...to wound the autumnal city
February 18, 2012 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Have you read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney? Was it worth it?

I've had a copy sitting on my bookshelf for years staring me down, daring me to pick it up. A fortiutous change in my job situation has opened up a few hours a week where I can get paid to read(!!) And I was thinking about trying to tackle it. I don't read much scifi, but I am a fan of the long difficult novel.
posted by holdkris99 to Education (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It is a great science fiction novel. It is also a long, difficult novel. Sounds like you should try it now while you have the chance!
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:05 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sidhedevil has it -- it's both great and long, and somewhat unrewarding for long stretches. I'd probably say try Infinite Jest or House of Leaves before that, but I doubt you'd regret Dhalgren...
posted by gerryblog at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2012

I REALLY enjoyed it, but it took me FOREVER.
posted by spunweb at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2012

Yes. It is worth it for a whole bunch of reasons, including it's strange and illumunating prose, but what pushed me over the edge was that it took cities, and esp. citites in the midwest, and esp. the racially other and queer aspects of those cities seriously. imagine it like a queer black 21st century John the Revelator writing about Detroit.
posted by PinkMoose at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, don't be afraid to google book groups about it -- I find it really surprising and... not dense, per se, but really intellectually engaging in a way that encourages conversation. In a way, that intense desire to talk mirrors some of the events in the novel itself. I really liked reading it because of that. It's a novel that opens up conversations instead of shutting them down.
posted by spunweb at 3:09 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read my dad's copy of Dhalgren in late elementary or middle school. It was my first exposure to the experimental novel, and full of titilating sex scenes. It was also frustratingly over my head in many ways, and your question makes me want to read it again.

If you have read James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Z. Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, or any other experimental authors, you'll have some grounding in the genre. An understanding of Greek mythology will enrich your understanding of a lot of the tropes in the book. I recommend reading it even if it's your first exposure to that kind of fiction. It's not typical SF, by the way, so don't expect much in the way of futuristic technology and culture.

By the way, where do I sign up to get paid to read?
posted by xenophile at 3:14 PM on February 18, 2012

It gets a shade difficult here and there, sticking with it can be challenging. There are a couple of things I really get enthusiastic about in there and one of them is the depth of the world created. It was as difficult for me on initial reading to Infinite Jest and it is just as seductive - "perplexing, but I want to see what happens next."
posted by jet_silver at 3:14 PM on February 18, 2012

Yes, and yes.
posted by speicus at 3:26 PM on February 18, 2012

Response by poster: Wow did not expect so many responses so quickly, you literate bastards. I have read IJ and Gravitys Rainbow and others like it. (Haven't quite had the intellectual fortitude for The Recogbitions or JR (Gaddis) yet).
posted by holdkris99 at 3:27 PM on February 18, 2012

Yes, it's worth it, it's brilliant. If you can get into the prose in the first 50 pages or so, you'll be fine.

If you do have trouble, you could check out his Neveryon stories, which cover some of the same mental ground but are easier reads.
posted by selfnoise at 3:29 PM on February 18, 2012

Start with "Nova." It's much shorter and much easier.
posted by 256 at 3:30 PM on February 18, 2012

Dhalgren is one of the few long difficult novels that I could not put down.
posted by Ardiril at 3:30 PM on February 18, 2012

FWIW, I thought Dhalgren was much easier to read than Gravitys Rainbow.
posted by selfnoise at 3:31 PM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Building on what xenophile said, it's not really SF at all, except in the sense that it portrays a future (as compared to the time it was written). No spaceships. No aliens. Very little in the technology portrayed that would have been unfamiliar when it was written. What it is, though, is a very unconventionally structured novel that fits your "long and difficult read" criteria.

I foundered a little reading it and it took me longer than the page count would suggest. Now I'm thinking about tackling it again if for no other reason than I'm more experienced than I was then.
posted by tommasz at 3:33 PM on February 18, 2012

The reason Dhalgren is so difficult is very different from the drinking-from-a-firehose situation with a maximalist novel like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest. It's more about either trying to make sense of a narrative that the normal rules of causality and memory don't apply to, or accepting that you won't be able to actually understand it and just enjoying the novel as a sensory experience.

And yes, whichever way you choose, it's absolutely worth it in my opinion.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is definitely worth it. However, I found that William Gibson's brilliant introduction in the 2001 edition made it especially worth it. His thoughts about it were accessible and thought-provoking, and helped me make my own sense of the narrative that followed; in some ways it was like a map to that fragmented city. If you have a different edition, you should still seek out that essay by Gibson.
posted by crackingdes at 4:12 PM on February 18, 2012

I really enjoyed it and often struggle to engage with 'difficult' sci-fi (I couldn't get more than 25 pages in on either Gravity's Rainbow or Neuromancer for example). Well worth a crack in my view.
posted by bifter at 4:23 PM on February 18, 2012

Yes, and yes!

