Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm sure this has been said before, but this is a very difficult book to review. So much is happening and very little of it has a straight-line plot unless you tackle this in seven sections and treat it as a mystery rite each time in the full awareness that Delaney is messing with us heavily.
In what way, you ask?
Ignore the fact that this reads more like a heavily-invested tome of mythic allusions in the style of the greats of traditional fiction and focus instead on the topics that Delaney holds closest to his heart: Sex and Literary Criticism. :)
Well, this is a porn book. No doubt about it. Every other page has Kid getting it on with women, men, women and men, and the variety of perversions never made any single act the same as before. Kid loves his sex. Polyamory? You betcha. This novel is considered to be one of the quintessential classics of the sixties, but don't let that fool you. Delaney doesn't just go for the raunch, he's also bypassing class issues by the magical realism setting and tackling race issues instead. This takes up a lot of the novel and he has a lot to say.
The second big part of this novel, in my opinion, has everything to do with Art and Criticism. Kid is a poet, but beyond that, he lives a magical life like Peter Pan, always looking young and acting young and not giving a crap about anything other than his pleasure for the most part... however, this is tempered by his craft in his poetry and the way he appears to grow up when he sets aside his words.
This is kinda scary, actually, since Delaney himself gave up writing even though he is so well-beloved in the field. He, as Kid, grew up and didn't care when "his poetry was burned", no matter how many people wanted to be outraged and demanded that he produce more. Ignore the long "reasons" for writing and the heavy lit-crit terms that Delaney has his main character use to meta his way through the creation process within this novel. Even Kid says that it'll dissolve in your stomach after you eat it. :)
These are serious themes throughout, but let's not forget that this is SF and Fantasy in the biggest sense of the word. What's fantasy about it? Patchwork society, for one. There's always enough food, there's no law and order, big population pressure is out of the picture, and then there's a few unexplained weirdnesses usual with magical realism, too. The SF if mind-blowingly weird and it, too, is never explained. The sun is expanding and going red? What of the second moon? The unexplained time-effects? The disappearance of the biggest part of the population when they observed the initial event, leaving only those who missed it behind? Pretty fun stuff. We've even got ourselves an astronaut. :)
And then, of course, it's a dystopia, but it's more an anarchic state that lets everyone toss the rules and do whatever they want rather than a focus on violence, which is kinda refreshing on that level for any kind of dystopia, however unrealistic.
But is this novel unrealistic? No. Never in the writing. It's always down-to-earth and full of detail. It's easy to ignore the glaring plot holes or universe-holes or whatever is going on because someone is always getting off or trying to make sense of social issues. No one ever talks about what's happening in the big picture, or if they do, it's always, always incomplete.
I think this novel is meant to be an experience rather than something to parse out. There's no grand design or plot to latch on to. It's all about the journey, and not always about the character journey, either, but rather an exploration of social mores when morals are thrown out the door, discovering what is left.
It's very ambitious. So why don't I give it a 5 star? Because it also annoys me. I appreciate everything he's done in the novel, and yet it feels a bit too alien, a bit too disjointed. I couldn't get over the inconsistencies of the world or of human nature.
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