Dec. 10th, 2014

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Dhalgren is a book with a fearsome reputation. It's huge, plotless and its language reaches for meanings that cannot be crafted with the standard set of writers' tools. It is a book that bumps up against the limits of what the written word can actually do (or at least, what the in-narrative writer, who is also the main character, thinks the written word can do [1]), and finds those limitations a little frustrating. It is a book I left lying about on various surfaces for a while before I finally willed myself to tackle it, fully expecting to bounce off of prose I was too young and unsophisticated to understand. The first few pages seemed to confirm my fears, but still I ploughed ahead, refusing to give up so soon. And then Delany started to write about hands.

Samuel Delany writes about hands like Quentin Tarantino films feet (though his descriptions in Dhalgren are not as overtly erotic as in Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand). He is fascinated with them, to the extent that he doesn't even see them as whole things, treating them instead as an assemblage of smaller components each possessing their own unique aesthetic. Through horn, cuticle, nail and knuckle Delany assembles the hand part by part until it looms in the mind like an overzoomed image. And thing is, in Dhalgren that image is usually ugly. The opening scene, were the protagonist (a nameless man known only as the Kid) meets and fucks an unnamed woman, describes him as a generally attractive man...until the writing reaches his hands, which are ugly enough to stun his lover into silence. Nor do they get any prettier. There is one time and one time only in the book when the Kid is explicitly clean. Apart from that he rarely seems to wash, something Delany keeps in the mindseye with repeated description of hands and feet turned black by caked dirt. This, I realise, sounds gross. To me though, worried that I was taking on a book that would only prove my deficiencies as a reader, the appearance of the description was pure comfort. First, it was familiar. As soon as Dhalgren started to talk about knuckles I knew that no matter how revered it was, it was still a Delany and I love Delany. Second, the subject was physical. I could feel safe, knowing that I was not going to have to constantly work my way through language occupying an abstract, conceptual space. Dhalgren was going to be, in some ways at least, down to earth.

This was the case. Only, it was the case in quite a localised sense. Dhalgren is intensely physical to a beautiful degree (if, like me, you find really ugly things skilfully drawn to be beautiful), but only within the boundary of bodily experience. It feels like every inch of Kid's hairy, stanky, calloused and cum-coated body gets a mention somewhere in the text, and when he has sex with Lanya, and later Lanya and Denny, that bodily intimacy swells into writing that nails just how fucking great really good sex with the right person/s can get, when urge and sensation and thought subsume into a single experience where all of life's internal boundaries just...go away. Basically, this is at times a really hot book - so long as you don't mind dirty people. It is also a book that works as hard to provide a tactile experience as it does a conceptual one.

It is also very much a work of genre fiction. The city of Bellona where the story is set is a fictional place in the midst of 1970s United States. In the past the city experienced (and may still be experiencing) a massive fire, that drove most of the previous occupants away. A remnant of around 1,000 live in a city built and stocked for multiple thousands. Among them, the most striking residents are the scorpions: a half-gang, half-commune marked by their projector chains that, when activated, throw a huge animal hologram up around their wearer. For that image, of giant monsters of light, towering towards the main character or ranging about him, collapsing and rising as the scorpions mess about with their projectors, for that image alone, this book is worth reading. These, the orchids, the fires and other things besides provide fantastic images that enliven this world. However it is not these unreal things that make the world so alien to Western perception.

In his afterword to Dhalgren William Gibson describes the city of Bellona as a space where the 60s counterculture still exists, preserved by catastrophe against its demise in the rest of 70s/80s America. However, because many people in Bellona are visiting from 70s/80s America, the city is also a site of constant culture-clash. Said clash is not dominantly violent (though an enclave of Bellona's remaining whites do behave as if they live in an apocalypse), but still ever-present. As a newcomer himself the Kid lives within this clash, and much of the book addresses his reorientation to Bellona's lack of the assumed rules that govern the world outside. It is a gentle reorientation. The Kid may not know the rules, but he is willing to be taught and the people he loves (particularly his 'old lady' Lanya) are willing to teach. Take sex. Following the entrance of Denny into Kid & Lanya's relationship, Kid starts to behave in bed as if subconsciously trying to assert dominance. He is not rebuked at first, but the dissonance of the behaviour is apparent immediately and as Kid continues to behave in this way the sense of emerging problem develops until Lanya halts it with an act of dominant sex-play. After this Denny has a quiet word with Kid, and he makes a change. Kid may be the centre of a culture clash, but because he is a generally decent (though far from perfect) human, the experience is one of growing awareness and learning rather than war. It is in fact, the idealised form of cultural growth. And interestingly (and indeed, sadly) that makes it super-relevant to today.

I started my socio-political life as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Technically I still am that, but internally, I feel more accurately self-described as a citizen of the Anglophone Internet [2], a self-awareness that has only grown after I left university to live at home. Now. My parents are fantastic people. I don't just love them - I actually like them, a relationship I've come to realise is not as common as you'd hope it would be. However, in our conversations it is also very clear that we live in completely different worlds, a separation which is not down completely to the division between the worlds of maturity and immaturity. It's more a fundamental difference in cultural focus. I live in an internet realm. For me events in Ferguson were a sea-change in the Anglophone approach to race-relations and a final coming-to-the-boil of various unwholesome socio-political trends in a principal centre of political gravity. It is an event of relevance within my immediate cultural sphere. For my parents, Ferguson is still important, but it is also distant - the foreign problem of a foreign country. It is peripheral rather than central [3]. Similarly, #Gamergate was a HUGE part of my immediate cultural experience for months, and the whole PUA/MRA debacle frankly has me questioning whether any aspect of 'masculinity', even the ones that seem virtuous on the surface, is worth preserving. For my parents it was again a peripheral experience: the internal squabblings of an art medium they have no involvement with. In return, I am sure that there are any number of UK socio-political developments that I know nothing about, and that this absence of knowledge would shock them. It's not a firm divide - we each vaguely know about the same things, we share political sympathies (though we tend to be sceptical in different directions) and some cultural interests. But. The divide is there, and in reading Dhalgren and remembering the times when that gulf has loomed largest, a reality is made clear. I may be from the old world. But the more I learn about it, the more I wish to be a citizen of Bellona.

Dhalgren is an impeccable book. Delany's approach to writing is to worry over the form of every sentence, shaping and honing each one so that it has the feeling, rhythm and meaning he wants it to. He even does this within the text itself through the medium of the Kid's own writings, and in making his process naked, draws all the more attention to the efforts of his craft. And, I think, that is the note I want to end on. Dhalgren is many things. It's a hallucinatory ramble through a fractured mental-state which does not experience the passage of time in a usual way, and it is also pretty great porn. It was far easier to penetrate than I feared, but still the writing is so rich that it was most rewarding read in snatches. It is a book that can satisfy in 30 pages, and drown in 100. I cannot recommend it enough.


[1] Even if the Kid thinks that the sound of George's speech cannot be literally conveyed in a visual form, I'm fairly sure that if Wuthering Heights could convey Joseph's alien northern dialect, Delany could do it if he had thought Kid would.

[2] This is referred to most places just as 'the internet', but I feel it's quite important to make the distinction. Only being fluent in English, I have no knowledge of the fora of other languages (the Chinese Weibo being the immediate example) and as such will not assume that they have generated the same culture as exists in the Anglophone communities of Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.

[3] Though apparently, not so 'central' for me that I travelled up to London to join in sympathy protests. Which makes me rather disappointed in myself.


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January 2016


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