Happy Black Friday, guys! The nice thing about being a book person on this questionable day is that you can really just buy books online if you want to take advantage of deals. You could even spend the day reading what you already have and decline to participate in the annual sensationalized commercial frenzy that smacks of classism and exploitation of the poor. Or, you could read my scintillating thoughts on the work of Joyce Carol Oates’s newest book, Pursuit.
I’ve been reading JCO since I was just a wee lass in the ninth grade. I have very positive memories of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and later Zombie: A Novel. Apparently, I didn’t rate either of them very highly on Goodreads, though. I wish I knew why. They’ve really stuck with me, but maybe I had some of the same problems I had with Pursuit.
This book presents us with Abby, real name Miriam, whose parents, Lew and Nicola, disappeared when she was a kid. Right from the get-go, she’s got some very odd trauma, which causes her enough mental distress that she wanders out in front of a bus. Coincidentally, (I’m sure,) she had just gotten married. This is the story of how Abbey/Miriam discovers what happened to her parents and why she’s in such distress.
Bad Guys Get Pages
This book didn’t dwell as entirely on the bad guy as Zombie did, but it sure did dwell nonetheless. The longest stretches of the story were from the twisted perspective of Abby’s father. This wasn’t necessarily a bad choice. It was certainly very entertaining. I think that what irritated me about it was how predictable Lew was. He was every scary thing: stalker, violent misogynist, addicted, jealous, murderous, delusional, untreated for his mental health problems, religious nut, probably a pedophile.
The only thing he didn’t have was a mustache to twirl and any real depth. Ultimately, Lew was just a mashup of male killer greatest hits and almost entirely defined by his relationship to the main character’s mother. There’s no reason that someone this cartoonish couldn’t be a villain, but if you’re going to write someone so over-the-top, you’d better have a good foundation for them. I have to believe it. I didn’t believe this.
Foil the Patriarchy!
At the same time, Oates goes out of her way to present Willem, Abby’s husband, as the ideal man. He’s sensitive, kind, gentle, patient – my goodness, everyone needs a Willem. But ultimately this makes him as two-dimensional as Lew. They’re obviously meant to be foils, but Willem doesn’t really function well in this role. He’s not really a very interesting dude, and anyway, he doesn’t really appear much compared to Lew.
I did wonder if Oates was trying to not-all-men this story by setting up Willem as an example of the fact that good guys exist. Theoretically, I’m into it, but Willem is even flatter than Lew! This dynamic would probably have required a bit more subtlety than a five-hour listen could convey, and because I know that Oates is capable of it, the slipshod nature of the Lew-Willem contrast really struck me as lazy.
OK, then Criticize the Patriarchy!
Oates does a good job of showing the patriarchy rather than just railing about it, as I tend to do once I wind up. Willem’s family is a good vehicle for patriarchal oppression, but I am also a sucker for well-meaning but toxic religious families in literature. Toxic masculinity suffuses the book as a theme, with Willem being an example of a good guy and Lew, of course, being an example of everything not to do or be. Abby/Miriam is a nice representation of a woman who upholds the patriarchy by maintaining silence to protect a man, which is, of course, a topical point. She’s also kind of a poster child for repressed and damaged femininity, literally haunted by the effects of the patriarchy.
The self-abuse and repression that she heaps upon herself to try and become this “good girl” she thinks she isn’t is very thickly laid. I liked it to a certain extent because I could relate to it, but it definitely didn’t strike me as the performance of a subtle literary virtuoso. As with Lew and Willem, I felt like Abby was the coloring book version of a good statement about overcoming the patriarchy. The outlines were great, but in practice, it turned out kind of flat.
Nicola is a piece of the feminist pie, too: the classic Woman Who Does It All, whose aggressor is a character who could be an incel parody. There’s a really excellent statement the be made here about how generations of women relate to one another in a patriarchal environment, not to mention how men sort themselves into ally or enemy categories in a polarized environment as reactions to empowered or helpless women. I think it’s interesting that Nicola, who becomes empowered, incites rage on the part of her partner, while Abby/Miriam becomes completely disabled emotionally and physically and thereby inspires extreme support and protectiveness from Willem.
