September 5, 2019 9:44 PM - by Samuel R. Delany - Subscribe

A young half–Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there . . . In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged. Into this desperate metropolis steps the Kid, his fist wrapped in razor-sharp knives, to write, to love, to wound.   So...

So hey folks, I have not reread this book for maybe 20 years and it is time. If any of you are up for it, would love some side discussion as I do that. Isn't it time you had another go? Or if you haven't, here is your golden opportunity.

If you just want to remember and comment, that is great too.
posted by Meatbomb (46 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have commented on this book a few times on MF, it seems to come up every once in a while.

Here is a good link on Ask, "Should I read it?", if you are wondering what is in store.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:48 PM on September 5, 2019

My favorite book! I am just winding up Black Leopard, Red Wolf and had been intending on a Delany readthrough. The Neveryona books seem hard to find digitally but iirc the early stuff and the later SF stuff is accessible.

For years I carried two copies of the Bantam Dhalgren paperbacks at all times, one to read (and reread) and one to give to the next person who asked me what I was reading. I had no idea just how autobiographical the book was. I had no idea who Chip was. In the late eighties, with the publication of “The Motion of Light in Water,” I was able to begin to inkle what I hadn’t seen.

Delany is one of my brainfathers, who taught me how to be me. I am in his debt. I am grateful that now and then I have been able to express my gratitude to him.
posted by mwhybark at 10:30 PM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Weird to see it without the classic Bantam cover.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:33 PM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


Isn’t Bellona more midsouth? Like inland from Atlanta? In my mind map it’s in the northwest corner of Alabama. I suppose maybe it’s about where Memphis is... although actually it’s New York City, shhh don’t tell
posted by mwhybark at 10:33 PM on September 5, 2019

Weird to see it without the classic Bantam cover.

Yes, the Bantam cover is the correct one, for me, too. My first experience with the book was through my grandfather. He was a very big space/astronomy/scifi guy in the 50s and onward, and I was maybe 11 or 12 when I picked it off his bookshelf. "No, not that one, it is for adults."

I got my hands on it a couple years later but bounced right off of it, I think I was maybe 16 or 17 when I finally made it through. And even then, a lot of opacity. But in the end feel much like you, mwhybark, it put images and ideas into my brain that are still important load-bearing members of the structure.

Also set my path out of homophobia and into a much more healthy and inclusive understanding of sexuality, gender, race... Really indebted to Samuel R Delany for giving me this book.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:06 PM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Somewhere in the middle, put it down when I started thinking it was getting too real, only been a couple, cough decades, will get back into it soon...
posted by sammyo at 5:06 AM on September 6, 2019

So I took a peek at digital formats and availability of Delany’s material at the Seattle Public Library, and checked out basically everything for the next couple weeks. If I can figure out how to return them early I will. Pretty much everything he’s written is digitally available (and is available for purchase on Amazon in Kindle, as linked here). There are also some audiobooks available via SPL including an adaptation of Dhalgren.

Dhalgren was wait-listed as an ebook as was the first of the Neveryona books and a couple others (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, maybe one other). It looked to me as if they mostly have two copies available except for Dhalgren which had four.
posted by mwhybark at 7:55 AM on September 6, 2019

Oh I need to read this! I read his About Writing last year and really enjoyed it, and I'm a huge fan of Joanna Russ who was a good friend of his and I think a somewhat similar writer style-wise.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:58 AM on September 6, 2019

I'd planned to read Delany's late-'60s-period autobiography Heavenly Breakfast (pub 1979), which time in his life seems likely to have heavily informed at least the communal living scenes in Dhalgren, before my next reread. Very interested in any discussion, though; never had any friends make it past the first few pages despite losing a couple loaned-out copies in the recruitment attempt.
posted by to wound the autumnal city at 11:00 AM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I found that the book was really hard to get into, but once you start to understand the outlines of what's happening it becomes much easier. In particular, just get past the very beginning. It gets easier!

