Review

Dhalgren

by Samuel R. Delany



Where to start with DHALGREN? With a history lesson...

DHALGREN was initially published in 1974 by Bantam Books. The
science fiction genre was flush with energy for a number of
reasons, and Bantam hired Frederik Pohl (who even then was a grand
master in the field) to find new and original science fiction
novels and publish them under its imprint with the legend "A
Frederik Pohl Book," or something like that. A great idea. A couple
of these were published; then along came...DHALGREN by Samuel R.
Delany.

Sam Delany at that point in time was one of the genre's young
lions. He was racking up awards by the wheelbarrow full for
brilliant novels like NOVA and THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION and for
short stories that bounced around in your brain long after you
finished them, novels and stories that combined hard science with
social problems that no one even dreamed of but somehow knew were
coming. The word was that he was working on a massive new novel
that would set the genre on its ear; then along
came...DHALGREN.

Several months after DHALGREN was published I attended a science
fiction convention that featured a panel discussion consisting of
Pohl; Harlan Ellison, at the most prolific and creative high point
of his career; and Joe Haldeman, who had published a couple of
excellent books at that point and was highly regarded as an
up-and-comer. One of the many nebbishes among those assembled asked
the panel "What did you think of DHALGREN?" Ellison harped, "I
hated it!", Haldeman shrugged and said, "I read it," and Pohl,
looking down his nose at those assembled, answered, "I bought it."
Whether or not he was sold a bill of goods is still a matter of
contention today.

DHALGREN is a novel that is full of contradictions, conundrums, and
conflicting emotions. I hated the book the first time I read it,
over a quarter-century ago. I kept reading, waiting for something
to happen, something to explain what was going on to these strange
people who were somehow familiar, living in a city at the brink of
chaos at the end of time, where natural laws were quietly being
turned on their head. And it never happened. Reading it seemed to
have been the biggest waste of time. The effects of reading
DHALGREN resonate within my head to this day. I never read another
of Delany's books again, after having been a major fan of his for
years. And yet...I could still remember passages from the book,
almost verbatim, years after reading them once. The book, the
narrative, haunted like a nightmare you can't quite remember but is
still oddly disturbing. So, about once a decade, I return to
DHALGREN.

What is DHALGREN about? William Gibson's introduction to the new
Vintage edition is as good and as honest as any I've ever read.
Gibson admits that he doesn't understand DHALGREN and that it
probably isn't meant to be understood. He describes it as a "prose
city" and in so doing pretty much nails the book dead on. DHALGREN
takes place in an urban landscape where the laws of nature have
broken down and the laws of mankind have as well; there is no way
to tell which breakdown preceded the other. It begins in medias
res
and ends the same way. The characters wander through its
mad landscape with no particular effect, with nothing in particular
to propel them along, other than the overriding drive to continue
existence. Yet...Delany's skills as a wordsmith cannot be denied.
The prose in DHALGREN is undeniably wonderful, a feast, an
embarrassment of riches.

Taken as an appreciation of the power of language in the hands of a
master, DHALGREN has few peers. As a story? Don't expect to
understand it. It is simply there, an account, if you will, of a
world and lives that may or may not exist, that may happen or may
have happened already. At 800 pages, it is worth the time and
effort for the beauty of its language.  

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany

  • Publication Date: May 15, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375706682
  • ISBN-13: 9780375706684