Once upon a time (around 1986 or 1987?), I had an opportunity to meet Samuel R. Delany at an ALA or ABA [now BookExpo]. Taking advantage of my position as a buyer for a large book distributor, I monopolized some of his time in the Bantam booth while he waited to do a signing—something that is surely tedious for many authors, some of whom will seek diversion with anyone willing to talk with him or her. In our brief discussion, I remember him most for being surprised at his students’ reluctance to spend $80.00 for a two-volume edition of some work by Lacan. Not wanting to appear unknowledgeable (who the hell was this Lacan fellow?), I merely shook my head to acknowledge his frustration at the short-sightedness of some students who didn’t recognize the value of such a purchase (how quickly we forget the outrageous prices of some collegiate texts). Why does that matter? It doesn’t. What does matter, at least to me, is that Lacan has come to be one of the many languages I don’t speak but will occasionally recognize when I hear it. Delany speaks Lacan. Not just Lacan, he also is fluent in Marx, and Freud, and Jameson, and all the other languages that make his texts so dense, and wondrous, and intimidating. He’s also fluent in pornography, which admittedly, had something to do with my initial interest.
By the time I’d read SiMPLGoS (1985), Dhalgren was already atop my Favorite List; other Delanys had been dutifully accomplished or would be—the Neveryón series, The Tides of Lust, Hogg: A Novel and The Mad Man, et al. And so after my Delany period, I reapproached him with reluctance—my taste in reading has changed, and I wondered if his initial appeal would endure (I’ve restarted Dhalgren numerous times only to decide: Not yet).
When one of my groups decided to read this one, I thought I was ready. It begins with the story of Rat (the narrator’s big-O other or little-o other; I’m not fluent in Lacan, but dammit, it’s one of them) before moving on to the narrator’s seemingly endless account of his world, other worlds, terrains, suns and moons, planets and space travel. To be honest, I thought the middle section would go on forever—it was slow, I was slow, and then…finally, the narrator encounters Rat (now Rat Korga). The pace quickens towards an inevitable end. Inevitable but necessary. Necessary and sad. Themes of loss, memory, desire (that damn Lacan!), overwhelm the Real. The sublime yields to desire. Desire falls victim to Authority to loss and memory.
Someone once pointed out to me that there are two kinds of memory (I don’t mean short- and long-term, either): recognition memory and reconstruction memory. The second is what artiststs train and most of us live off the first—though even if we’re not artists we have enough of the second to get us through the normal run of imaginings. Well, your perfect erotic object remains only in recognition memory, and his absolute absence from reconstructive memory becomes the yearning that is, finally, desire.
I’m glad I reread this one, although I retain the five-star rating primarily because of the way the novel impressed me the first time I read it. Something that does strike me about it—especially when compared to other Delanys—there’s actually very little sex in this one, precious little should that be what you’re looking for.