I'd love to reread this sometime. It's such a Big Mood of a book.
posted by selfnoise at 12:52 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bought this forty years ago and never got much past the first chapter. I really should try it again. I've read lots of Delany, even saw him in person once but couldn't get a grip on this one.
posted by octothorpe at 3:50 PM on September 6, 2019

I have dl'd the epub, it comes with the new intro by Gibson.

I am not some deep literary critic, but as promised I am going to try to discuss a little bit as I read through, so...


-Gibson makes a really interesting point that I haven't considered previously, that "the city" is a different place from "America" in a more general symbolic sense. Maybe more deeply true in the historical context of the 70s than now, but nonetheless... A place where people are alone and outside the normal bounds of expectations, where a new culture can be built, where the rules are different. He talks about his own experience in some demonstration or semi-riot in NYC in his youth... Part of the allure of the idea of Belonna, from my young self, was being outside of society and the rules and expectations, beyond law and social stricture. I suppose that is an element in most apocalyptic fiction.

I Prism, Mirror, Lens

-The writing is just so good! There is no affectation, no big fancy words, but poetic and simple. Lots of sensory description that really works. In the cave when it is dark, he describes the sensations on his feet - which is where your sensory focus would be in that situation.

I am already well into II The Ruins of Morning but enough for now, interested to see if some of you will pick it up and want to talk through as well.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:17 PM on September 6, 2019

I'm actually a little afraid of bouncing off of this, but I'm willing to give it a go with FanFare pushing me on! I was going to pick up Times Square Red, Times Square Blue next, but happy to shift it around. I read Babel-17 and Stars in My Pocket and loved them both, so fingers crossed...
posted by kalimac at 8:51 PM on September 6, 2019

I am amused that the first named person yet-unnamed Kid meets is Tak Loufer, Red Wolf, considering that I just finished Marlon James’ work. Wonder if James knows Delany’s stuff? Seems like he must.
posted by mwhybark at 8:32 AM on September 7, 2019


“GR: What other books do you recommend in that vein?

MJ: If people haven’t read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola, they really should. African literature—hell, magical realism—could not happen without it. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is fantastic. N.K. Jemisin doesn’t need an introduction. Nalo Hopkinson was a huge influence, Midnight Robber, Skin Folk. If people haven’t read Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, they really have to; that was a huge influence, particularly in terms of identity and gender and sexuality and how do you evoke those things. Of course, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which has now become science fact. “

The other brain tickle I am getting in rereading Dhalgren is how strongly it seems to have influenced Soldier of the Mist and the rest of that suite of books. Gene Wolfe, of all people! Kid’s amnesia and use of writing, his visions and actions presented narratively in first person without immediately-apparent motivation, this is Latro!
posted by mwhybark at 8:39 AM on September 7, 2019

Well on into The Ruins of Morning. I was heartily amused by the now-classic Tom of Finlandesque material Kidd describes in Tak’s place.

I had forgotten, or maybe didn’t notice on prior reads, the absolute foregrounding and meticulous descriptions of organic filth, of gunk on skin, of unwashed bodies. I am really too young to have direct experience of the subcultural celebration of being dirty that this seems to stem from. I suppose I was probably 12 or 13 when I first read the book and it was then and remains of its’ time, the subcultural, post-sixties early 1970s.*

I keep thinking of the wonderful film “The Warriors,” released to a hubbub of consternation in 1979 but seemingly set a few years prior all across an abstracted and mythical nighttime New York City. I guess maybe I conscripted imagery and settings from that film to serve as the Bellona of my mind’s eye.

When I first read the book I had read a fair amount of New Wave SF and probably one or two things by Hunter S. Thompson, but no Beats yet, no Kerouac or Burroughs or Ginsberg. Moorcock and Disch, yes. Zelazny, Brunner, Herbert, yes. Tolkien. Heinlein, seventies Analog writers like Spider Robinson. Delany’s acquiring editor for this book, Fred Pohl, iirc.

I suppose I hadn’t yet determined if my interest in American subculture would broaden into allegiance. It certainly did, and as I moved through my early, mid, and late adolescence I was always aware that the Kid and I lived in the same city, no matter where the city I lived was in a given moment of time.