I’m not sure Oates intended to suggest that bitches get stitches while violets get princes, but that was definitely what I came away with. Maybe it was meant to be ironic, or just a face-forward statement about what kinds of women men like. Maybe it was meant to be a statement about damage and how women and men need to come together to repair the past.
But What A Bone Structure!
Regardless of her relative ability to discuss feminism through the medium of a thriller, Oates can structure the hell out of a novel. Despite the story jumping between several different points of view, times, and situations, I never once lost the thread. That’s why I’m going to come down on the positive side for this book after all. It’s effectively a feminist thriller, and although I don’t think it’s the smartest thing Oates has ever written, I don’t think she meant it to be an intelligent treatment of male violence and female victimhood. I think it was just supposed to be entertaining.
So if you want a dark, entertaining book with a scary villain, a damaged heroine, and a kinda half-baked feminist message that works if you blur your eyes and squint at one corner of it, then Pursuit is probably perfect for you. Read and enjoy. It’s short enough to hold you over the weekend plane or train ride back home from the holidays.
May your families be healthier by far than Nicola and Lew’s. Happy Holidays, feminists!
Welcome back, friendos! It’s time for Part 3 of Dhalgren. The only way out is through.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Still with me? Not done with Dhalgrenyet in the critical sense? Could it be that Dhalgren is not yet done with you? Are you being actively observed? Are you sure that you exist??
Whatever the circumstances, awesome! I knew I wasn’t riding this roller coaster alone. Welcome back, sciencefictionados!
Here’s Part 1 of my DHALGREN review. In case, y’know, you’re new to this epic madness.
Also, swift programming note: a family member is visiting me this weekend. That means that I won’t be writing much, if at all. Part 3 will be out as soon as my house guest is. Until then, knock off a few hundred more pages and console yourselves with an author interview.
We talked about perception in the last post. Art is one way that people make themselves known in Bellona, so you can look at it as kind of an attempt to shape their own personas and identities, or as a grab at self-preservation as Bellona faces down a rolling existential crisis.
But what happens when people don’t bother to examine that art? I’m mainly talking about the public’s reaction to the Kid’s debut poetry book, BRASS ORCHIDS. Everybody reads this thing, but even the sole critical jerk who the Kid talks to is reading it in search of references to themselves. (The critical jerk is internally comparing it to his own book of poetry, so y’know. Still self-referential.) As we talked about in the last post, everybody in Bellona needs to be seen – possibly, they need to be seen to exist.
But many of them don’t have the ability, confidence, or motivation to make themselves visible through art. Granted, art isn’t the only way you can be visible in Bellona – Madame Brown provides therapy, for example. But one person in particular produces nothing, does nothing, and secludes themselves from most of the rest of Bellona, even by reputation. I’m talking about Mary Richards, whose main accomplishment is the facade of normalcy that she maintains over the Richards family.
Her husband and kids help validate her existence, of course, even as she refuses to validate the existence of Bellona’s transformation by observing it. But she’s really a leech – without her family and her pet artists to observe her, she flirts with meaninglessness, and therefore the void. That’s why she kind of collects intelligent people with whom to surround herself. The gang members, on the other hand, don’t need to make art because they can cultivate notoriety. They’re all awed by a famous person and curious about their own depictions in art, but neither have nor need any sophisticated understanding of the meaning behind the poetry. Why duplicate effort? They’re famous and feared and consistently make it into the paper. Plus, there are enough of them that they can observe one another, no art needed. Their continued existence in Bellona is assured.
The Kid doesn’t completely understand his own poetry either, but that does bother him, possibly because he senses that there should be a reason for it. And isn’t his reason the same as everyone’s? We’ll all die someday and the memories about us will disintegrate faster than our hollowed-out bones, but if we do something meaningful, and then write it down, we achieve some kind of immortality. People still talk about Homer. The Kid is grappling with what might be an immediate loss of existence in a place that’s existentially unstable, but that’s really just a short-term metaphor for what will eventually happen anyway.
