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Dhalgren
By Samuel R Delany

Reviewed by Brian S
Rating: none given

"What," you are probably asking yourself, "has happened to inspire this expatriate LSFer to write a review? Is it the appearance of a second moon, the rising of a gigantic sun?" As some of you may have guessed from the aforementioned allusions, it is the reissuance of Dhalgren. This book by Samuel R. Delany - one of the most accomplished authors in SF and one of the fathers (oh, Daddy!) of cyberpunk - has been out of print for quite a while; and its re-publication (with a new forward by William Gibson that's fabulous!) is the cause of this commentary.

I refer to what you're reading as a "commentary" because there is an obstacle to "reviewing" Dhalgren. The second most commonly heard criticism of this book is that it has no plot. (The first is that it's too long; but I refuse to discuss size.) Well, I'm forced to admit that, to some degree, that criticism is true. Superficially, Dhalgren is about a man who has forgotten his name, coming to the abandoned city of Bellona, somewhere in the United States, sometime in the mid-Twentieth Century, and what happens to him there. But that is like saying that The Lord of the Rings is about jewelry. The events that transpire in this novel are compelling, mystifying, hallucinatory, and mythical. They are also, however, without an obvious goal. Like the weather in the novel, causation and reason are clouded over. I don't know that Dhalgren can be reviewed in terms of plot - at least not by me. Instead, I'll try to describe why I enjoy this book in other terms.

My first reason for liking this book is entirely personal. It was in 1975 that I first read this book, as a teenager in a small, upstate NY town. (Thank you, math whizzes!) Reading this book was like walking through the looking glass - away from what passed for liberalism at home (not too bad) and the general conservatism of the community (not to be believed), into the bisexual city of Bellona. After hearing Delany speak (and especially after meeting him at Gaylaxicon), I think he's about as "out" as you can get. His writing, especially in his later works, is populated with people (from this world and from others) that have sex with whomever they like. I couldn't believe that people actually wrote about that, especially in books I could buy at Walden's! Dhalgren will always stand as a milestone in my life. As you read it, try to imagine reading it as a teenager.

Secondly, Dhalgren is unlike any other book I have ever read, either in or out of the genre of F&SF. Delany has created something that, in my experience, is unique. Dhalgren is as close to being non-linear as I think it is possible to write. The story weaves around and back on itself. Even the linear progression of pages breaks down near the end. More than anything else, Dhalgren is subversive. The brilliant, vivid writing slowly seduces, submerging you in its world and captivating you by its strangeness. You feel compelled to move through the story, fascinated by the action and wondering at the mysteries. After luring you in, Delany then violates the tacit agreements between author and reader. Time and place shift without reason or warning, often without the reader's knowledge until well after the fact. You can't tell if the events transpiring are real or psychotic ravings.

I have often heard that the willing suspension of disbelief is necessary for the reader F&SF. The reader of Dhalgren is forced into the unwilling suspension of disbelief. Even the usual mindset for F&SF isn't adequate. I have thought that this may be the primary reason why so many people have problems with this book. It violates too many of our assumptions of what a novel should be. For those readers who demand additive plots with definite endings, this is not the book for you. But for those of you willing to give into the writing and let it take you where it will, the time you spend reading this book will be unlike any other. Try to think of it as working your way through the great Pattern in Amber. When you have completed the process, it will have taken you somewhere completely different. And when you get to the city of Bellona, don't be surprised if you see me having a drink at Teddy's. It is, after all, a small city and I go there often.

Epilogue: For those of you who would like to read some Delany but don't want to tackle Dhalgren, I recommend Babel 17 and Nova. Both of these books have plots (if for some strange reason you want one); and, as with all of Delany's works, they are filled with incredible imagery, language, and concepts. They are (in my humble opinion) the most accessible of his novels. They may be hard to find; but they're well worth the search. Enjoy!

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