* I also see Dhalgren as timeless, as literally situated outside time, reflecting concepts that Moorcock popularized in SFF, concepts that Gibson obliquely references in his intro. Bellona is New York and it is Tanelorn, and London, and all cities.
posted by mwhybark at 3:29 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lanya, at approximately the 1/3 mark (Kidd is still going to the Richards’ place, I think it’s the night before the, er, thing happens). Kidd has just asked if she is happy ‘living like this.’

“Me?” She breathed a long breath. “Let me see…before I came here, I was teaching English to Cantonese children who’d just arrived in New York’s Chinatown. Before that, I was managing a pornographic bookstore on 42nd Street. And before that, for quite a while, I was a self-taught tape-jockey at WBAI-FM, in New York, and before that, I was doing a stint at her sister station KPFA, in Berkeley, Cal. Babes, I am so bored here that I don’t think, since I’ve come, I’ve ever been more than three minutes away from some really astonishing act of violence.” And suddenly, in the dark, she rolled against him.

I assume Lanya is based on Delany’s wife at the time. That is an impressive subcultural resume. I doubt highly I ever even knew about WBAI or KPFA until well into the Internet era. Still, she’s bored even in this thought-experiment TAZ Delany’s built, ready to lash out in the surrealist tradition of a character in Burroughs or the bull-ring.

Congruent to this is the careful way Delany delineates Kidd keeping his cards close to his chest, letting others project onto him, echoing what they’ve said back to someone else when he thinks it will please them. Kidd really does look younger than he thinks he is, and it might be because he is indeed still unformed, a kid, trying identities on.
posted by mwhybark at 10:22 PM on September 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

What is our position on spoilers?

The, uh, event.

The first few times I read it I don’t think it really reached me because I was a kid. Then, when I was 22, my barely-younger sister died in a bicycle-auto collision, and this scene snapped over into terror and trauma for me. My parents’ life-arcs changed, as you might expect, and now it’s impossible to separate Delany’s somewhat satirical and reductionist portrait of the Richards from my own grief-addled family and parents. For years after when I read this scene it would be nearly impossible to actually read it as written as my own experiences towered up from the dark to blot out the already familiar text, tears and snot on the page and my helpless hands.

It is situated exactly at 1/3 of the way through. End of act one, I guess.
posted by mwhybark at 10:47 PM on September 9, 2019

Ah, an observation: I think Delany is probably consciously counterwriting some lynching narratives here, and possibly specifically borrowing from Emmett Till’s face. That’s not something I think can be solidly demonstrated.
posted by mwhybark at 10:50 PM on September 9, 2019

You are a little farther than I, Kidd is just cleaning out the apartment leading up to the event.

The book is still as good as I remember it being. It is odd, though, to come back to something that I experienced more or less as a contemporary work and now to feel it as an historical artifact.

And I am happy you guys are in here with me, as you are picking up a lot of references I would never have noticed on my own.

Just a couple of random observations that have struck me:

1) Race issues. The use of "coon" and "nigger" and "spade" so casually and frequently, and I am trying to reconcile that with the fact that SRD is black himself, and that some of it is just, yes, that is how people talked. I do not have any deep understanding or insight here, but it is just jarring to me.
2) Sex. Wow, the 70s really was a different time. Kidd seems to have sex every night for the first three recorded nights of the story, and he is bisexual and all of his romantic interests are aware of that and it is no big deal.
3) George and the daughter, and her pursuit of him. I am as confused as I was the first time reading as a teen. So was it rape? Consensual? But she is underage. But she seems to want him. I will have to pay close attention to this when we actually meet George and hear more detail from his POV.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:11 PM on September 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Prism, Mirror, Lens

The three ways light can be manipulated, also obviously connections to fiction and its relation to the real world. Fascinating how certain characters get marked as members of this special club. Kid wears them but also chafes on them, we keep hearing about how they physically bite or otherwise disturb him as he goes about his business.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:15 PM on September 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Delany is pretty upfront about the mythic underpinning he’s chasing, while I can’t confidently say that the tale of June and George is mapped to, say, Leda and the Swan or whatever. But the kid fucks a dryad on his way into town.

i’m the wrong guy to try to set Delany’s use of racially-charged terms in his prose within his context and milieu. He’s probably the right guy to do that. I suspect he may have been aiming for a subjective record of spoken American speech in his experiential context - note abbreviated gesture toward dialect in George’s dialog.