Frustrated by his own lack of insight, and possibly concerned that anything he does will qualify him as delusional, the Kid tries to glean the quality of his poetry from others, even asking the established poet Ernest Newboy if they’re “good.” Almost nobody gives him any solid answers. Many say that they like the poems, but the only useful critical feedback he receives is brutal and unreliable. And, for what it’s worth, probably accurate. The Kid himself points out that people are partially enamoured of his poetry because they like the idea of a young poet. (Most of the Bellonans seem to think that the Kid is around 17, even though he’s closer to 30.) It would follow that the poetry is stylistically immature to support the misconception.
This begs an important question: how much of the Kid’s art is a lie? Half of BRASS ORCHIDS wasn’t even written by him, and he never finds the author. We may get the most genuine version of the Kid’s artistic expression when the narrative switches to the first-person perspective in the final part. Even there, he edits his version of reality and discusses his relative ability to recall and fabricate conversations with Lanya. This, my dear Watson, is important because gradually we only see Bellona through the Kid’s eyes. It may as well not exist if he’s not telling us about it because he is the storyteller.
He’s controlling Bellona in a whole new way. The Kid levels up creatively in Part 5, even though that advancement is clearly not meant for any eyes but…his own? Lanya’s? The scholars’? Ours? Maybe he means it to be a record for his lucid self in case he loses awareness again. If that’s the case, then Katy bar the door. We know nothing about non-lucid Kid except that lucid Kid is terrified of him. That guy, if he exists, could have an entirely different priority set than the Kid we read about in parts 1 through 4. We don’t know if he experiences continuity with lucid Kid’s actions at all and there’s no telling how truthful his representation of Bellona is.
That said, the diary references things that have value to lucid Kid. There’s a good chance that the lost time that we discussed earlier was actual lost time in a real sense rather than a memory break. It’s tantalizing to imagine that we might be dealing with an unreal or unreliable version of the Kid in Part 5, (god, so tantalizing) but I consider it a stretch.
Call me blind, but it seems like the Kid doesn’t intend for the diary to ever see publication, even though he does edit his word choice as though the diary is creative writing. (Hell, maybe it is!) It’s also got to be a distinct work from his second book of poetry because that one goes up in flames prior to publication, whereas this one ends up being examined and annotated by scholars.
The Kid’s shift from publishing his poetry to keeping them (and his diary) a secret may indicate his progression from needing others to validate him to being capable of observing himself – developing the ability to navel-gaze. His ultimate progression to the monastery, with its meditative associations, suggests that he’s forming a sturdier sense of self.
Now we’re getting into the juicy stuff! Blood! Beatings! Gangs! Violence!
Except that violence in this book is kind of an unusual event. When it appears, it’s an artifact of the general chaos, sort of a side effect of being in the city. Sometimes, it’s how people acquire optical chains, as when June kills her brother and takes his. It also tends to appear at moments of transition, but isn’t that true for the outside world as well?
The Kid’s introduction to Bellona includes a random beating by some Scorpions, but afterward, he generally doesn’t encounter trouble unless he goes looking for it. This is true even after he takes over the gang himself. The exception is the book’s conclusion, where he’s chased out of the city by worsening fires. Kid enters, gets beaten. Kid gets beaten, and leaves. HMMM. Maybe Bellona is pushing him out of the nest now that he can fly. Maybe the Kid is running into a new challenge: actual reality, where he’ll probably need to wear shoes on both of his feet.
That’s not to say that the Kid’s presence in the city is unmarked by violence. In fact, he experiences (and causes) his fair share. He hears about even more, often racially motivated or rumored to be so. The people who hole up with guns in the department store are one example, as is the mass shooter. But for all of Captain Kamp’s nervousness about the city, for all of Mary Richards’s terror, for all that the city is known far and wide for its violence, Bellona doesn’t seem to be too much more dangerous than New York in general.
