Difficult Books: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

June 29, 2010 | 38 3 min read

coverOf the half-dozen or so fellow readers I know who have attempted to scale the 800-page Matterhorn that is Dhalgren, none have succeeded. Still, when I tackled it myself last month, I kept encountering people in parks and coffee shops and on the subway who would glance down at the jacket, blurt, “Great book,” and then vanish into the urban landscape. It is the kind of oddity to which Dhalgren attunes us: the protagonist whose name we may or may not learn; the abandoned city as densely populated as a Victorian novel; the story-within-the-story that is at the same time the story-outside-the-story.

coverDislocations, discontinuties, and ontological entanglements are clearly central to Samuel R. Delany‘s design. The novel’s setting (and, arguably, main character) is a bombed-out Midwestern metropolis called Bellona – a spatial, temporal, and psychosexual labyrinth in which our Theseus, an amnesiac poet-adventurer known as Kid, will or won’t find himself. And as it embodies the instabilities of institutions, identities, and power relations, Bellona may be the metaphor par excellence for the 1960s. Indeed, though the book sold a million copies as science-fiction, it seems at many points no more distant from our own reality than that other trippy whopper from the mid-’70s, Gravity’s Rainbow. For Bellona, read Detroit.

The comparison to Pynchon is not made lightly. On the surface, Kid’s wanderings in Bellona look as loosely strung together as that other Kid’s wanderings in Purple Rain. His poetics tend toward the Beatnik, his observations toward the dreamy and spontaneous: the flashbulb-red that keeps appearing in the eyes of certain characters; the holographic exoskeletons in which the book’s street gangs armor themselves… But in the monologues by various Bellonians that punctuate and comment on the action, we can feel Delany synthesizing history, mythology, aesthetics, epistemology, systems theory, and the philosophy of language into a singular vision of the human condition on the cusp of postmodernism. It should also be said that Delany’s sinuous prose, by turns fragmentary and efflorescent, is a major attraction.

Elements of his conception, however, will prove difficult for the casual reader. First, there is the purposeful, high-modernist obscurity of the stream-of-consciousness voice that periodically recurs. The book opens with a half-dozen pages written in the mind-voice of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic Kid; the thought of eight hundred more pages of this may lead some readers to jump ship. The novel quickly modulates, however, into the more straightforward third-person that is its main register.

A more persistent difficulty is the book’s pointed pointlessness. My favorite of Dhalgren‘s seven sections, “House of the Ax,” has an actual plot, as does, broadly speaking, the first half of the novel. But in the back half, as the context Kid has constructed for himself begins to crumble, the narrative devolves into sketchy, repetitive vignettes of kinky sex and random violence. Delany may be posing important questions about mimesis and perception, but “Palimpsest” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness” tried my bourgeois patience.

Finally, after so much work, the novel doesn’t resolve, but folds back into itself. It is famously a circular text, in the manner of Finnegans Wake. And yet, unlike that book, Dhalgren generates a fair amount of suspense out of questions of “what really happened.” That answering those questions would compromise the book may not excuse the omission – at least, in the eyes of my friends who never finished. For those Dhalgrenites in the cafes and subways, however, the novel’s radical open-endedness seems to have been a virtue.

The best analogue I can offer for the singular experience of reading this novel is a video game where any teleology, any notion of progress or levels to be mastered, has been stripped away. Dhalgren is pure world, and as such, it represents an enormous disruption on the generally orderly map of postwar literature, as Bellona does to the orderly map of the 20th Century U.S. The scale of the disruption alone will not justify it to everyone. Then again, it’s not a novel that cares to justify itself. I can think of no better way to honor its ambitions than to invoke that koan-like and recursive New Yorkism, “It is what it is,” and to encourage you to give it a try.

More Difficult Books

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


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  2. I read Dhalgren when I was a teenager, and didn’t have too much trouble with it. Gravity’s Rainbow is 50 times more complex and detailed. I would never compare the two.

  3. Having finished this last summer, I think you’re right on the spot, being honest about its attractions and the occasionally tiresome 2nd half. Have you read Divine Days, by Leon Forrest? I’m thinking of your take on Women & Men here–they strike me as being kind of bookends of their own shelf. There’s an informative review by Sven Birkerts in the New Republic years ago.