Regarding sex and sexuality, I am a little unsure of what to make of it. Delany later writes in various contexts about transgression and sex and BDSM with more directness than he does here. Certainly, when I read this as I child, I understood it as a guidebook to healthy and experientially open sexuality. I’m pretty sure that was a misapprehension on my part, but on the other hand, I have participated in a much broader spectrum of sexual expression than I ever expected to when I first read this book.

I think that may be more of a cultural change thing. The late sixties ethos that Delany seems to be delineating here was undergoing critique and change in numerous ways by the late Seventies, everything from feminist critiques of polyamorist and communal lifestyles to the incipient AIDS crisis.

Within the context of bohemian and subcultural literature the open and, what, I guess we might call it hookup aspect of the sex in the first third of the book seems not necessarily unique, with the possible exception of Delany’s direct prose describing Kid and Tak together. That said, the particular and evident care with which the prose is written sets it apart, in my eyes, from other writing in the era that is interest in celebrating the old, very old, new freedoms.

I have very distinct memories as a late teen of being so, so disappointed to learn just how much work and how complicated it was to have sex with lots of people. It wasn’t exactly like feeling that I had been lied to. I just misread the texts!

For the record, Iwas born in 1966. I am pretty sure I read Delany’s early stuff in checked out library editions by like 1978 and my best guess for the year I first read Dhalgren is 1979, probably in that Bantam paperback brick I lugged around for the next decade.
posted by mwhybark at 11:37 PM on September 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

oh, one more citation

“Because…” He breathed, felt her head shift on his shoulder, her hand rock with his on his chest. “Because that means it’s the city. That means it’s the landscape: the bricks, and the girders, and the faulty wiring and the shot elevator machinery, all conspiring together to make these myths true. And that’s crazy.”

From just after the event, Kidd to Lanya in the park. A manifesto of psychogeography, the driving hypothesis in nearly everything by Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, and much late-period Michael Moorcock. Delany is literally a pioneer, just sloughing off ideas in one offs and asides that get picked up and polished by later writers. Amazing.
posted by mwhybark at 11:54 PM on September 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, fwiw, Chip is very active on FB and often posts reminiscences. Today he shares an anecdote about he and Marilyn’s life in London which intersected in small ways with Robert Graves and a CIA spy.

posted by mwhybark at 8:19 AM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Worth noting that it was Fred Pohl who got Dhalgren and Russ's The Female Man published. This was a guy born in 1919!
posted by Chrysostom at 8:44 AM on September 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm only at the point where the Kid has just left Tak's place and found the orchid back on his hand. Initial thoughts: I don't quite know what to make of all this so far, but I really appreciate the way that the writing forces me to slow down. I'm an extremely fast reader and sometimes I regret it, because I feel like it makes me miss some nuances. But with this book, it's often impossible for me to read "normally" - I'm forced to really focus on the prose itself, not just the story.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:55 PM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I should also note - unlike, it seems, a lot of people in this thread, I'm only in my early 30s, but my childhood exposure to SF was through my mom's old books, so I've read more 70s and 80s era SF than modern stuff. Reading SF from before I was born is like getting a peek at two different "other worlds" at once - a potential future, and a past that I'll never experience personally. I'm keeping that in mind as I read this. I'd love to hear from people who read it around when it came out about how it reflects the world at that time.

I actually haven't read much queer literature from before my time, though, and I'm fascinated by how queerness has been treated in this book so far. I immediately recognized Tak as gay but I don't know how many contemporary readers would have known it (maybe more than I suspect).

