Rob's Reviews > Dhalgren

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
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's review
Jun 29, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction, own, project, vermont, 2009, apocalypse, important, 100-paperbacks
Recommended to Rob by: John McDonald, Alana, Creighton
Read in November, 2009

** spoiler alert ** SCENE: Samuel R. Delany, sitting at his writing desk, surrounded by books (some on shelves, but most piled on the floor), circa 1973; a man walks into the room.

- Delany and the man stare at each other. They both stroke their beards.

Delany: "Who are you?"

The Man: "Don't you know? They sent me."

D: "Who? Who sent you?"

TM: "It doesn't matter. I'm here to tell you that it's OK. They told me to tell you that we're not really competing. Not really."

D: "And who are you...?"

TM: "I told you, didn't I? Anyway, it doesn't matter. Nice place. With the books and all that."

D: "Thanks?" (pause) "So what is it that's supposed to be 'OK' by 'them'?"

TM: (picks up a stack of papers from next to the typewriter) "Good shit. Run with it."

D: "But you didn't even read it?"

TM: "I don't have to. Look, I've already been there. I've been in it. I know it. I've lived for Christ's sake. This is us."

D: "What do you mean?"

TM: "What do you mean 'what do I mean?'? Isn't it obvious?"

D: "Is it? I would guess not because I'm asking you."

TM: "Maybe... Maybe... It's shared though. What's on these pages--" (TM slaps the ream of pages) "--these pages are shared by you, by me, by everyone that does this kind of work. Everyone that has ever put pen to paper or pressed a typewriter key and called the output 'science fiction'--those people are us. And we all share this vision. This is shared. It's... Well, there's a man--he'd be about 25 now--he will call it--" (he slaps the ream again) "--he will call this a 'riddle that was never meant to be solved'--and this is what he'll mean when he calls something else a 'consensual hallucination'."

D: "Those are some sexy phrases."

TM: (strokes his beard) "Aren't they? But not gratuitously so."

D: "And even if they were..."

TM: "It's a fine line between gratuitous and... and... Indicative of...?"

D: "...of what?"

TM: "Exactly. There's nothing wrong with sexy." (slaps the ream again) "As a matter of fact. Do it up. Do it way up. You'll never get another opportunity like this."

D: "But I can write whatever I want."

TM: (laughs, snorts) "Not like this. This one is indelible. You only get a chance to do a novel like this once. Don't screw it up."

D: "That's not fair. This won't be my only 'good' novel."

TM: "That's not fair either. Don't put words in my mouth. Some of your other work is good. Babel-17 is good. Nova was good, too. But this..." (TM shivers) "The stuff you're doing with that Caulkins character? As an anti-Merlin? Good stuff."

D: "Anti-Merlin?"

TM: "Sure. Isn't he kind of a stand-in narrator? Like the Arthurian Merlin? Or like that Tolkein guy did with Gandalf. Or that 'Old Jew' character in that Miller guy's book... What was it called? 'Chronicle of Liebermark'? Something like that?"

D: "Canticle?"

TM: "Whatever. My point is... It's a smart move. He's like that. Omniscient and omnipresent--only not. He's knows everything--but only second-hand--and he's never ever physically present. It's twisty-turny. The ugly hands, the never-present authority figure..."

D: "What's this about the hands?"

TM: "Don't be coy. I hate it when you do that. They hate it when you do that. You don't want to piss them off. You know how long it took me to pay off that piper?"

D: "Who are you?"

TM: "I told you already! Look, it doesn't matter. Just listen. This is important. Don't screw up Kemp. This 'Kemp' character of yours is important. Captain Kemp? You remember? Have you written him in yet? Well you need to. He is your vehicle for summing it up. Look, the readers--the ones that get it--and not everyone will get it--and that's fine, they don't need to--I'm just saying, the ones that get it--Kemp's dialogue will resonate with those readers. If you haven't already--" (he quickly leafs through the ream) "--you'll write this passage--from Kemp's point-of-view--about his trip to the moon. Now when you write it, he will be talking to this--uh--to The Kid and he is going to have to admit how his trip to the moon is not something that you can describe. And--and this is important--that since he can't--since no one can possibly describe it, that there is almost no point in trying to--so instead you just tell them what they want to hear."

D: "But that isn't what I want to do at all!"

TM: "But it's OK. I told you. They sent me here to tell you exactly that. That it's OK to tell it this way. Look, there's going to be this pool of readers--" (TM throws his hands up in a huge circle that encompasses his entire girth) "--that even bother to try to read this thing. Now remember that the total pool of readers is much bigger. Bigger than this room, bigger than this apartment--probably bigger than this whole city. But this circle--" (TM makes an obscene thrust of his pelvis through the circle of his arms) "--represents everyone that will even crack the binding on this one. Are you with me? These are the people that give a shit. And these--" (TM makes the circle half the size that it was) "--these are the people that will see it through to the end. Still with me? Most of these--" (he makes the obscene pelvic thrust again through the circle) "--most of these people are themselves writers. Or at least aspiring writers. Now, you remember earlier when I was talking about how this--" (TM slaps the ream of paper again) "--this represents some kind of shared knowledge between you and me and all of them--" (again with the pelvic thrust) "--well if anyone is going to get it, it's going to be these people--" (he shrinks the circle of his arms again) "--OK? Which isn't even to suggest that they'll follow every last lead that you put in there. After all, no one but you is going to be even able to be intimate with the piece on that level. But these people--" (once more with the thrust) "--will know that maybe what you're doing with Kemp, maybe his whole bit of dialogue to The Kid, that maybe that's the real crux of the narrative. That you cannot possibly hope to share every last detail as it transpires in your own mind. So you bash away on those keys and hope that enough of The Shared World comes across that they will recognize the Kemp dialogue for what it is and recontextualize the whole thing with that as the baseline modulator."

