Sunday, June 17, 2001

Review: "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delaney

It's been a long time since I put a book down and asked, "What was that?" But when I walked away from "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany (Vintage), I honestly wasn't quite sure what I'd just read.

A man known only as the Kid comes to the town of Bellona, an American city shut off from the rest of the world by mysterious, cataclysmic events. The city is ever-changing, and neither the laws of man or nature hold sway.

Bellona has developed its own society, characterized by street gangs, what passes for the upper class in the desolate city and those who are just trying to get by.

Kid is searching for his identity, and Bellona may hold the answers. It certainly holds a lot more questions.
Originally published in 1974, "Dhalgren" has recently been reissued by Vintage, the first in a series of Delany re-issues scheduled for the next few years.

Though I wasn't really familiar with Delany before picking this book up, he seems as fascinating a character as any in the book. The Harlem native is often referred to as the first published African-American science fiction writer, as well as the first gay science fiction writer. But he shies away from the title, pointing out others who broke that ground before he did.

In addition to science fiction (which he refuses to call "sci-fi," saying it's a term "reserved for particularly brainless raygun and rocket-ship extravaganzas"), Delany has also written historical fiction, literary analysis, comic books and essays.

I'd never read Delany before, but as I understand it, "Dhalgren" is much more experimental than his other speculative books, like the upcoming Vintage releases "Babel-17" and "Nova," which earned him a reputation as one of the top science fiction writers of the 1960s and '70s. After delving into "Dhalgren," I'm looking forward to reading those.

When it was originally released, "Dhalgren" was a very controversial work. The intervening 27 years haven't made it any less thought-provoking. The book deals with issues the world is still struggling with a quarter century later and likely will still be facing in 25 more years - race, religion, sexuality and identity.
In the beginning, "Dhalgren" is difficult going. The book opens with the second half of a sentence, and for a while, only gets stranger. Delany's odd style that blends elegant prose and street-wise slang is sometimes beautiful, occasionally stark and often jarring.

This is the kind of book that requires multiple reads for a full appreciation. Don't expect everything to become clear at the end. The story itself is like a great jigsaw puzzle with a several pieces missing, and for the most part, Delany leaves it to the reader to fill in those gaps.

The people that populate Bellona are as strange a mix as Delany's style, ranging from the cyberpunk street gangs with their holographic projectors to characters that would be more at home in a literary classic. Come to think of it, though, that might be exactly where they are.

While it's considered science fiction, "Dhalgren" isn't a light read for a rainy day. It's a book that demands an investment from the reader. But the return is well worth it.

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