Review! That! Book! DHALGREN by Samuel R. Delaney, Part 3

Welcome back, friendos! It’s time for Part 3 of Dhalgren. The only way out is through.

Here’s Part 1.

Here’s Part 2.

Let’s dig right the heck in.

Sex and Sexuality

Here you go! This is why you kept reading! Congrats on sticking with it until the good stuff. Gotta warn you: some of this will be less…fun…than it sounds. CONTENT WARNING: rape and pedophilia.

Prior reviewers have noted that there is a lot of sex in this book. Three pages in and you’ll know what you’re in for. It’s both extraordinarily explicit and quotidian, and the book uses it to explore a lot of different relationship structures and styles. I think it’s important to note that author Samuel Delaney has written extensively on sexuality and doubtless has some opinions about it.

Bellona is all about sex. This was a fact that turned off a bunch of the Goodreads reviewers I skimmed before writing this treatment. It’s possible that the book is a relationship sandbox where Samuel Delaney is modeling a bunch of different relationship styles, from average heterosexual households (that may be abusive and unhealthy in secret) to polyamorous triads including two bisexual males. However, there are some parts of how the book deals with sex that are problematic to my eyes. Or brave on the author’s behalf, I don’t know. In this particular book, I believe that the author isn’t necessarily using his art as a megaphone. A large part of my belief is based upon the fact that the author, a Black man, includes some appalling racism in the book. A smaller, but very hopeful part, is based on all the raping, statutory and otherwise, and how it plays into the story.

Image by Sky Hndx

I’ll start with George. His mascot status is very understandable. He’s cool as hell. Thoughtful. Sociable. He literally runs into a burning building to save orphaned children. And yet he’s also one of the most aggressively sensual characters in the book, and not always in a good way. I’m not talking about the erotic photography of him that plasters the city, although this would certainly pose a problem if this book were ever optioned. George is just embodying the hedonistic atmosphere of Bellona that way. Yes, those photos say, this place really has no rules. Yes, the forbidden and “bad” is beautiful here. Yes, you can do what makes you feel good.

But then there’s the rape of June.

This is a delicate subject. The paper, which consistently runs George down and ignores his positive qualities, claims that this was a rape. George insists that it was consensual, albeit rough. June won’t say. She’s obsessed with George – and probably kills her brother over one of his posters – but even that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t raped. There is some nuance there that Delaney captures well by leaving the situation ambiguous. We live in a world where women enter dressing rooms aware that they may be propositioned, aware that their career may depend on being “nice” to some skeezy gatekeeper, (and I’m willing to suggest that alone is rape,) only to have infinitely worse stuff happen to them even than they’d expected. It’s also a world where consenting adults cheerfully engage in violent sex under the auspices of BDSM, and that is emphatically not rape.

But neither George nor June seems to have done anything in the way of laying ground rules before their interaction. Enthusiastic consent was not given. It seems possible that they each had different experiences, and given the circumstances, it’s impossible to figure out whether this encounter was welcome to both parties or not. George could be justifying himself or covering his ass. June could be trying to confront an attacker to get closure. I don’t think we’re meant to figure out what really happened. We’re just meant to be uncomfortable. However you cut it, it’s bad. What do you do if the stand-up man of the town is also a rapist? What do you do if your daughter is into rough, public sex?

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Image by Matt Brooker

The book treats sex in this ambiguous, squicky way a couple of times. The Kid’s relationship with a boy of 15 is equally disturbing, and that’s presented as healthy. I unilaterally disagree. I think (I hope) that the point of this is not to condone statutory rape, but listening to the scenes that involved Denny were…very weird. This might have been an example of Delaney breaking the glass on the whole “no rules” clause of Bellona. For reals. There are no rules. Otherwise, I’m not sure why it was in there, except to model a positive queer relationship with someone who’s just coming into their sexuality. It squicked me out.

Race

This is the post where I talk about everything that was really freaking tough about this book. The sex alone made this a challenging read. Throw in its treatment of race and you have got a very hard set of conversations on your hands.

I don’t think that Delaney throws the n-word around lightly. Most of the characters who use it are themselves Black, and interestingly, a white character, Tarzan, tries to do so as well and receives a strong reproach from his Scorpion friends. In a lawless place where Tarzan can call his Black friends “the Apes,” the n-word is a bridge too far. Perhaps this is because it is already owned by the Black Bellonans, an example of a totemic object of power like the orchids and the optical chains. Those are also reminiscent of oppression – the orchids that cage a hand, the chains that bind a body – but by taking them on, Bellonans become freer. The Black Bellonans may have access to a similar power through their use of the n-word, a use which, of course, parallels outside reality in some ways.

Delaney might be modeling the use of this word to his readers, or it might be a sign that Bellona is not really rule-free, but simply without the rules that don’t matter in a Bellonan context. Throughout the book, words have extraordinary power as shapers of reality, of people as they are perceived. The Black Bellonan Scorpions are willing to be perceived as playful and chill, but not, as the n-word’s use by a white person inherently implies, as inferior to a white person. In case my fellow white people need a reminder – and I know that some of us do, so I’m going to say this – the n-word’s history as a tool of separation, enslavement, and control at the hands of white people is one of shame, humiliation, pain, and generational oppression. Any use of this word by a white person raises that terrible ghost. As used by a Black person, it can be a brave statement of identification and strength in the face of a fraught past, an uncertain present, and a future that can only be faced together. If a white person tries to use this word in the comments I will disapprove your comment.

The Black Scorpions may understand that the word can make them exceptionally strong and safe in Bellona if they use it…or unsafe if a white person does so. Remember, perception is reality in Bellona – literally.

