There are some books out there that are uniquely capable of immersing you into their world, in every sense. The number of books that can actually manage to do this is surprisingly small, in my experience, taking up only a small percentage of that selection of books that you might, on any given day, consider “good”, “worthwhile”, or “thought-provoking”. We’re not talking about good books here, we’re not talking about books that make you sit in some coffee shop and ponder the meaning of life. We (by which I mean, “I”) are talking about books that take hold of your entire sense of awareness, and direct it elsewhere. Books that make you abundantly aware and appreciative of the vagaries and nature of being a human. They ignore the romanticized notion of Man and instead shows them as they are, warts, grunts, pains, insecurities and all (and in the process becomes romantic itself). With an opening quote of “You have confused the true and the real.” (George Stanley/In Conversation) before even the table of contents setting the mood for the rest of the book, I would definitely say that Dhalgren is one of these books. For lack of a better term, (bearing in mind that opening comment) it is a remarkably HONEST book.
I’ve read two editions of Dhalgren. The first contained a fascinating if dry introduction by Frederick Pohl, whose name has also been attached to a writing award for which Dhalgren is a recipient. Alas, I lent that copy to a friend back in 1998, and have yet to see it again. Rather than go without, I went out and picked up a new copy of the rereleased novel. This one contains a rather interesting introduction by William Gibson of Neuromancer fame. What particularly struck me about his introduction is that it felt very much as if the introduction was written immediately after reading the book again, leaving Gibson still immersed in that peculiar outlook and train of thought that Dhalgren seems so eminently good at creating. This was rather gratifying, as it made it more apparent that it is NOT just me that becomes so affected by this book.
At the risk of letting my metaphor careen out of control and butcher my train of thought, these introductions act very much like an appetizer before a substantial meal. The type and flavor of the appetizer very much influences what nuances you pull out of the subsequent main course. I certainly find this to hold true very much in this case: I pull significantly different parts out of the first chapter especially, depending on which introduction preceded it. Mind you, this is entirely separate from the various aspects of the story (and structure of the story) that I continue to pick up each time I reread it. My interpretations of the nature of the relationships between different characters (the protagonist, Kid, and his interactions with the surrounding people, as well as the nature of relationships between these peripheral characters themselves) shift wildly between readings, with some relationships becoming more vivid in my mind while others become vague, hazy.
The first few times I read Dhalgren, I felt that it had no real structure, that its structure was as amorphous and chaotic as the city the story takes place in. I then came to the conclusion that perhaps it is not so chaotic, so much as an elliptical spiral, coming back to things that have happened before in unexpected ways, continuing to go farther and farther out. I’m beginning to think that the true nature of the story structure is in fact something in between. That it IS elliptical, but not as precise as a smooth orbit, but rather tumult in a pattern, like the arms of a hurricane. Further, the city’s landscape changes according to the acts of the observer. On Kid’s first night in town, he comes off the bridge and proceeds to meet someone on the roof a building. Despite having walked for no more than 15 minutes, he can no longer see the bridge or the waterfront from the roof. Later on in the book, on that same rooftop, the bridge looms nearby. This discrepancy (if you wanted to call it that) is by intent, however. The bridge symbolizes the exit leading to the outside world, and as previously stated, the landscape adjusts according to the acts or needs of the observer.
What acts or needs would cause Kid to need to leave? Especially since he doesn’t leave, nor even really considers it for more than half a second? One of his friends is leaving at that point, but the importance of that particular action is largely irrelevant, and could have just as easily been avoided. In my eyes from this latest reading, I would say the bridge serves as a metaphor at that point of bringing himself back to reality if only for a moment, and the city itself is a metaphor for the descent into madness. Kid had just lost several days, and the trip to the bridge serves as a re-acknowledgment of reality. While he continues to lose time and remains in the city, it is at this point that he accepts it and no longer lets it bother him.
The writing style for Dhalgren changes for each major “chapter” of the book (there are seven of these chapters). Sometimes the changes are subtle (for instance chapters 3, 4, and 5 are all very similar, and really only change in narrative emphasis), and in others the changes are significant and jarring (in the first chapter, each section opens with a narrative dialogue that leads into Kid’s next action, but has no relation to what else is happening in the story). The most jarring and unique chapter is the final chapter: “The Anathemata: a plague journal.” Over the course of the book, Kid discovers a notebook that is someone’s journal, and uses the unused pages for his own writing. The last chapter of the book is written as if it were a portion of that journal. It is decidedly nonlinear: true to character, he writes where there is space, not necessarily where it makes sense, so an entry might start on one page, and get continued four pages further along. There are even little blurbs of writing in the margins — wherever he could find to write. There are misspellings, crossed out words (crossed out paragraphs!). It is blunt and honest and disturbing in subject matter in a way that makes you realize just how refined and separated the rest of the book is in comparison (the rest of the book in comparison to other literature already was pushing boundaries).
The first time I read Dhalgren, I hated the last chapter. I found it a disappointment, I found it a pain in the ass to read, and it simply made no sense. The second time I read the book, I didn’t even bother with the final chapter. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I read it that I began to appreciate what was being done with the final chapter (my own writing having grown in that intervening time). It continues to be an extremely disturbing piece of writing. Possibly the most disturbing I’ve ever read, anywhere. Thinking about it as I write this, I think that perhaps the reason I like the book so much, and the reason the book has so much effect on me, is BECAUSE it challenges me at every level. I like it because it is disturbing.
Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. Wesleyan University Press.