And then, as a queer person in 2019's atmosphere of "you must analyze the absolute fuck out of your identity and claim a bunch of labels," I'm so intrigued by the decision to show the Kid simply engaging in sex with a woman and then a man without at all addressing the question of What His Sexuality Is.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:25 PM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m gonna use this thread for notes too since what I’m seeing appears to be of interest.

Kidd revisits the Richards and scopes the letter in the box, imagining a specific (and real) address in Seattle as the return address. No idea if there was ever a hotel at 43rd and Fremont.

Kidd catches up with the commune in the (central) Park, and there are new fires. He flashes on memories of his time as a wildlands firefighter.

Kerouac spent most of a year in Seattle and environs, working as a fire lookout in Gifford Pinchot, I think. He used these experiences in Desolation Angels and in The Dharma Bums. In these passages, I don’t know if Delany is mining his own experiences hereabouts or casting a shoutout to Jack.
posted by mwhybark at 7:03 PM on September 10, 2019

This has been on my list for a while. Early impression: don’t know what I was expecting, but Zalman King’s One Shoe Diaries wasn’t it.
posted by rodlymight at 8:40 AM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Interesting contrast, Mr. and Mrs Richards and what is real. He comes home and is tense in the pretending, the apartment is so unreal. She explains to Kid how important it is to build something real for her family.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:11 AM on September 11, 2019

Zalman King’s One Shoe Diaries

I had to look that one up, but yeah a lot of sex. I am remembering that the 70s in general seemed to have a lot more sex - full male frontal nudity, women's breasts on TV...

So, George's talk with Lanya. Rape is the way some women want it, while Lanya explains that actually rape is not border excusable cases like George describes but violence.

And George speaks in a street dialect, with kid wondering how to do it justice in written form.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:05 AM on September 11, 2019

“Between gnarled knuckles and gnawed nails he looked at the smooth undersides of fingers thinner than his own. (He’s taller than I am, Kid thought inanely, taller and stockier.) He reversed his hand, to look at his own palm: the yellowed callous was lined and lined again, deep enough for scars. Between his fingers he saw the backs of fingers with only the slightest hair, only the faintest scar above the middle knuckle and a darkening at the left of the first joint. The reflection’s nails, though without moons save the thumbs, were long as his adolescent dreams, and only slightly dirty. He glanced down at the other hand. Where his was caged in blades, the reflection held—his notebook? But the correspondence (he recalled the church clock with its broken hands) was too banal for relief. Wanting to cry, he gazed full at the face, which, mirroring him twitch to twitch, for all its beard and glasses (and a small brass ring in one ear!) gazed back, with confusion, desperation, and sadness.”

The Kid, in the department store with various folk, looks at his own reflection and sees... Delany, I think.
posted by mwhybark at 9:54 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Newboy finds Kid at the church, gives him a proof and talks his head off.

I have to say, I love Delany’s Newboy voice. The character’s name is no accident - he’s another reflection / refraction of Kidd, of Delany. Try reading some of his soliloquies out loud; they are so much fun to say! I don’t think he ever says an untrue thing in all of his many paragraphs of logorrheic speech. I find him deeply amusing.
posted by mwhybark at 10:20 PM on September 12, 2019

... and in the same scene, Kid reads, I think in his notebook:

“Consider: If an author, passing a mirror, were to see one day not himself but some character of his invention, though he might be surprised, might even question his sanity, he would still have something by which to relate. But suppose, passing on the inside, the character should glance at his mirror and see, not himself but the author, a complete stranger, staring in at him, to whom he has no relation at all, what is this poor creature left”...
posted by mwhybark at 10:28 PM on September 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

He took a breath and moved his arm from under her. “It’s like everything you—anybody says to me…it’s like they’re trying to tell me a hundred and fifty other things as well. Besides what they’re saying direct.”

