I hated high school. I was not abused or made fun of or any of the bad stuff folks talk about, but I hated high school. It was joyless, and I was a terrible student, and there were no teachers at all interested in the creepy kid who read paperback books when he wasn’t paying attention to the lesson.
Dhalgren was my On the Road or Ginsberg or Susan Collins or Hunger Games or John Green or Harry Potter. Kids who find escape in books seem to fall into two categories: kids who read comfort books aimed at kids, and kids who read ‘difficult’ books that deal with things kids aren’t supposed to be reading about–sex, politics, sex, social issues, questioning religion and authority.
Dhalgren has been called ‘unreadable,’ which is a challenge to a kid who liked to read. The story is about a man who has lost his memory. He stumbles into a city, Bellona, that has suffered some kind of existential trauma: the sun sometimes appears hugely enlarged, an extra moon appears, fires burn but never consume the buildings. It is a science fiction take on the urban blight of the sixties. Bellona has been abandoned by most of the residents, leaving a relatively low population trying to piece together a society. The place is now populated by whites, blacks, Native Americans, women and gay people. This is routine now, but it was startling at the time. The most important thing about this diversity for me was that all of this was done smoothly and naturally–people were just there.
In the first sections of the book, the hero–who never remembers his name, but is generally called Kid–has sex with a woman and then later with a man; later things get wilder, and frankly perverse. There are violent scenes–Kid ends up running with a gang, the members using holographic projectors to create their individual gang identities–and then more sex. Kid hooks up with a young woman, but theirs is a model of casual relationships: They screw, they eat together, they hang out, and they go their own way for long stretches without checking in (which is impossible in this place–electricity service is spotty, and of course, no social media).
“Is this book about people screwing, eating and getting into fights in a burning city in a desolate, possibly post-apocalyptic world?” No.
Dhalgren is very much a book of its time. The original paperback I own is a white-bordered brick that begins in mid-sentence and ends with the first part of a sentence that is cut off, a sure label of American post-modern novel writin’. The book has been labelled pretentious, of course, because in these post-Star Wars times, any science fiction novel that isn’t a P.C.-shackled ‘fun’ adventure is pretentious.
“Pretentious” is a label the frightened use for ambition. Science fiction fans get downright hostile about Dhalgren–or, they did. The gay and bisexual elements may mean criticism of the book is no longer acceptable. Delany has written a great deal about homosexuality, in his memoir, in his literary analysis, and in his fiction. These elements are here in Dhalgren, but there is no lecturing, no labeling, as in, “This guy doesn’t like gay people, so he’s bad,” or, “This guy is gay, he’s cool.” The characters in this book are a lot more down-to-earth and believable than those in most science fiction up to that time. One reason is because this isn’t really a science fiction book but a post-modern fantasy of what a communal settlement might be if the urban decay and race riots of the sixties continued and expanded to the point where the U.S. became ungovernable.
Dhalgren is not a book that can be summarized quickly. Obviously. It is also a book that opened up my mind. That’s not the same thing as being programmed or agreeing with Delany’s politics. That’s one of the biggest lessons I got from the book: I could enjoy a book without agreeing with it.
I don’t know if I would recommend this to a teenager today. There are elements that would probably get a teacher fired for recommending it to a teenager, though they didn’t turn me into a rapist, racist, pederast or astronaut.