2015 Reading Journey: Dhalgren

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Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1976)

I had Dhalgren in the back of my mind as a mild reading concern ever since I decided to include it in my journey this year. If you look at reviews, many people seem to agree it’s an important book, but the split on it is very strange. Either it’s one of the most brilliant things ever written, or it’s the most impenetrable pile of words ever published. Some reviewers consider it both.

I vote… actually, I’m not sure what I vote. I don’t vote for brilliant, certainly, but I can’t vote impenetrable murk, either. The reading is easy enough, except that nothing makes any sense because most of it doesn’t have any context. So, I think I have to vote Waste Of Time.

But then, does my vote really count? After all, I didn’t finish the book.

A large number of reviews seem to quote the first couple of sentences of the book. I’m going to continue that tradition, not because it’s traditional, but to help me find my point.

To wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.”

Um, right.

There’s a bit more, leading into the next paragraph, which is a long one, filled with random images and moments. From there, the prose improves on a sentence level, sort of. It drifts away from poetic through stream of consciousness, into unconnected events and scenes. And a lot of those are unconnected to the main character, or at least not connected to him, even if he’s there. And it’s hard to call that main character protagonist or even a POV, since things shift and drift so much in the early pages.

So the premise, as far as I get from reading the book as opposed to researching it, seems to be that there exists a city, somewhere in middle America, where some kind of apocalypse or major disaster has occurred, something that no one outside seems to remember. In that city, the few remaining inhabitants can do, say, or be whatever they want, and if it affects anyone else, to damned bad because they should have done something about it when it was happening. Anarchy with elements of flower child commune.

The main character, who only ever seems to have the nickname Kid because someone gave it to him, wanders into and around the city, meeting various odd characters and having various odd memories. In between Kid having sex of various flavours with various random strangers, we’re treated to surreal and bizarre scenes, confusing passages, and words sprayed across the page.

Even when things are happening, nothing actually happens. We get no real insights into any of the characters that aren’t transient and only attached to the moment that they’re part of. There’s no real conception of how the city functions or even exists. Things are basically one big, blurry mess.

Overall rating: 1 star. I don’t know how I made it 200 pages into the book and don’t know if I should be impressed or surprised that I did. This is my first, and hopefully only, DNF for the year, and I know I somehow made it to the end of A Voyage to Arcturus, but Dhalgren took me to a whole new level of “time I’ll never get back”. Not all of the New Wave was good. Actually, a lot of it was mediocre at best, in my reading. But whether this book counts as New Wave or not, I’m going to come down in favour of Sturgeon’s Law here, and put Dhalgren in the 90% for me. It’s not impenetrable and it’s not brilliant. But it’s also not worth reading.

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