I HATED the novel Dhalgren…and why you should read it too!

Dhalgren-bantam-cover

It has taken me 21 days to read (most of) Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction ‘masterpiece’ Dhalgren. And I hated almost every minute of it…but it was worthwhile in a way.

When I enjoy a book I tend to read quickly – 100 pages an hour is not unusual. So barely more than 600 pages in three weeks is sign of just how much I disliked the book. It is Delany’s bestselling book with over a million copies sold, and some important sci-fi writers like William Gibson and Theodore Sturgeon praise it highly, as did Umberto Eco.

I saw it in Chapters in late January, and decided that I should give it a try. I am not a fan of Delany’s other writing…and I don’t much like the works of either Gibson or Sturgeon, which may help explain why I haven’t read it before now.

The book is deliberately non-linear, with elements of stream of consciousness, unreliable narrators, and multiple attempts by the author to subvert the expectations of the reader. Not unlike some of James Joyce, or Thomas Pynchon. Which is fine, and artistic…but not my cup of tea. Next, it isn’t really science fiction: the book is set in Bellona, which is an American town cut off from modern civilisation due to some un-named events. There are some odd occurrences (two moons in the sky, an unnaturally large sun) but that’s about it. To give you some idea of how NON-SF it is, Delany actually has a character try to justify the narrative as sci-fi about halfway through the book!

I am a very big fan of Harlan Ellison, who famously said “I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further.” And in a later interview: “When Dhalgren came out, I thought it was awful, still do … I … threw it against a wall.”

I felt that way on page 1, page 61, page 361 and many (many) more. But I gritted my teeth and made it all the way to the end of the penultimate chapter, Palimpsest, and page 650. At which point Delany abandons his already-confusing style and attempts to recreate a “found” document reconstructed from a notebook, filled with jumbled typography, crossings-out, and marginalia. I made it half a page through, and although no books were thrown at the wall, that’s only because I don’t want to replaster, and the damn thing weighs over a kilo.

After all that, I am happy I read (most of) Dhalgren.

  1. I will now enjoy my next book 10-100x more!
  2. We all live in filter bubbles: we read books by authors we already like, or that are recommended by authors we like, or from friends who share our tastes. Reading a book in the style of Dhalgren wasn’t pleasurable, but it was definitely outside my normal reading list. That can only be a good thing for my brain and my world view. I don’t need to read only this style from now on, but maybe it will be like a grain of sand in my brain: irritating at first, but producing a pearl over time?
  3. Most importantly, I didn’t like books in this style when I was in my 20s. I think, at age 50, it is my ongoing responsibility to keep challenging my preferences of what I like, don’t like, need and need to avoid. We all tend to become more fixed in our preferences as we age, and I hope that testing my assumptions – whether in books, music, movies, or whatever – will help keep me as creative, open, flexible and ‘young’ as possible.

Samuel R. Delany is still alive and well. And, assuming the usual royalty arrangement for authors, he now has about $10 from me. As far as I’m concerned, that was money well spent! Known as Chip to his friends, he turns 73 on April 1st.

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One response to “I HATED the novel Dhalgren…and why you should read it too!”

  1. jearmitage says :

    I picked that exact book up one day when I was in seventh grade. It was a difficult read, I didn’t understand allot of the themes. It took me a long time to finish it. Now in my 50s, I can still faintly remember it’s people and landscapes. Every now and then I flirt with the idea of a visit back to the city and the kid. Now that I have a backpack of experience and reading glasses. Would the journey be different.

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