This is a few pages after the first noticeable time warp, and starts to be clear Kid is not all with it. So is it his insanity, or the city? One causes the other?
Somebody in workman’s greens and orange construction boots, on a high ladder against the corner lamppost—it was a woman he had noticed his first night in the bar—was unscrewing the street sign.
Metal ground metal; HAZE ST came out of its holder. From the ladder top she picked up AVE Q, inserted it, and began to screw the bolts.
“Hey?” Kid was both amused and curious. “Which one of those is right?”
She frowned back over her shoulder. “Neither one, honey, far as I know.”

And here someone is in service to the city. Is the geography warped? Or people make it this way?

Up at Calkins, the ruined wing and Lanya's dress. Nobody comfortable talking about it, people had to have done that damage?

I love this book.
She staggered backward in the sudden glare and fired somewhere between them. The rifle gave a breathy crack, and Kid recognized her green dress: It was the woman, Lynn, he’d sat next to, his last visit to the Richards’.

Aha! And they were all cagey about where they lived. Fuckers.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:23 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

“The worth of our work?” (Kid dropped his eyes and continued reading.) “People who do not create are always sure that on some inchoate level the creator knows it. But the roster of Nobel laureates I have come so near to joining three times now is cluttered with mediocre writers who have neither elegance nor depth, readability nor relevance: lauded during their lifetimes, they died, I’m sure, convinced they had substantially advanced their languages. Your Miss Dickinson died equally convinced no one would ever read a word she wrote; and she is one of the most luminous poets your country has produced. An artist simply cannot trust any public emblem of merit. Private ones? They are even more misleading.”
Kid turned over the next galley. “You’re talking to yourself.” Eyes down, he wondered what expression was on Newboy’s face.
“Most certainly,” Newboy said after a longish pause.
“You’re really that scared your own stuff isn’t any good.”
Newboy paused.
In the pause, Kid considered looking up but didn’t.
“When I’m not actually working, I have no choice: I must consider it worthless. But when I’m engaged in it, writing, revising, shaping and polishing, by the same process, I have to consider it the most important thing in the world. And I’m very suspect of any other attitude.”

And here, the author talking to his character about the value of the work, beautiful. I am really glad you pointed it out, mwhybark, I would not have realised but now it is quite clear to me that Newboy is Delany's own voice.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:01 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I wouldn’t say Newboy is Delany’s own voice except in the same way that Kidd’s speech, thoughts, and writing are also Delany’s own voice. I think Newboy is a constructed, somewhat satirical, version of a certain varietal of Midatlantic intellectual. I think of Tom Wolfe, or even William Safire. Delany develops this dense, performative speech in service of the character, and then unexpectedly has the character say things that are true in ways that are surprising in the context of the book, even as he shows us Kidd making gestures of ironic disapproval toward Newboy’s flood of words.
posted by mwhybark at 10:10 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

(in conversation, to Lanya, regarding crowded conditions in the nest)

‘ “You know,” Kid said, “that’s a funny thing about privacy. If there’re two or three people in a room, it’s really hard to be by yourself. If there’re nine or ten, especially if you’re all living together, if you want to be alone, all you have to do is think I want to be alone and everybody else has somebody to pay attention to, and you’re alone. I had two roommates in an apartment my first year at Columbia; we had four rooms and it was really impossible. A couple of years later I spent December, January, February and March in three rooms on East Second Street in New York with about ten guys and ten chicks. Cold as a motherfucker, and we were in there all day. All we did is eat, ball, and deal dope: Nicest time of my life.” ’

I haven’t read it, but from comments upthread I gather this is Delany’s own life, as recounted in Heavenly Breakfast, bleeding into the Kid’s.
posted by mwhybark at 8:47 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've only just started this, but it's overwhelming in how easily I fall into the world. There's a haiku I read years and years ago about how Shakespeare's words are like jewels in the mouth, and that's how the prose that opens the book reads to me. I just want to let language wash over me.

1) Race issues. The use of "coon" and "nigger" and "spade" so casually and frequently, and I am trying to reconcile that with the fact that SRD is black himself, and that some of it is just, yes, that is how people talked. I do not have any deep understanding or insight here, but it is just jarring to me.

