If you’ve not yet attempted to read the monster that is Dhalgren, I would highly urge you to do so. It’s a cornerstone of both science fiction and post-modernist works, and Samuel Delaney’s obsessive rewriting makes the sentences a pleasure to work through. That being said, it’s also infuriatingly vague and immensely dense and will no doubt render most people incredibly frustrated. Hopefully, some of the ideas I’ve laid out here will help you make the most of Dhalgren (Although I by no means pretend to understand the breadth of Delaney’s overarching intentions). I hope you enjoy!
Briefly, I’ll just mention a few historical and classical references you might use to inform your understanding of the work. The 1950’s and early 60’s of Delaney’s youth which Dhalgren attempts to portray was a time characterized by a post-WW2 boom in the middle class, suburban, nuclear family’s affluence in the United States. However, there was also a huge rise in conservatism and patriotism, as a crippling fear of communism and socialism in the form of The Red Scare took hold of the nation. Although Delaney now identifies as gay, and is a prominent queer writer, he was married for 14 years to fellow writer Marilyn Hacker, with whom he had a sexually open relationship, often engaging in polyamory and sexual experimentation, which was perhaps an influence of his writing of the Kid and Lanya (and Denny’s) relationship. I think it is also worth mentioning certain classical references which pop up in the text. For example, Dhalgren’s internal cyclical structure draws upon James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and the context draws upon from Joyce’s Ulysses. There are also references to Beowulf; “Dhalgren” is meant to serve as a sort of anagram for “Grendel”, the beast whom Beowulf has to fight. It might be possible to see the city of Bellona as the “Grendel” of Dhalgren, and the Kid as Beowulf, the great warrior leader in the hall, surrounded by his followers (i.e., the Scorpions in their nest). There are also certain biblical undertones; for example, you might interpret the Kid to be Jesus, Copperhead as Judas, and George Harrison as Satan (and it is worth noting that the Kid’s forgiveness of Copperhead subverts the traditional linear biblical narrative to a certain extent). However, I think that all autobiographical, historical, and classical references might be better taken at face value when it comes to Dhalgren– the nature of the text seems to rejects too much codification, and clinging to possible influences and topical references limit the scope of what the novel sets out to do in its complexity.
I’d like to quickly mention that the article by Fredric Jameson entitled Postmodernism Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a useful text to look at alongside Dhalgren, especially if you’re interested in the way Dhalgren becomes a post-modernist text, and how “post-capitalism” works. If you have access to JSTOR, the article should be available on there for most people. I would argue that Dhalgren might be better classified as high-modernist, rather than post-modernist. Dhalgren embodies certain very postmodernist qualities, which Jameson defines as “overt revolt, sexuality and queerness, and obscurity”, as well as abiding by certain fragmentary and discontinuous qualities, both in structure and content. However, while postmodernist works are thought of as typically devoid of traditional feeling and sentiment, or rather defined by a movement from depth to the surface, Dhalgren is, in essence, an extremely emotional text in its exploration of Kids fragile psyche. Although the emotions may not necessarily make the most sense to us, the vividity of the human emotion is present at almost all times, even in the most fragmented moments. Delaney himself stated in a lecture given at Pratt (you can check that out here) that he has always viewed his science fiction as some of the most “emotionally dense work” he has ever done, and that the fragmentations and discontinuity within the text are meant to “lead to an even more intense experience of emotions”. Perhaps this refers to the complimentary way that the science fiction aspects force us out of our own realities, and the overtly emotional cause us suddenly and deeply empathize.
I’d like to also mention capitalist drive (or lack of it) and societal structures, in their relation to the post-apocalyptic and post-capitalist world that is Dhalgren. Dhalgren is an exploration of a city not run by capitalist urges, and a central question of the novel becomes what governs life if not the consumption rituals taken on by most modern cities. The days of the week are determined off the whims of Mr Calkins, George Harrison becomes the second moon, a demon and a god, and the Reverend Amy both preaches and distributes pornographic posters. Life in Bellona is languid, purposeless, and unhindered by the realities of the world outside. As Tak puts it, “But we have no economy. The illusion of an ordered social matrix is complete, but it’s spitted through on all these cross-cultural attelets. It is a vulnerable city. It is a saprophytic city— It’s about the pleasantest place I’ve ever lived”, found on pg. 668 of Kindle Edition. The lack of capitalist drive frees the characters up to certain explorations of self, but whether these explorations are ultimately positive or negative seems to be an entirely different question. As Reverend Amy puts it, “Don’t you know that once you have transgressed that boundary, every atom, the interior of every point of reality, has shifted its relation to every other you’ve left behind, shaken and jangled within the field of time, so that if you cross back, you return to a very different space from the one you left? You have crossed the river to come to this city? Do you really think you can cross back to a world where a blue sky goes violet in the evening, buttered over with the light of a single, silver moon?”, p. 480 K.E. There seems to be the idea of “no return” to normality, to capitalist reality after Bellona.
I would argue that these ideas of post-capitalism tie right into ideas of time, perception, reality, and the cyclical versus linear structures of them. There seem to be many different timelines in Bellona: as Kid puts it, “Maybe time is just running backwards here. Or sideways”, p. 377 K.E. Time (just as memory) seems to slip in and out of reality, with large chunks of time disappearing all at once, while other moments seem to drag on far longer than they should. Kid tells Lanya, “ I mean, I live in one city…maybe you live in another. In mine, time…leaks; sloshes forward and backwards turns up and shows what’s on its underside.Things shift. In your city, you’re sane and I’m crazy. But in my city, you’re the one who’s nuts!”p. 414, K.E. The Kid’s perceptions of time are how we as readers come to understand time, leaving it up to debate whether the time is truly skewed or Kid’s perceptions of it merely are. The Kid’s perceived madness seeps into his perceptions of time, and therefore out reality, as he thinks “I am limited, finite, fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind with no knowledge I can take on.”p. 583, K.E. Time becomes largely cyclical in Dhalgren: in the same way that the events in the book seem to defy the logic of a linear timeline, the internal structure of the book does the same. Lanya’s song “Diffraction” becomes a metaphor for the looping nature of the novel itself: perhaps making no sense on its own, but necessitating a looping over and under itself in order to be understood. The novel never truly ends, but just circles back in the final sentence to complete the first unfinished one in the novel, “”Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond Holland and into the hills I have come to wound the autumnal city”, suggesting that there are multiple entry points into the novel. As Kid leaves Bellona, passing over his Orchid to the familiar woman he sees on his way out and leaves “The burning city squatted on weak, inverted images of its fires” for good, only to circle back to the start and enter it all over again; as William Gibson puts it, “Dhalgren does not answer, but goes on.”
You can purchase Dhalgren online here, either the Kindle Edition or a paperback.
You can have a look through some of Delaney’s other works here: he has loads of science fiction works (most of which are just a touch less dense than Dhalgren), and I would highly recommend looking into some of the queer theory writing he’s done as well.