I do think that it’s interesting how everybody in Bellona walks around armed with orchids when firearms and ammo are abundantly available. Any weapon will tie up one of your hands, but the orchid literally cages it. Lanya is fond of slipping her fingers through the blades to reach the Kid’s actual, ugly hand and hold it. Metaphor? If so, it’s oddly clunky for this book. It strikes me as more important that the Kid often finds the orchid on his hand despite his having not consciously donned it. In some cases, it’s impossible for him to have put it on given the circumstances – it just appears there, ready for action. As the novel continues, and the Kid self-actualizes, he walks around with it hanging from his optical chain more and more often. It randomly appears on his hand less and less.
But it’s not even really his orchid, is it? The Kid gets it from someone who’s leaving Bellona when he enters, and when he leaves, he gives it to someone else. Is the orchid power? Influence? Insecurity? It’s a cage, so it could represent the way that the Kid is imprisoned by his own methods, not only of violence, but of generating any influence, notoriety, fear. His desire to save himself from harm, which in Bellona requires him to take off the orchid and take up the pencil.
The Kid’s poetry derives from the wounding of Bellona as a city by the strange disaster that has made it as it is. The poetry that helps to manifest the city and cement its reality is a result of its very instability, and it is the observation of this strange town that may just be keeping it alive. It’s a GODEL, ESCHER, BACH eternal golden braid recursive creativity situation, an Escheresque rendering of reality and its denizens locked in a delicate existential balancing act – and no, I’m not even going to try and review that book. You do it.
Originally I was going to talk about sex and sexuality here, but I’m preoccupied with my weekend plans and not likely to do a good job with that topic right now. So I’m saving that (and race) for the next part, the part I’ll write after my dear visiting relation is happily on their way back to where they came from. Mmkay? (Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m at work right now and I’d prefer that my boss didn’t see what I have to say about George and June.)
There are a number of items that appear in the book which seem to be unique to Bellona. The orchids are an excellent example. The light shields that the Scorpions use are another one, and of course, the optical chains appear to only exist within and near the city. Bellona also features frightening red eyecaps and a kind of color-changing fabric that Tak turns into a dress for Lanya. We can infer that these are Bellona-specific items by context. When the Kid gets his optical chain, he’s not quite in Bellona yet, but his acquisition is uniquely Bellonan and he later asks Madame Brown what the chains mean. Speculation about that is rampant, but I suspect that they’re indications of trauma.
At no point does the Kid ask “what is this,” even when gifted an orchid or finding the optical chain in a cave. Certain items awe him or freak him out, but he doesn’t really question them in the moment. He never seems to have seen a light shield before, for example, but just accepts that it’s a thing the first time he sees one. From a techie perspective, those little boxes are really interesting. They’d have to be extremely advanced technology even by 21st century standards. Not only do they project a freaking hologram, but they project a freaking unbroken, wraparound hologram from a single point located on the wearer’s chest. Including behind their back! It must be capable of bending light itself. That’s next to miraculous! Even so, these marvels of engineering are light, battery-operated, and turn up all over the place. Considering that nobody in Bellona knows what the exact date is, I think the existence of light shields help make the case that Bellona is actually located in a postapocalyptic future. More on that later.
Make no mistake: the light shields are products. Someone’s manufacturing them. Tak, who might be the only person in the city who actually knows what’s going on, shows the Kid a warehouse full of orchids, optical chain, red eyecaps, color-changing fabric, and – yes – light shields. It’s not clear whether they’re being shipped in or were made in Bellona prior to the disaster, but in many cases, they’re all that the Bellonans actually own. And there is enough stuff in that warehouse to keep many, many more Bellonans stocked with the essentials.
We know that the city, originally meant to hold millions, now houses only thousands, but what a weird assortment of things to sell to an ordinary urban populace! Banks and banks of eccentric handheld bladed weapons? Wearable holograms that obscure your identity? No city in the world would stand for that kind of thing. We’d see it being imported if it was being manufactured outside, despite the “Made In” tags on the optical chains, and since nobody in Bellona has a job, their source is a mystery on a mystery. The orchids and light shields, at least, may be metaphorical for the deceptions and perceptions that limit our engagement with the world. Then again, I might be overthinking it.
