By Delany, Samuel R.
Wow. Either there is a fictional Midwestern city, Bellona, where some sort of environmental disaster has occurred and now space-time there is in flux, or there was a disaster in said city and the narrator has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and we experience things through his perspective. The narrator in question can’t remember his name, but chances upon moniker “the Kid.” Also seemingly falling to place-time is Kid’s emergence within the half-abandoned city as its de facto poet laureate and chief gang leader.
The relationship between the upper classes and rebellious gangs is amorphous due to the necessities of survival. The city becomes a laboratory for social experiments about sexuality, gender, race, class, violence, and mental health. The novel is metafictional and the relationship between reader/author, signifier/signified, intention/perception is all on the table. The line between the author and characters are blurred. We are never sure if Bellona constantly geographically shifting or Kid’s mind is shifting. We are never sure if things are happening by chance or whether Kid is willing them to happen. The novel is hyper-subjective, but I’m not sure if the narrator is Kid or the city of Bellona itself. Dhalgren is a fantastical carousel of possible meanings that Delany places devilishly on the blurry edge of figure and ground.
The length of this book intimidates some readers, but Delany brings it all home in the end with a satisfaction you’d rarely get from get from other ergodic texts. Not that all that much is resolved, but meaning impregnates the text retroactively. The final sections of the book justify the picaresque structure of first three fourths. Dhalgren has been wrongly classified by many into the science fiction genre. Dhalgren is surreal, but its images to do not emerge from the unconscious. Its images are the nightmare traces of the structures of power revealed. In this way, Dhalgren is not an unconscious work, but a hyperconscious one.