  4. Very nice overview of Dhalgren, one of the great novels from that too-brief science fiction new wave of the sixties and seventies that also included some of the best writing from J. G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess and Philip K. Dick. I also want to echo Dan Whatley’s praise for Divine Days, a brilliant book that is indeed an appropriate companion for Women & Men.

  5. Delany in Silent Interviews: “But Gravity’s Rainbow is a fantasy about a war most of its readers don’t really remember, whereas Dhalgren is in fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned-out areas of America’s great cities. To decide if Gravity’s Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time in a library, mostly with a lot of Time/Life book, which are pretty romanticized to begin with. To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile of your own town’s inner city. So Dhalgren‘s a bit more threatening–and accordingly receives less formal attention.”

  6. I should add that I don’t agree with Delany’s read of Gravity’s Rainbow. But the claim that Dhalgren is threatening makes sense: I was spontaneously approached by a guy in a bookstore once who just wanted to denounce Dhalgren; and a couple of my friends have had similar experiences. I wrote a little about Delany’s thoughts on why the novel is threatening in this profile of the author a few years ago.

  7. I still have my first printing of Dhalgren. I was a teenage sf fan when it came out. I recall a particularly vicious review by, I think, Lester Del Rey in Analog magazine. It was a very threatening book to the older writers who made up institutional sf — many of them defined sf as consisting of things that could be possible — the impossible was the purview of fantasy literature. (Of course, this was bunk — many of the same writers used literary hand waving to justify things like faster-than-light travel in their own fiction.) Plus, there was all that sex sex sex in Dhalgren.

    After the ’70s, the genre regressed a lot and has never quite recovered. Some blame Star Wars, which caused the genre to look backwards to capitalize on the commercial potential.

  8. Glad to see the Difficult Books series back, but please in the future not so long between entries!

  9. I read Dhalgren around my freshman year of high school, and it took me two tries to get through it. While the first time was a struggle to get even half-way through, the second time I read it, I fell in love with it. It was the first book of truly good 20th century fiction that I read outside of class, and it was one of the books that has had a lasting impact on me. As much as I love it, I always am hesitant to recommend it because of the the things that were mentioned.

    However, this post reminded me that I couldn’t get into Gravity’s Rainbow when I initially tried it, so maybe I’ll give that one another try.

  10. Dhalgren is probably my favorite book, that should give you an idea of how odd I can be. Every time I read it (about half a dozen times now, I think), I notice something new that resonates with the rest of the book. But I admit that trying to figure it out can be frustrating, it’s not just a puzzle with some of the pieces missing, it’s several puzzles, all mashed together. And not a corner piece to be found.

    But I think the reason that I re-read it so often is that it causes me to think in ways that few other books can do.

  11. I read it in my late teens and again later and loved it both times, but skipped the last chapter both reads as it made little sense that I could see.
    Today was the first time that I ever met anyone else who had read it – a guy in my bookstore – and so I Googled it and found this page. It is pretty interesting to see other readers reactions to a very unique book. .

  12. “Dhalgren” was the first novel by Delany that I ever read. I only read it once, nearly 30 years ago, and the images it cast are still very clear in my memory. The feeling of Kid travelling through the world wearing just one sandal always stuck in my mind — the same idea also shows up in “Nova”.

    I’ve always been a fan of distopian science fiction but until I started reading “Dhalgren”, I didn’t think that anything like this was possible to conceive. This book is a masterpiece.

    As I later started to read more about the author’s life, primarily details of his education and lifestyle, the events in the novel and the style of his writing began to make more sense. I wonder if this epic work could ever be produced as a screenplay.

  13. This book, which I literally finished reading a few minutes ago, left me oddly fulfilled and completely hungry for something substantial. It’s hard to explain how this book is so easy to read, yet impossibly difficult to understand. It’s as circular a text as you can ever read, yet very rewarding for the look inside the author’s mind.

    Just like Infinite Jest, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, only valiant readers will fight to the last page, but the feeling of accomplishment is immense.