D: "So what you're saying is that--as the author--you can never really get it right? So don't even try?"

TM: "No, I'm saying that you can't get it to be accurate. You can get it to be right. But you have to--first--trust your readers; and--second--trust that your voice conveys the meaning (for whatever that word is worth [TM mutters:]). Casting the setting is as much in the hands of the reader as it is in yours. You stretch the canvas, your reader applies the paint."

D: "What else?"

TM: (stokes his beard) "There is no 'what else'! I thought you knew that. They thought you knew that! Seriously, you go all meta-narrative in this thing and then you hit me with a 'what else' like it's nothing?"

D: "But--"

TM: "But nothing! The writing-within-the-writing thing is great. Your last chapter is a killer. An absolute killer. It's a shame that you can't do the whole thing like that. Can you? Can't you? In another 27 years there's a guy who is going to do this in a pretty epic fashion. Anyway, I--" (TM trails off for a second) "--I can see how maybe you can't get away with it this year. Or even next? Anyway, look it'll still be strong."

D: "You think so?"

TM: "Oh yes. You've created some interesting dichotomy. You've got your narrative and then the meta-narrative it contains. And within that meta-narrative there's only ever two kinds of anything. The poems, and the journalism. 'Brass Orchids' and 'the paper'. The Kid and Caulkins, the narrator and the never-present. It's a good trick."

D: "It's more than a cheap trick, you know."

TM: "I didn't mean for it to sound like I was calling it a cheap trick." (TM sighs) "Anyway, I better get going. I'm supposed to flash-forward and steal my cybernetic facsimile."

D: "They do that in the future?"

TM: "Not in any useful way. Nothing that's going to help either of us." (TM starts to go out the way he came in)

D: "Wait! Any other advice?"

TM: "Sure. Play down the whole 'Grendel' linkage unless you need to force your hand. Let people slip into Greek classicism for their comparisons. It's their own folly." (TM pulls his head off, tucks it under his arm and walks out)

- Delany looks down at the ream with something between scorn and satisfaction. He rolls a joint using one of the pages as his paper, and starts to read through the manuscript after he gets it lit.


See also:
10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read (And Why You Should Actually Read Them) at io9
The Best (or Worst) of Apocalyptic Books at the Huffington Post
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Quotes Rob Liked

“Clouds out of control decoct anticipation. What use can any of us have for two moons? The miracle of order has run out and I am left in an unmiraculous city where anything may happen.”
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

“One picks one's way about through the glass and aluminum doors, the receptionists' smiles, the lunches with too much alcohol, the openings with more, the mobs of people desperately trying to define good taste in such loud voices one can hardly hear oneself giggle, while the shebang is lit by flashes and flares through the paint-stained window, glimmers under the police-locked door, or, if one is taking a rare walk outside that day, by a light suffusing the whole sky, complex as the northern aurora.”
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

Reading Progress

09/24/2009 page 1
0.12% "that foreword by William Gibson sounds like a challenge"
09/27/2009 page 55
6.87% "mind not quite (yet) blown but certainly bent and doubled over"
09/29/2009 page 96
11.99% "Current theory: Bellona is the amalgamation of every city that lives in every sci-fi author's mind"
10/12/2009 page 417
52.06% "!?!?!?" 2 comments
10/24/2009 page 651
81.27% "looking @ 1st page of "The Anathēmata: a plague journal" & wondering "like Don Gately in the hospital" or "like John Galt's broadcast"?"
10/25/2009 page 670
83.65% "is really (really) surprised that Delany's name doesn't appear in "the list" (pp. 64-67) in House of Leaves"
10/26/2017 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Geez, I apparently don't remember this one at all. But then it's probably been almost thirty years. I should re-read it, huh?

You seem to like it. But only four stars?

message 2: by Rob (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob RE: re-reading: I am considering this one of my "project books" and it will require multiple readings to take it all in. If you could make it through the first reading, I think you owe it to yourself to read it again.

RE: "only four stars": Hard to describe... I had a hard time with which bits were gratuitous and which were not. Also, there were some bits that felt a little tedious. ALSO: as I was working through the final chapter ("The Anathēmata: a plague journal"), I kept reflecting on how well done it was and how the rest of the book could probably have benefited from being in that (non?) format.

message 3: by Thomas (new)

Thomas How the hell do I give five stars to a review?!?

message 4: by Rob (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob Thomas wrote: "How the hell do I give five stars to a review?!?"

Hahahaha! You just did?

message 5: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Love Makes me want to reread it all over again so many years later. I was expecting a comment from D, but perhaps its in the margin, beyond my screen.

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