The stuff might also represent Bellona levels. Think video games. The Kid levels up when he gets an optical chain because he sets his intention to go to Bellona, then again when he enters Bellona and acquires an orchid, then again when he takes action with the Scorpions and gets a light shield. Every Bellona object he gets seems to be some kind of reward. But he never finds the eyecaps that Tak wears, and nor does he ever take advantage of Lanya’s color-shifting fabric himself. Does that mean that Tak and Lanya are on different quests? They’re certainly among the most realized characters in DHALGREN, aside from the Kid, and either could populate their own Bellona book with no trouble. (Mr. Delaney, if you’re reading…) It makes me wonder if there are other Bellona-specific things that they’re encountering that the Kid is not. If I could get one thing for Christmas, it would be a DHALGREN video game where I can puzzle out the rules. That, or another Bellona book so I could start to triangulate the references in this one and expand my fan theories. (Mr. Delaney?)
Other than these items, Bellonans treat general consumer goods with utilitarian disrespect or a casual lack thereof. The Scorpions just like to smash things, for example, and the Kid actually urinates on his notebook of poetry at once point. Mary Richards is the exception to this rule. Her non-Bellona consumer goods aren’t just important to her, they’re her tether. I find it significant that her daughter kills her son with one of Mary’s pointless decor objects, a rolled-up rug. Of all the people we meet in Bellona, Mary’s the only one who has a relationship to her stuff that’s not utilitarian or artistic, and that relationship is toxic as all get-out.
In a place where nobody uses money, consumer goods are pointless. In a place where the only objects of value come to you on a meritorious basis, it’s action that’s currency. It makes me want to plunge into the economic aspect of DHALGREN, because of course that’s a thing. (This is the man who wrote Nova.) But I already promised to get into the sexin’ next, and it’s been 2700 words, so here I’ll leave you.
Have a lovely weekend, sciencfictionados!
Reviewing Dhalgren is going to be a thing. When I say a thing, I mean that it’s going to take several posts to cover this baby. It may be the most significant and problematic piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I’m going to address it in chunks based on its many themes. If you’re here for a graduate-level thesis on this graduate-level book, you’re in the wrong place. I am but a humble librarian/writer/book person, and these thoughts are the best that my humble librarian/writer/book person brain can produce. That said, if you are at my level, this might be useful to you. If nothing else, we can console each other now that this monster book has ripped out our egos.
A few notes first.
- I will not be using racial slurs. Dhalgren uses the N-word very liberally and actually expanded my vocabulary somewhat as far as other racist language goes. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s good that I know. On the other, I feel uncomfortable with that knowledge. I didn’t like hearing the N-word so much and I think that was the reason that the author made that choice. I will attempt to discuss race in the context of this book, and I will do so to the best of my Italian-Irish-Plain-White-Bread-American abilites, but I won’t be using those words.
- Speaking of, I’m going to screw up the conversation about race. How could I not? I’ve never lived a Black life and while I can do my best to understand, I’m positive that there are things about Blackness and the Black experience that will remain beyond me no matter how much Ta-Nahesi Coates I read. That goes triple for this particular title, which was written 50 years ago by a Black man. I’m going to do my best because ignoring race in this book would be a disservice to it; as in broader American society, race in Bellona is inextricable from all of its other issues. If you feel like calling me out when I screw up, I encourage you to do so. If you’d rather not educate me, but still want to read my review, race will have its own subheading so you’ll have a heads-up to handle that section however you consider appropriate.
- I am not going to get this “right.” If you have opinions about DHALGREN that differ from mine, great. There’s a comments section. Have at it! But unless you’re Samuel R. Delaney, know that I don’t believe you’re going to get it “right” either. I don’t think correctness applies to this particular work. If you are Samuel R. Delaney, then I’m truly sorry for the mess I’m about to make of your incredible book.
