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.
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.