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A Review of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren

to your reading list. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren has achieved a reputation for being daunting and difficult. A longtime Gene Wolfe aficionado, I was not deterred by these warnings, though this was a book I read in many sporadic sittings. As it turns out, Wolfe and Delany share much in both theme and literary allusions. The short of it is that both authors ponder the often hazy divide between the concrete and the abstract.  Of course, they have little in common politically, occupying opposite sides of the political spectrum. At the same time, both writers were forged in the heat of 70s and 80s speculative fiction, when writers were experimenting with style and incorporating more epicurean literary techniques into their “spacemen” stories.

To this end, Dhalgren’s plot eats at its own tail. Intimations of linear progression mislead the reader at every turn of the page, but we shouldn’t over-emphasize the plot. At its heart, this is a character-driven novel. Its setting is one of these characters; the text is another. The blurb on the back of my worn paperback tells me this story takes place “at the end of time,” in a post apocalypse. This explanation fails to satisfy. Essentially, Dhalgren is a metatextual story told partially from the point-of-view of one nameless partial-amnesiac (“the Kid”). These details suggest certain philosophical antecedents.

Identity, perception, and text are unstable — according to post-structural theory. In the book’s city of Bellonna, time and space are likewise fractured. If you would like an objective explanation for this, you will have to supply it yourself. The novel offers no easy answers. I hesitate to call it science fiction as little science occupies its exposition. The work is more reminiscent of Borges and Barthelme than Asimov and Heinlein.

The novel’s literary gymnastics include meta- and intertextual intricacies. For example, the Kid discusses relationship between signifier and signified. This is elementary postmodern philosophy, and yet it is the Kid’s inner struggle that resonated with me, struggles with poetry, relationships, and finding his way in a hostile world. This fascinating omnisexual, gangbanging, furniture-moving, homeless poet warrants reading and will undoubtedly go down as one of the finest characterizations in science fiction.

If this Mobius strip of an explication was invigorating rather than daunting, then you should add this speculative fiction classic to