  14. “Dhalgren” … myself born 69, I got that book in 81, simply the content / price ratio made me to make the German paperbook my birthday wishes meet, then, huh. Soon I found out that … “Dhalgren” made me suppose that I eventuelly had to experience (a bit) more before I dare to “understand” … but it seems as I, well …
    30 yrs later, I finally did it. I read it. I mostly laughed about it, especially thanks to the German translation,which is to fail whenever there’d been a cause to be mistaken.
    But in a quite uncertain way I felt, on reading, that I read this all before … so it must be that … some reading at the age of 12 … (when I started to write on my own) … influenced my mind, on writing. Like coming home to a state left abandoned, even though this novel is … nothing but ridiculous and sophisticated the same time. What happens (?) is part of my dreams while I sleep, is part of any future I may imagine for tomorow’s misery.
    To decline, to deconstruct, to bore, to neglect, to give a shit …
    OMG, this book is so boring, yet arbitrary … and there’s the key:
    as far as I got it … less pretentious than other fictional text, recently (oh, I envy D.F. Wallace for his skills), “Dhalgren” is INDEED what Theodore Sturgeon said, ” an experience to go beyond”.
    Oh not at first sight, not on drugs or else.
    It is a novel lacking almost anything one’s may expect, including parts of pseudo-philosophical non-sense (to make sense), discussing the failure of poetry and human conditions, utmost ugly explicit sex included (just cause of mentioning pubes, ugh!).
    Anyway, it took me some days, time, to read “Dhalgren” … I often thought that I am simply wasting my time, that I should concrentrate on something else.
    But … the scene sets the setting and I won’t call it a day with this novel, to be discovered in some post post post time, in dust and “huh” to come … soon!

  15. First read this book when I was seventeen, and have read it several times since over the past 20 years. I was in awe when I first read it, I didn’t believe anyone thought or experienced the world in the way which Delany presented. It remains my favourite novel. I love the atmosphere it presents, the feelings, the visceral experience one is engulfed by for years after reading it.

  16. I read Dhalgren the first time in 1980 or so. I may have made an abortive earlier try. The first half took four months and then something clicked. The second half took about four weeks. I’ve read it three times since, cruising through each time, the latest maybe 6 or 7 years ago. I loved it every time. It may be my single favorite book. I’m not sure why. The feelings it evokes, the images, and all the rest, are completely unique in my experience. It’s probably time to read it again.

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  18. Dhalgren is proof positive that if you right about enough things over enough pages without ever resolving them or going anywhere, somebody will think you’re a genius. Tgere is a good story here, somewhere, so its such a pity that Delaney does all he can to avoid telling it. Maybe he didn’t know how to tell it, which is fair enough. To drag it out over 800 pages to tey and hide the fact is unforgivable (although clearly in some cases it worked).

  19. I read this book late last year and it has haunted me ever since. I consider re-reading it at least once a week.

    The thing is, it’s so hard for me to even formulate a cogent thought around why I loved Dhalgren so much, and I can’t pretend to know what the hell Delany was trying to do or even what most of the novel meant. Strangely enough, for such an intelligent piece of lit-fic, I feel like understanding the text on a deeper, intellectual level is secondary to the emotional reaction one has to it. It just… does something to you that is nearly impossible to explain. The strange thing is, I can be very impatient when it comes to reading novels. I once threw The Sound and the Fury across the room, it exasperated me so. But this book held me in its grip for a solid month, and when that month was up I wanted to turn back to the beginning and dive right back into the mysteries of Bellona all over again. Such is the power of this book.

  20. I read Dhalgren in my mid-college years during a summer break. I was reading sci-fi at a furious rate those summers (no time during school) – multiple books a week. Dhalgren took what seemed a very long time. It also stuck with me. I remembered it as the strangest book I had read, certainly in the sci-fi genre, but I stuck with it. I remember wanting to put it down, but telling myself “I know something will begin to happen soon” instead of just a wandering around the city story. It didn’t but I kept reading. The ending/beginning left me a bit unfulfilled and wondering what it was I had just read. But it really stuck with me in a big way, though I couldn’t remember the title until recently (it was just that “strange” book). Now that I am a wise old 58 instead of 20, I want to read it again (as I just did with Earth Abides) and see if it hits me differently (I suspect it will). Happening upon this site and remembering my “summer of Dhalgren” makes me excited about tackling it again. I think it will be easier this time round.

  21. I read Dahlgren, all the way through. I hated every moment of reading that book. I have since read books by the same author that I really enjoyed, but that abomination I would never recommend to another reader.

  22. Yeah. Well, there was a gap of a few years before I could finish Gravity’s. That corprophilic scene in the White Hotel stopped me for about four years.

    I liked the Radix Tetrad, (A. A. Attanasio) immensely. immersive but not complex in the same way.

