I tend to read books one at a time in quick succession. I have to, for the same reason I am so assiduous in writing reviews: I have a poor memory for these types of details. However, every so often I'll have a "project" book that takes me weeks or months to read, in parallel with my other books. I tend to do this with lengthy anthologies; I've been doing it with the Iliad. In retrospect, Dhalgren would have made a good project book. It's lengthy and difficult to read, and if I had invested the time to read it more gradually, my opinion would probably be very different.
Nobody prepared me for Dhalgren.
I began it with few preconceptions. The back cover copy of my very old Bantam paperback edition is extremely cryptic and unhelpful (and, in fact, not all that accurate). So I had this idea that it was about some kind of post-apocalyptic city, and that was it. A couple of visits to the book's Wikipedia article later, I finally understood the situation into which I had gotten myself. According to the article, "Critical reaction to Dhalgren has ranged from high praise (both inside and outside the science fiction community) to extreme dislike (mostly within the community)." That last parenthetical is accompanied by the dreaded "citation needed" note, so I don't know how reliable it is. From my experience with Dhalgren, however, I would understand if it is true. The conventions that would identify it as science fiction are covert, obscured—yet I cannot imagine any other label that better describes this book.
I am indebted to Dhalgren, because it is one of those books that challenge me as a reader. By challenge, I do not just refer to the effort required to read and comprehend the story itself. I mean that Dhalgren challenges how I approach reading and literature and my biases toward form and genre. This is a polarizing book that has earned high praise from some renowned authors, such as William Gibson, and nothing but vitriol from others, like Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick. It is simultaneously considered a sublime, transcendent work of literature and a piece of trash that is impossible to enjoy or take seriously. And so it calls into question the verity and integrity of the entire novel form. Why is a black square painted by me worthless while one painted by Kazimir Malevich is worth millions? What makes art good, and what makes some crap crap and other crap "transcendent"?
Sometimes I worry I come off as a bit of a book snob. I read Umberto Eco, and worse, I write lengthy, gushing reviews about his books. I trash talk Dan Brown (but who doesn't?) and Stephenie Meyer. But really, I'm not that far gone: I might write reviews, but not for literary criticism journals; and so far, I have felt no desire to read anything by Thomas Mann. There is hope for me yet!
If I were a book snob, I would probably have to write some sort of encomium for Dhalgren that reiterates the views of those like Gibson. Fortunately I can dodge that bullet and confess that I didn't enjoy Dhalgren. I'm still glad I read it, because I am a better person for it, and it is worth reading. The actual act of reading it, however, was onerous. I pushed through it, because I wanted to finish it and because Delany has earned enough respect from me as an author to deserve some faith from me as a reader. And there are parts of this book that are jaw-droppingly awesome. There are moments when everything the narrator is saying just clicks into place and makes perfect sense. It is as if the clouds in the perpetually-overcast city of Bellona have parted to display not one but two moons: there are brief glimpses of lucidity amid this happy madness.
Unfortunately, most of the book is just confusing. I'm aware that this is the point and the purpose, and better people than me have read and will read this book and find more meaning than I dare to dredge from its pages. Alas, I like my prose concise and easy to comprehend. I am a fan of sublimity from simplicity, though I'm aware that it's possible to obtain through other methods. Mostly though, I just had a difficult time following the thread of a scene, let alone the entirety of the story.
The best thing about Dhalgren, in my opinion, is its meta-commentary about the nature of writing and literature. The main character, the Kid, finds a notebook that contains the text of this novel. And then later it turns out he writes it, or wrote it. But for most of the story, he uses the blank pages to scribble poems, which then get published by Bellona's newspaper editor. So Kid becomes a bit of an overnight celebrity, and everyone is reading his poetry for lack of any better reading material in the city. But Kid isn't sure he's done anything worth reading, isn't sure if he's an artist at all or just a hack. He receives mentoring from an established poet who is just visiting Bellona, and everyone around him provides advice as well. I suppose it's possible to consider the characters sort of Jungian archetypes of the Kid's subconscious. It is an explanation that makes as much sense as any other that tries to undermine the fundamental incoherence of Delany's narrative.