If you haven’t read the book yet, there are also a few things you’re going to need to know about before we delve in.
- An orchid is a type of handheld weapon unique to Bellona. Think of a flower made of metal that you wear like a mitten. Failing that, think of a cage around your hand with sharp points poking out.
- Bellona is one of the twelve largest cities in the U.S. and is probably located somewhere in Kansas.
- Many people in Bellona acquire and wear optical chains, which are long lengths of brass chain set with mirrors and pieces of glass. The experience of acquiring them is usually traumatic. They cannot be bought or taken by force, but can be removed from a dead body.
- The Scorpions are a loose gang. They’re intimidating and sometimes dangerous.
That’s nowhere near all the background that you need to know, but it’s the best I can do without turning this piece into a listicle. Let’s forge ahead anyway. To Bellona!
I was originally going to call this section Mental Health, but that doesn’t begin to encompass the subject. In Bellona, the division between mind and reality is perilously blurry and it is not at all clear which one affects the other more.
The Kid has a history of mental health problems, and nothing frightens him more than the possibility of a relapse. Of all the places in the world that he could have ended up, this city of shifting realities is probably the worst. And the best, maybe. There seem to be holes in time in Bellona, and when we first discover this, they’re presented as holes in the Kid’s memory. This kicks off Kid’s self-perpetuating anxiety about whether or not he is crazy or will return to a state where he has no awareness of what he’s doing.
But Kid’s mental health problems predate Bellona, so we know that they don’t proceed from there. His loss of his real name and habit of wearing one shoe are both artifacts from the wider world – the one he fit into so poorly. In Bellona, he receives validation from his girlfriend, Lanya, that he’s lost considerable chunks of time. But has he? Lanya later admits that there are hours of her own for which she can’t account. Fires that should consume the city in days continue unabated for weeks, and certain food stores appear to restock themselves as though trapped in a loop. Couple that with the episodic nature of DHALGREN and you have the makings of a place that’s profoundly unmoored in time. It begs the question of how people narrate their lives when reality itself isn’t certain.
It also suggests that nothing happening in Bellona is real. But there are things that happen there, like the appearance of the Kid’s debut poetry collection, BRASS ORCHIDS, that must have some relationship to the wider world. People come in, too, so someone must be reporting across the bridge. Bellona is tethered to reality, at least, and throughout the book, the Kid’s biggest concerns seem to revolve around maintaining that tether in at least an operative sense. He gets a job even though nobody uses money. He joins a gang even though he doesn’t need protection. He publishes a book of poetry even though he’s not sure he wants to be a poet. He can’t just be. If he resorted to that, he’d have no continuity at all and no way to mark either time or his own significance in it. He’d have no way of knowing if he really were crazy or not. Sanity is the perception of purpose, a self-delusion that’s necessary for measuring, and therefore adequately observing, life.
The way you look at something really can affect its state. Consider subatomic particles that must be waves and particles…until they’re observed. These little specks are unknowable, mutable as Bellona itself. To perceive them is to fix them in a definable space, but only as long as you are actively watching. Bellona is the same way, and to a great extent, so are the people who live there.
And you thought this wasn’t real science fiction!
Whether the Kid’s existence itself matters depends on how he agrees to perceive reality. Whether in poetry or in action, he’s always got to move. Moreover, he’s got to move in the perceptions of others or he seems to disappear, or at least move to a state where he has no self-awareness or control over his actions. His biggest, most frightening loss of time happens when he’s sleeping in the open with Lanya and not doing much. She leaves, and when she comes back, he’s gone. For the Kid’s part, he perceives himself waking up and immediately heading to a Scorpion raid, after which he’s increasingly in the company of a large crowd of fellow gang members. Their observation of him seems to prevent more large lapses, but prior to that, when he loses Lanya, she reports that he’s been active for days outside of her perception.
