantly. I mean, here is a guy who uses words like tessellation and lacustrine, and the only way he can show his characters’ pensiveness is through tooth-sucking? I don’t even know what he means by that. There’s other ways to fidget, Steve.

The characterizations are mostly interesting but some grate. Bunny is the classic 60’s comic-relief homosexual (and this from a writer who was gay). That wasn’t funny even in 1973. There is one family who cling to their middle class ways in the midst of the city’s chaos. They’re pretty much Ozzie and Harriet, and June, the daughter—a central role for having been famously raped at the start of Bellona’s troubles—is alternatively a crafty, murdering vixen or a complete ingenue. Here’s the same girl who shows up throughout the book seeking her rapist (for tea? who knows..) and who has cleverly murdered her brother to keep secret her fascination for said rapist:

(p. 564) ‘She looked past her shoulder and back. “Oh…if Daddy and Mommy could see you here, in this, like this, they’d just…die…they’d die…”‘  Daddy and Mommy? She sounds pre-K. The narrator says of her ‘Some people are very young at seventeen.‘ And: ‘“I’m just a girl,” June said. “I can’t do anything.”‘ Yet this is a chick who gets around Bellona pretty handily, where adult men fear to tread. The character just does not wash.

Some themes Delaney sprinkles in short bursts, never to be tied into anything. Most sound like score-settling: art critic blowhards from S.F. State (Frank p. 286, 620); the ineffectiveness of religion (p. 300); the futility of psychotherapy (Thelma, p. 604); how straight people suck (p. 720); the supposed emptiness of middle-class life (the Richards, from page 126); how everyone else’s gang dramas are trite (p. 569, a member describes his motivations, sounding like a quote from West Side Story. Later, the Kid scolds, ‘“You’re a really bad press agent.”‘).

For an 800+ page book, there’s room for more themes if you don’t bother tying them together and Delaney addresses in dilettantish fashion chivalry (p. 18), making eggs (p, 588), teen angst (Denny, p. 615), love (p. 682), racism (p. 626), and plagiarism (p. 626), to name a few. The notable aspect with many of these quick-hit themes is the complete lack of integration with anything else that comes along.

It’s possible this book is a big joke. I mean, Delaney can be funny when he wants to, Here he juxtaposes his fatuous prose with, well, you have to read it: ‘Kid tried to loosen the tension in his abdomen. There was a sudden, unsettling feel: All his organs, gut, liver, belly, lungs and heart, seemed to have shifted inches down. He didn’t break step, but the feeling passed through a moment of nausea that ended with is breaking wind.’

Here’s another gut-buster (sorry) on (p. 731, misspellings are his): ‘Get with-it, mauve-peanut! Make it, thing-a-ma-boob! You won’t catch me slipping my sticktoitiveness under your smorgasborg. Fondle my nodule, love my dog. Lilting is all is easy. Knitting needles receed around the vision, baring his curviture, clearing her underwear.’ Another section that goes on. More Scotch applied here.

Then again (p. 755) perhaps Delaney sums it up best: “But as one reads along, one becomes more and more suspicious that the author has lost the thread of his argument, that the questions will never be resolved, or more upsetting, that the position of the characters will have so changed by the book’s end that the answers to the initial questions will have become trivial.’

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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