The depiction of race, gender, and sexuality in Dhalgren is also worth at least one person's undergraduate thesis. A great deal of this book is given over to explicit sex. Bellona is, in a twisted and ironic way, a post-scarcity society: no one needs money, because no one is really in a position to sell goods or services. With so much of the city abandoned, empty houses and stores have items for the taking, and one can move anywhere one wants. Moreover, thanks to the timey-wimey wibbley-wobbliness of the city, a store that one ransacks one day might be full and untouched two days later, just as a building that burnt to the ground last night might be restored, unscathed, the next morning. This post-scarcity economy juxtaposed with an environment that radiates unspeakable social poverty has the predictable effect on the inhabitants of the city: everyone is in a kind of dream world, in a holding pattern. Nothing and no one change, because if they did, it would mean admitting that their world is broken.
In this post-scarcity society, however, there is still one valuable commodity: sex. There are few enough people in Bellona, but there is an endless variety of relationships, from monogamous marriages (the Richards) to polyamory (Kid, Lanya, and Denny) to a weird kind of cat-and-mouse game (George Harrison and June Richards). And regardless of who's doing it, there is lots of sex, all the time. Literally, I doubt more than ten pages will go by without someone talking about or engaging in intercourse. Because beneath the fragile veneer of civilization, it's clear that the conventional norms have broken down, and a new system of mores has arisen in their place. Delany has created a brand new society between these pages. It's post-apocalyptic, although the apocalypse was a localized phenomenon and tourists are still welcome. This accomplishment alone, however, is probably enough to make Dhalgren a good, if not great, work of science fiction.
While still on the subject of sex and sexuality in Dhalgren, I would be remiss not to discuss Delany's depiction of homosexuality and bisexuality in characters like Tak and the Kid himself. I'm aware, intellectually, that this book is in many ways a reaction to the cultural movements of the 1960s. But I wasn't alive then, and I won't pretend that I understand any of that subtext. I'm not sure how the book's open portrayal of explicit homosexuality was taken in the 1970s. However, even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, in a country that is progressive enough to have legalized same-sex marriage, the scenes from Dhalgren are still the sort of thing more common in a very specific subset of erotica than in mainstream literature or even in science fiction. We're getting better at representing homosexual relationships in our media, but we've still a long way to go. So I have to give Delany kudos for his casual-yet-integral depictions of homosexuality and bisexuality in Dhalgren. There is no way this book would be the same without it: not only do these depictions augment Delany's exploration of what it means to deviate from social norms, but they are essential aspects of some of the most important characters, such as the Kid. His ruminations on his identity, which includes his sexuality and the degree to which he is attracted to men or to women, are a crucial part of Dhalgren. In fact, one might say that the entire book is about Kid's attempts to piece himself together, to recall his name and retrieve the parts of his identity that have eluded him. His time in Bellona, which is filled with a series of successive events that don't necessarily have a connecting plot driving them, is a vehicle for that exploration of self.
I think that is true for everything in this book. I didn't like all of it, but there is nothing I would change. I cannot envision how to alter this book yet retain the effect it has on the reader. Dhalgren is "great" in the sense that it is challenging, thought-provoking, and memorable. It is defiant, because it does not conform to our conventional expectations of literature and of the novel form. For that reason, I think it's a little prickly: I cannot warm up to it as much as I can to, say, Dune. Yet I most emphatically dispute that it is trash of any kind. Dhalgren is an authentic and honest effort by Delany, and now I finally know what all the fuss is about.
It's a little bit mindblowing. And very, very weird. Ultimately, it's a valuable reminder of a fact that's true for a lot of science fiction: a book doesn't have to be good to be great; and you don't have to like great fiction to appreciate its genius.