The critical point here is that the Kid can’t observe himself reliably, even to the extent that he can remain self-aware. He needs to see himself being observed by others, and through their eyes, know he is real. His book’s popularity in particular appears to ground him, despite his ambivalence about being a poet.
Everything in Bellona seems to be a charm against lack of perception. Otherwise pointless baubles like the optical chains and the light shields exist to alter and enhance the wearer’s presentation to the world. The Scorpions maintain their fearsome reputation by smashing stuff up, but there are no rival gangs to intimidate and they rarely accomplish anything notable. Nevertheless, Calkin’s paper (which prints a different random date every day) reports on them. It makes them famous, just as Calkin makes the Kid famous by printing his book.
We almost never see Calkin. Isn’t that interesting? Everyone is highly aware of him because of the paper, his mansion, his parties, his power. He is the man with all the words and the power to control what others know about their local luminaries. All Bellona seems to know what the Kid is up to all the time, presumably because they’re reading it in the paper, but the Kid himself is increasingly flummoxed by that effect as the book progresses. His self-perception comes through Lanya, Denny, the Scorpions. It’s unclear how the perception of others affects the Kid’s state of awareness. With Calkin’s publication and very wide distribution of the Kid’s book, not to mention his control of the narrative of Kid’s publicity, it would stand to reason that Calkin gains a measure of control over the Kid’s identity too. People certainly treat the Kid with more respect once he becomes a news item and artiste, even though most of them only read his poems to see if he wrote anything about them.
Like the Kid, the other Bellonans need to be perceived to be real. But not all of them are perceived. Even Lanya seems to fall into existential holes now and then.
This effect doesn’t just extend to people. Things that everyone agrees upon seem to have the strongest presence as reality. Effects like the double moon and the enormous sun are observed in concert, their details becoming hazy when reported on an individual level. The fear and wonder that they inspire may be the fuel that keeps Bellona aware. Once the second moon appears, everyone shares the experience of checking for it, naming it after George, discussing it. The giant sun inspires the universally shared experience of terror and fatalism. These are critical pins of the Bellona experience. Without them, who’s to say that the city itself would remain a distinct entity? If Bellona were a person, these would be its performances, its attempts to cling to reality by remaining remarkable.
Calkin immolates his own power when he enters the monastery near the end of the book. Immediately, Bellona experiences a spike in unpredictability. People get separated, fires worsen, and formerly powerful interpersonal ties break. Is this what happens when the person narrating the barely-real city stops holding it together with his words? Very possibly. This, too, is the moment when the Kid and some of his friends flee the city in an unplanned escape from the worsening fires and chaos.
And then, of course, the prose loops. The Kid’s exit parrots the exact dialogue from his entrance, only when he leaves, he himself takes on the role of the departing Bellonans. Makes you wonder if there will be another Calkins for the newcomer. How specific to the Kid was his experience? How much of Bellona did he personally observe into existence? His departure could be read in several different ways now, depending on how relatively unstable we think reality is in the city.
If the Kid’s perception influenced Bellona even a little, then his departure could be read as a state of mind, but even this leaves us with questions. Did Bellona become untenable when the Kid stopped perceiving it as a tolerable place to live, or did he finally lose sight of himself as an entity who made sense in Bellona’s context? His flight of self-preservation might have been more than an escape from fire. Without something to do in Bellona – something to be in Bellona – the Kid could very well be lost to literal obscurity. Did he lose the ability to control his awareness of the city with his art and actions? Conversely, did the city’s chaos naturally strip meaning from whatever agency the Kid ever had to alter his life with its greater shenanigans and vapidity of purpose? If our lives take on the meaning that we choose for them, then a place with yawning holes in time and physical properties that defy the laws of space and time would tend to defy our attempts to put our personal entropy in order. It’s hard to imagine anyone thriving that way for long.
Personally, I think the answer to the puzzle of perception and Bellona is intricately tied up with how Bellona’s residents relate to creativity. But it’s been 2200 words and I’m out of Dhalgren-related graphics for today. Tune in tomorrow for our next section: ART.
