Review: Dhalgren

One of the enduring joys of Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great was that it introduced me to Samuel R. Delany. His Dhalgren is a science fiction novel like few I’ve read, and like few books I’ve read for that matter.

Genre SF often takes the current world and makes a few changes to explore our world. Dhalgren creates a world that seems to be deliberately and fantastically isolated from ours. Of course, that’s not completely true.  A better description is that it is a magnification and or impressionistic view of some part of our world.  One of the many mysteries of Dhalgren is what part of the world that is.  I’ve bounced around between a bunch of possibilities, including ghettos of the marginalized, insular parties, and mental illness.  I can make an argument for any of them, though none convince me.

Delany has constructed a powerful metaphor here, though it’s complex enough that I can’t describe it simply.  I feel like I’ve been to his fictional setting, but I can’t completely place it.

Into that world he throws a polysexual wandering poet who has lost his name and is becoming slowly (or quickly?) unstuck in time.  Rates are difficult to gauge when time is wonky.  By the time his POV character has become the leader of a street gang that hides their identities behind holographic projections of fantastic beasts, the reader is either completely invested or completely out of the book.  I was completely invested.

As if enough weren’t going on, the storytelling techniques vary as well.  At times characters seem to intentionally kick holes in the scenery and talk to the reader directly.  At others, everything seems completely conventional.  And other times, the storytelling becomes remarkably experimental.

I’ve deliberately made this sound chaotic, but there’s actually a discordant harmony to the whole thing.  It’s a meal with a lot to chew on, plated in unusual ways, but nourishing across many levels.  It’s a hard book to stop thinking about, but it does take time and effort to take in.

Strongly recommended.

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