Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
801 pages Vinatge Trade paperback
This classic of Science Fiction won pretty much every major award in the field the year I was born. While I knew a lot about this author, I had not yet read anything by him. I decided to give Delany a shot with this novel in part because two people whom opinions I respect ,Shaun Lawton editor of the freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Robert Garfat former owner of Dark Horse books in Victoria BC both said it was one of their favorite novels. It is also an apocalypse novel, which is my favorite subgenre.
After having read the novel I think of it as less of an apocalypse novel, less of a science fiction novel, but more of a surrealist novel. I didn’t really bat my eyes at a 800 page end of the world novel Swan Song and The Stand two of the best in the genre are epic in length and tone. One odd thing about this novel is it is epic in length but the story itself is not grand, in fact it is very personal and tracks one group of characters in a city named Bellona.Judging from what I know of the author and the time in which it was written, it is
clear Delany is commenting on issues of race, gender and sexuality as he experienced it in New York in the late 60’s and early seventies. The end of the world is strangely little more than a Maguffin in this novel. So I admit I was a bit disappointed that the first real description of the events that brought Civilization crashing down came on page 419.
It is the story of a character that goes by the name Kid who happens into a city named Bellona. Early in the book we are not sure what happened, but we know that Kid arrived from a devastated America and this is the first living city he has found. Survival is hard, some band together in communes, and others in gangs. Kid has to manage both worlds. In between his ideas of race, gender and sexuality do not have the same meaning anymore.
This novel is beautifully composed; the prose is poetic and rich. The characters are strong and some of the most important elements of the novel. Is it as great as everyone told me it was? Sure; it is a powerful novel worth reading but my problems came partly from my own expectations. I believe also there is a reason that surreal novels tend to be short. It is hard to sustain an experimental piece over 800 pages and keep a reader interested. I really enjoyed this novel but found myself craving a little more straight forward story telling.