I’ve finally finished Samuel R. Delaney’s doorstopper of a book and boy howdy do I have thoughts. I may break them into several parts over several blog posts because this book is way too big to just review, you know? I’ve got to both sink my teeth in and avoid torturing everyone with a 5,000-word blog post. There will be pictures. I promise. If I have to draw an orchid myself, I will include pictures.
Meanwhile, because I am busy sorting out what Dhalgren did to my freaking brain, please enjoy this tacit reference to that time Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy got married in Vegas.
Healthiest relationship in the DCU. Harley + Ivy 4ever.
I’ve been a fan of Bryson’s since I was literally in middle school. My sisters and I listened to audiobooks together as a kind of collective bonding activity, especially during the rare moments during the summers when everyone was home from school, camp, work, and wherever else we were all constantly detained. A Walk in the Woods was one of our favorites, and I think I probably listened to it about 3.423 times. Not four, mind you – in fact, I doubt I ever finished it completely because whenever an errant sister returned from wherever she’d gone off to, we had to go back to the last place we’d all heard. Then there were some parts that were just lame, like any part where Bryson wasn’t doing dumb stuff in nature, so we eventually learned where those were and skipped those tapes. We listened to the bits we liked over and over, and the bits we particularly liked were the parts about Katz being an ass and saying “fuck” and Bryson being terrible at hiking. (I should mention that we were a hiking and camping family, as in *primitive* camping and hiking *for weeks.* We lived in a world where a child of ten could be trusted, even expected, to safely start a fire by themselves.)
That was the thing about A Walk In The Woods. There was some good info, particularly about the EPA, but the best part was listening to the author’s misadventures in Appalachia. Recently he’s departed somewhat from the personal approach, but in my opinion, that’s still his best writing.
It’s also my main objection to The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bryson’s done a fine job with his research, especially for someone with no medical background, but there’s no hilarious personal experience here. It’s just a layperson’s rundown, punctuated by things about the human body that are baffling and unknown. Why do we sleep? Baffling! What does the appendix do? Unknown! Why do we need chromium? Baffling again! It’s a skim. The most interesting mysteries are left unexamined, and there’s not even any personal misadventures to distract us from those burning, unanswered questions.
I should mention that I listened to this book as an ALC I got from Libro.fm, my new bestest buddy on Earth. Because I’m a librarian and a Book Rioter, they’re giving me free advanced listener copies now, and because my commute consumes two hours of every single god-lovin’ weekday, I have plenty of time for listening. So listen I do! This is the first ALC I’ve tried, and I really do like the service. In my personal hagiography of book reading apps, it’s effectively competing with Libby and has blown Librivox clear out of the water.
Also, it allowed me to finish this book. If I didn’t chug through The Body in the car at double speed, I’d have stopped reading fifty pages in. It’s not that Bryson’s a bad writer. He’s still got it. The subject matter is interesting enough too. But this book has got very little of the funny above the level of incidentals and wordplay. It’s well-researched and entertaining enough for someone who knows practically nothing about their own horrifying body (vis a vis moi.) Still, I can’t help but wish I’d grabbed a newish Mary Roach instead. Incidentally, Bryson cites Roach twice and depends very much on other popsci and popmed nonfic as references. My reference librarian heart goes eehhhhhehhhhhhh.
Bryson is 66 years old now. Many of the people he discusses in the book, both historical figures and people of medical interest, have died around that age. Even though medical science will likely keep him alive for a good while yet, discussing death, as he does, appropriately, at the end, is a look straight in the face of the fact that human beings don’t last forever. I wonder how it felt for Bryson to pen this book. I know for a fact that it’d wig me out, and I’m still in my thirties. Here’s a story I’d have liked to read from this author: the body’s many fallacies and superpowers as seen through the lens of a well-regarded writer’s yet-distant but cresting mortality.
I’m not sorry that I got it. It’s a nice little repository of body trivia and now I know that you can actually put a catheter through your vein and guide it to all the way to your heart and actually touch your beating heart with it and your heart will not explode. Now off to give it a try!