With the caveat that I am white and have at best a surface understanding -- I strongly recommend listening to the Keep It podcast episode where Ira Madison III interviews Karamo Brown. It is one of the more uncomfortable things I've ever listened to, but Ira is brilliant and challenging and there are two....very, very different approaches to language from Black Gay men on display. Neither of them are Delaney, but it gave me massive insight into what these words can mean when used by different groups, and who considers themselves parts of those groups.

(Right, now to read more, so I can catch up with this thread a bit...)
posted by kalimac at 12:15 PM on September 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Still early going, but I must say, this is not an easy book to describe to a friend who asks "so what are you reading right now?" Like, dude, I'M not even sure.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:08 PM on September 18, 2019

I'm loving the occasional switches to first person, by the way. I already mentioned Joanna Russ but that's something she also played with a lot. It could turn out to mean something else but right now it feels like sort of a winking acknowledgment that the Kid is a proxy for Delaney, but then the switches back to third person deliberately undermine it - like "yeah this is KIND OF me but don't get ahead of yourself."
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:13 PM on September 18, 2019

Around the final turn, now, headed home through the last section, the Anathemata. I was curious how this would be rendered in the ebook, as in print Delany made use of unconventional page layouts - inset columns of text in smaller type, mostly - to convey the organic, opportunistic overlays and juxtapositions of the notebook. I have a print copy around here somewhere, I will dig it out and try to take some pictures of the layouts. I may even still have a copy of the original Bantam doorstop someplace.

I remember noticing the shifting point size in this section and what I took for typos in that edition, and relating it to similar issues in the paperback edition of the first couple of Dune books, which appeared to have been hastily typeset with typos and errors in the typesetter’s interpretation of the spec, or possibly badly specced, such that the point size, leading, and occasionally the horizontal orientation of the pasteup wandered around. I think when I first encountered the Anathemata in Dhalgren I assumed that Delany was responding to that aspect of that specific edition of Dune, becasue noticing the flaws in the type in that specific book pulled my awareness into another dimension beyond simply that of reading a story but into an awareness of the physical object in my hands and into consideration of the formal qualities and properties of type, and fonts, and typesetting, and page layout, and design, and how by breaking up the smooth presentation of the text the actual authority of the text was diminished. That is to say, in my experience of noticing shoddy type in Dune I became a more engaged and critical reader.

This section of the book is also extremely what we here would refer to as “meta,” in that it is self-distancing and engaged in a great deal of self-referential commentary. The section is prefaced by an uncredited (and therefore anonymous, although the voice is that of Calkins) introduction which describes it as an anonymously-typed transcript and then appears to attribute the notebook’s ultimate authorship to the also-anonymous author of Brass Orchids. Quite the hall of mirrors, or lenses, or prisms.

I think now it’s much less likely that Delany was responding to that specific edition of Dune (it was only my limited childhood perspective that drove this thesis, I think) and much more likely that he was actively seeking to engage with the great traditions of modernity in art and definitely in type design, seen in works associated with cubism and futurism and even in the crisp layouts of the Bauhaus and Swiss modernism. Shattered and multivalent perspectives overlapping in time and viewpoint, refracted.
posted by mwhybark at 9:04 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Amusingly, I appear to have given my copy away. Again.
posted by mwhybark at 10:44 AM on September 20, 2019

I'm tickled by this quote from a 2010 article:

It’s like Gertrude Stein: Beyond Thunderdome. It seems to have been written by an insane person in a tantric blurt of automatic writing.

When I mention this to Delany, he is pleased. It is, he says, exactly the effect he was going for.

The article goes on to say that Delaney essentially wrote the book the same way the Kid writes poetry, which is fascinating:

"I wrote out hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sentences at the top of notebook pages,” he remembers. “Then I would work my way down the page, revising the sentence, again and again. When I got to the bottom I’d copy the sentence out to see if I wanted it. Then I’d put them back together again. It was a very long, slow process."
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:35 PM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

... and done!

My friend Damian blogged some notes on a 2013 reread here. He posted seven short essays. In the first he notes that a prism refracts light into seven rays and relates that number to the number of chapters in the book.

