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.
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.