I've been thinking of a reread, would need to be in the right mood. It scared me the first time, but I was pretty young.
posted by sammyo at 4:46 PM on February 18, 2012

Absolutely, deliciously rewarding-- both as a novel, and as a snapshot of a particular moment in the development of science fiction and the American counterculture. I freaking love that book.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:50 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having read and loved both, I'll second the suggestion that if you got through and enjoyed Gravity's Rainbow you will have no problem with Dhalgren and will find it rewarding.
posted by contraption at 5:46 PM on February 18, 2012

@holdkris99 sez:
Wow did not expect so many responses so quickly, you literate bastards. I have read IJ and Gravitys Rainbow and others like it. (Haven't quite had the intellectual fortitude for The Recogbitions or JR (Gaddis) yet).
Oh man, you've got nothing to fear from JR!! It's howlingly funny and the words just sing out from every page. Unquestionably one of the most impressive feats of writing I've ever seen. Easier (I think) to catch ahold of than IJ or Pynchon, though Pynchon's best is the best as far as I'm concerned. And you do wanna read Gaddis alongside systems-of-crazy writers like Pynchon and (the vastly less impressive, though in his way just as important) RAWilson.

I'm hoping to take a crack at Dhalgren this year or next. Thanks for the reminder!
posted by waxbanks at 5:51 PM on February 18, 2012

Dhalgren is awesome! I have read all of it, but not in sequence and not at one go. So that's an approach. For me, the beauty and sharpness of the descriptions are what I like; also Samuel Delany is pretty much the only male writer whose writing about sex seems to make sense to me and to fully integrate all the subjectivity stuff. Even his porn is really novels (The Mad Man, Hogg) and it is some of the only porn I actually own.

Also, if you like Dhalgren you might find Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand interesting - the plot is much more straightforward (which isn't saying a great deal, actually) but it is also a really neat experimental novel.

And if you're just into experimental science fiction, you would enjoy Joanna Russ's work, especially The Female Man - but there's a pretty transphobic part at the end that she later apologized for.
posted by Frowner at 6:09 PM on February 18, 2012

I read Dhalgren several times when I was much younger. Images from it have been burned into my mind ever since (not all of them sex scenes - most of the ones that stuck with me are images of the burning-but-never-consumed city landscape, the Scorpions, the double moon, and so on.

N'thing everyone who says that it's an easier read than Gravity's Rainbow. You should do it.
posted by jquinby at 6:37 PM on February 18, 2012

Personally, I hated it. Wanted to throw it across the room. But I guess I'm more a fan of stories that make sense, and things have reasons for happening. Obviously plenty of folks have liked it, but if you're like me, you might want to try "book of the new sun" instead.
posted by hishtafel at 7:11 PM on February 18, 2012

seconding hishtafel. I couldn't stand it; nothing ever really happens, and there's a lot of boring sex in between. And FWIW I loved both Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by xbonesgt at 8:23 PM on February 18, 2012

Read it. It contains some amazing writing. It doesn't follow genre fiction conventions, but if you know anything about Delany you are probably aware of that. Some of the imagery has stuck with me for years, and I haven't read it since it was published. (But I have a copy of it on my bookshelf, waiting to be re-read.)

Personally I like Delany's short fiction better than his long stuff. YMMV, of course. We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line is one of the best sf short stories ever written. The title alone kicks ass, and has the benefit of being perfectly relevant to the story.

If you can find it, dig up The Paris Review # 197, which has an interview with Delany (and, as a bonus, one with William Gibson).
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:14 AM on February 19, 2012

Dhalgren was the book that made me want to be a writer. As others have mentioned, it is dense, but rather more like a Ulysses sort of density than Wallace's and Pynchon's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sort of density. I haven't read it in full in years, but the parts that stick out in my mind are very visual – the double moon, the chains, the palimpsest (by far my favorite piece of avant garde writing). If you enjoy the Joyce, Pynchon, Gaddis, Wallace class of writers, you will get something out of Dhalgren.

My favorite part about this book is that there is no clear entry point to the plot. (which is maybe why it seems joycean to me). The book is framed as if you, the reader, are reading this journal written by someone but the main character, known only as "the kid", has written over sections of it. It helps to have a little background in literary theory to appreciate how well Delaney pulls this off, but it's not required.

It's a great read. Really not as difficult as it may seem. Just come at it as one might come at poetry. Focus on the imagery and don't think too hard about the plot.
posted by deathpanels at 8:23 AM on February 19, 2012

'Dhalgren' is one of my favourite um 'fantastic' tales... but it's not for everyone. You really have to buy into Delaney's unusual style here, and go along with the very loose plotting which doesn't always seem to be going anywhere. If you can do that, it's really swell...

Also re-iteratin': 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand' is highly recommended if you like something challenging, but thought that maybe 'Dhalgren' was just a bit too challenging...

And: The Delaney Paris Review interview is online here, and his story is really something else.
posted by ovvl at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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