30 Novels, day 19: Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren


30 Novels, day 19: "I suspect the whole thing is science fiction."

Dhalgren, by Samuel R Delany

I had a habit in my early teens of seeking out and reading books I probably shouldn’t have been reading, books I wasn't old enough for. Which is another way of saying I encountered these books at just the right time. Few things are more likely to turn a reader into a writer than the wrong book.

Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren was one of these books. It was supposed to be science fiction, the Bantam paperback cover made it look like science fiction, and so I was expecting science-fictiony things to happen in it. But the stuff that happened in this book was like nothing in any of the science fiction I’d ever read up to that point. 

In the first few pages, a woman turns into a tree. And then a lot of other bizarre, inexplicable, unexplained things happen. The nameless Kid who’s the hero (is he?) of the book enters the “restricted” city of Bellona, where some kind of vague catastrophe has occurred, and society has collapsed. He hooks up with this gang of young people who go around covered in these holographic “light shields” shaped like animals. One day a red, swollen sun appears in the sky, apocalyptic and terrifying, and then after it sets, life goes on as before (a prescient image of our current inertia in the face of global warming?).

A lot of very real things happen in this book, too: people eat, and talk, and fight, and make love. A boy falls into an empty elevator shaft and dies and his family grieves. The sexual explicitness of the book was an education all in itself. And everything, the fantastical and the mundane, is rendered in the same vivid, meticulous, stream-of-consciousness-laced prose (which probably helped me to read Joyce when I finally got around to him).

Something else I noticed for the first time when I read this book: the words it was made of. The author’s way of describing things was unusual. His verbs were strange, active, alive. Even inanimate things seemed to have life and will in his sentences:

The asphalt spilled him onto the highway’s shoulder. The paving’s chipped edges filed visions off his eyes…. He looked in the lightening sky for shapes. Mist bellied and folded and coiled and never broke.

I hadn’t paid much attention to style before as a reader. This book forced it into my consciousness, made me aware of the fact that there was more going on here than just a story. There was the weave of language itself, the shaping of it. I began to think that I would like to do that, too. Do things with words. This is how a reader becomes a writer.

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