I. Prism, Mirror, Lens
II. The Ruins of Morning
III. House of the Ax
IV. In Time of Plague
V. Creatures of Light and Darkness
VI. Palimpsest
VII. The Anathemata: A Plague Journal

He doesn’t name the refracted rays, but they are violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. A common mnemonic presents this in the inverse order, ROYGBIV, which also follows the appearance of the color bands of a naturally-occurring rainbow, which will present a red outmost band and a violet inmost one.

In a later essay in the sequence, Damian also notes that at one point the Kid hallucinates or imagines a voice saying “grendal grendal grendalgrendalgrendal...” repeatedly and then later realizes that the phonemes he was hearing more likely represent the name “Dhalgren”. He then gestures toward the mythic monster Grendel from Beowulf, which I believe is the reference Delany intended the reader to take in that passage.

In that same entry, Damian also notes that the Richards’ apartment building is called the Labry apartments and that the chapter title which contains the sequence in which Kidd helps the Richards move to a new apartment in the same building is “House of the Ax”. Again, Delany is certainly intending us to make the connection to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the apartments being apparently connected to the mythic labyrinth and to the symbol of the labrys.

A couple of interesting observations occur to me here, as well. The rainbow has of course today come to stand, as a flag, for LGBTQ freedom, identity, and rights. The labrys today also serves as a pop-culture symbol associated with specifically feminist, often matriarchal and lesbian, empowerment.

While the Richards’ home is presented somewhat satirically and critiqued as artificial by characters in the book, it’s also presented as matriarchal in that it is perceived to be Mrs. Richard’s willful, self-deluding desire which governs the household and which is served by those around her, including Kidd and Madame Brown.

There are two other matriarchal households in the book, as well. Madame Brown’s house, which also becomes Lanya’s home, and the House, which never receives a fuller name but which might, I would speculate, be the House of the Double Ax for which the chapter about the Labry Apartments is named.

Now, did the symbol of the labrys have its’ feminist meaning in 1975, at the book’s publication, or in 1973, when Delany finished writing the book? What about the rainbow flag? I think is seems likely from internal evidence that the labrys was in circulation as a countercultural symbol and was something Delany would have had intimate exposure to. The flag? Well, that’s a more complicated question, I think. Rainbow motifs were a strong element in sixties countercultural - and by the early seventies, mainstream - fashion and expression, and I think it connoted both a sense of celebration of diversity and a psychedelic sense of wonder at the world. According to the wikipedia link upthread, the pride flag was designed in 1978, so while a rainbow motif may have been associated with gay identity in Delany’s cultural context at the time of composition and publication, he is unlikely to have had the flag itself in mind.

Another possible aspect of Delany’s use of light as refracted which I wonder about is the extent to which he may have been treating the theologies of light as source material or metaphor. The use of light as a metaphor for understanding and the divine is very old and has informed our basic use of language in describing things like understanding and divine inspiration, illumination meaning not only light itself but also clarity of vision and understanding. I wonder also if he in some way is writing against this. Stained glass windows appear only infrequently in the book. Fire and grey skies are the most commonly cited sources of ambient light while the holoprojectors of the scorpions (“lights”) are what I recall as the next most frequent, while the moons and the unnamed vast solar disk only appear once each. Two other sources of skyborne light appear, one fragmentarily described in an ambiguous manner which leaves the lightened area of the sky up for interpretation as either dawn or a rainbow, and the terrifying slow lightning that crosses the sky accompanied by a terrible, loud roaring and multiple building collapses.

I guess maybe because the object of the book is itself to not be clear, to be refractory and self-contradictory and multivalent I sort of doubt that Delany was attempting to incorporate any neo-Plotinian themes into the work.
posted by mwhybark at 11:54 AM on September 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

In this immediately current FB post, Delany identifies Lanya’s real life inspiration and confirms that Heavenly Breakfast covers the period of his life that includes many of the models met as fiction in Dhalgren.
posted by mwhybark at 3:05 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

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