I’m already way out over my skis in this part of the discussion. In no way am I qualified to comment further, and so I will abstain. Even so, I think the idea of name control feeds in well to our next and penultimate section.

Names

In all lore, names have power. Knowing the name of a demon can give you the power to summon it. You can smear a person’s good name, but only if you know it. You can only banish Rumplestiltskin if you know his name. How interesting that the Kid doesn’t have one.

Not until the end, at least, and even then, he only has part of a name. The Kid thrives so well in Bellona because nobody can have power over him. He’s got what everybody in the city wants: freedom. True, absolute freedom. Nothing defines him. He is like Odysseus: No Man.

However, he also notoriously has no control over himself. Ignorance of his own name leaves the Kid rudderless and out of control of his fate, living in fear of becoming someone else – someone “crazy.” Names are powerful, but you have to have one in the first place for that power to be accessible to you.

Bellona names the second moon George to try and make it a known, and therefore less frightening, apparition. They don’t have to understand it if they know its name, because then they feel like they can control it somewhat. And they can. George the moon sticks around because it becomes common parlance, as safe and harmless as the original moon. Naming George is the first thing the Bellonans do when they discover it.

At the same time, the Kid’s notebook contains a list of names for some reason, and one of them – William Dhalgren – is eponymous with the title of this book. He also may be an interviewer who asks the Kid some tough questions about his artistry, lifestyle, and work, and when the Kid guesses who he is, the threat seems to dissipate. If nothing else, the Kid is able to laugh at him. Maybe Dhalgren should have taken a gang name, like the Scorpions and Bunny.

My Theories About What’s Going On In Bellona

Principally, I think that Bellona has become less real. Based on the evidence, I think that it’s only as real as long as it’s being observed, and then it depends upon the mutable perceptions and definitions of the Bellonans. It would explain why things that fall out of synch tend to self-correct. Factors that Bellonans take for granted, like the sun and moon and the regular passage of time, re-stabilize once everybody pays attention to them. The squeaky wheel, et cetera. This could also explain why vital stores, like canned food, seem to re-stock themselves. Americans are notoriously bad at believing that things like food shortages can happen to them. The Bellonans might be ready to believe that there aren’t fresh tomatoes, but canned tomatoes? They’re always there! Their belief makes the existence of limitless food inevitable.

I think Tak has figured this out and has perfected his Bellonan existence to a T. He lives a rugged but refined life exactly as he wants it, willing a steady supply of men and luxury goods into his life because that’s how he perceives that his life should be. He’s literally manifesting his truth. That’s why he’s able to access the giant warehouse full of Bellona-specific stuff.

Secondarily, I think that Bellona is an example of an id sandbox. People are free to do almost anything there – murder, have sex, break things, use drugs. There’s no structure to stop them from working through their hedonism. Some do, most don’t. One fun game to play as you read this book is to pick out the people who are moving through Kierkegaard’s three stages. Most Bellonans are strictly aesthetes, and happy that way, but Calkin, at least, progresses to a religious perspective.

The Kid seems to make it to the threshold of the third stage, as symbolized by the fact that he eventually does find the abbey, but I believe that Delaney is suggesting here that Kierkegaard’s meterstick for human success is a limited measure of success as a person. The Kid progresses through stages where he values money, fame, art, respect, and truth. Once he makes it to truth, which he hears from Calkin in the abbey, his Bellona experience ends and he passes its particular symbol – the orchid – on to a new seeker.

It’s also very possible that the Bellonans are in an alien ant farm. Remaining content in Bellona very much depends upon your relative happiness with surface-level entertainment, like smashing things and screwing. That would be a pretty good show for an omnipotent entity, especially if that entity were able to shake things up now and then with a disaster or two. Throughout the book, I got the impression that there was a much bigger story going on than the Kid’s. In the midst of this bizarre environment, his main struggle was deciding who he wanted to be. Yet two moons appeared and the sun rose as an enormous fireball one day. Why isn’t the Kid – or anyone, even astronaut Captain Kamp, who should be more interested – fixated on what’s happening to the natural world? If nothing else, it seems like a bad time for introspection.

Most of the people involved in a big-picture event will focus on the day-to-day. Every grand historical event from the Dust Bowl to the Depression was a mosaic of small daily hardships that followed the meandering course of individual maturation processes. Maybe the Kid’s uncomfortable departure from Bellona is a sign that he’s ready to look at his experience from a distance and achieve some clarity. Either that, whoever’s panicking the ants with astrological trickery has decided he’s boring.

What I’m saying is that the Kid might be an extra. Someone else might be “solving” Bellona, but we’ll never know about that. The Kid isn’t a main character in the real story, which would follow a conventional arc and have a hero and a satisfying conclusion et cetera. That would probably have been way more popular with the standard sci-fi fans. But this one’s much more interesting.

And now I’m done with DHALGREN, although I’m not sure it’ll ever be done with me. There’s a lot I missed. This is a book I’ll read again. You should read it, too. It’s important in a way that not a lot of science fiction achieves. Or regular fiction, for that matter. There are gold mines that give you less than this book does. I didn’t get into the gender politics, the meaning of freedom – good lord, there’s so much. It’s important because it’s about being unimportant, and yet still important because we perceive our own unimportance as critical to our own vibrant, tiny lives. That’s what matters. Our perspectives matter. At least, until we become the select few who choose to accept or reject the third stage. At that point, we seek out DHALGREN reviews on the Internet. Bless you, sweet reader. Go get yourself a cookie. You’ve earned it.



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