    Read Infinite Jest gradually, bec. Wallace’s brilliant mind kept pissing me off. I knew what he was doing from early on, but that made little difference. That opening chapter is probably the best single ‘set piece’ of writing in the English language. But GD it, every fourth page or less I had to go to the dictionary. Then I found he used to read the OED like I used to do when I had the time…

    And The Magus.

    Cloud Atlas was very accessible, and only difficult if you missed the clues.

    Anyhoo, point has to do with post modern complexity.

    What makes a work truly, notably difficult is how different it makes you think.

    Is your thought altered when you’ve finished the work?

    The writing does not have to be long. (Naked Lunch, let’s say).
    But it can be (Infinite Jest). It can be ‘meta’ (The Magus) but does not have to be to have a serious magnetism to it (PK Dick’s VALIS).

    You can have really long stories, but that just stresses your memory to keep details in mind. You can have strange stories, but often is a cultural ignorance at play, where for the familiar there is little strangeness. So that is entertaining and maybe mind changing, but how difficult?

    But then there is writing that comes from a mind that is thinking so differently from yours you are changed by exposure to it.

    And this happens today more than at any time in the past.

    The Canterbury Tales (1400’s) blew people away because it was so big and revealed so much truth about the real world of the day. Don Quixote (1600’s) similarly bent readers’ minds because Cervantes had command of literary techniques that manipulated reader’s imaginations.

    But in between there are no undiscovered Tales or Novels of equal merit, in any culture (not to say there aren’t big works from Asia, but still not the same…)

    And then, Modern Fiction, Science Fiction, and post modern writing.

    As Archer character Cheryl Tunt says, “Mind Blown”.

    In that regard, have to confess that I have yet to get through either of Stapledon’s (the 1930’s) Last and first men and Star Maker -especially. Two of the most difficult tombs I’ve attempted.

    As examples of the above:

    Some work is just foreign, either by culture or time. Who cares so much what happens to Thyl Ulenspiegel ? Fascinating but not really difficult.

    Reading outsider story teller Henry Darger’s 15,145-page fantasy The Story of the Vivian Girls would be difficult simply because of its immenseness and uniqueness (if you could get access to it…), and you can read into it, but how self aware is it and how ‘polyrhythmic’ (as in multiple rhythms at once) is it… or more apt, Finnegan’s Wakey?

    Similarly L Ron Hubbard loved to type but I’m sorry I can’t read the Mission Earth series. Hours of life I’d never get back. 1950’s American pulp hack writing.

    Difficult to consume? Yes. But changing your way of thinking? Um, no.

    But Dhalgren. Ah. There you go. Not as monumentally complex as Gravity’s, and not as dazzling as Infinite Jest and not as sneaky and accessible as Naked Lunch or Radix. Somehow not as beautiful as VALIS. Challenging and mind bending, in its own class.

  23. Why have none of the “literary critiques” of this book ever discussed its rampant, in your face racism and sexism? Even taking in the context of when it was written, what was it intended to convey?

  24. I struggled through Dhalgren at age 18, and was both intrigued and mystified by it. Re-read it again in my mid- 50’s and, while some of the interesting parts were still interesting, I found it to be more closely comparable to pornographic fantasy than literature.

  25. I would add to your assessment, “It is what it is,” but it isn’t what you think it is. Dhalgren is my all time favorite book. I read it first when I was 16 or 17 on a cross country camping trip with my family. I had long periods where I could escape and read while we were on the road. I’ve read it 3 more times since and I’m sure there will be more. I think it is far more respected and accepted outside of Science fiction circles. A few years ago I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival and it seemed like a lot of people were talking about it. It kept coming up in conversation. I went to a 40th anniversary panel discussion of it at Readercon. It was an auditorium full of people who love the book and felt their lives had changed having read it. I found myself sitting a seat away from Delany n the audience, so I got to see his reactions to the discussion. It was pretty amazing. And I had gotten there a little late and was initially frustrated I could get closer to the front.

  26. I think we f you know a book is difficult to read then it is. I was sent the book by a wonderful new friend in the US when I was in Australia as an 18 year old. Alone and at the start of the internet (1) I found the book resonated with my own life at the time and fell in love, over and over.
    I’ve since lost the book due to travelling and would love my copy back, however impossible that would be.

  27. Stupid keyboard on the phone please autocorrect the mistakes in my initial comment. 🤦🏻‍♀️

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