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Literature / Dhalgren

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to wound the autumnal city.

Dhalgren is a strange New Wave Science Fiction / Lit Fic novel by Samuel R. Delany. It takes place in the fictional city of Bellona, which is in the exact geographic center of the United States. A strange catastrophe has befallen it, and so radio/television/phone signals can neither enter nor leave. It's become a haven for the dregs and free spirits of society.

The narrator, a nameless man of strange ethnicity, hitches a ride to the city, and the plot begins. He explores, learning about its inhabitants and culture, staying for months. Eventually a massive fire forces him to leave.

This description doesn't really do the book justice. It's strange. (It was Delany's first serious attempt at blending SF with Lit Fic.)

Dhalgren provides examples of:

  • Alien Sky: Sort of. Bellona is perpetually overcast and covered in smoke, with a few exceptions; when the sky is shown, it may contain two moons or a sun so large it takes up the whole sky.
  • Anachronic Order
  • Arc Words: "You can't make that discord on a harmonica." "Someday I'll die." "Artichokes."
  • Author Appeal: Samuel R. Delany is very fond of characters with "ugly" hands and bitten nails. Kidd has such hands.
  • Bad Moon Rising: At one point, the clouds part to show two moons (one of which is promptly named "George") in the sky. What's more, they're in different phases; a passing physicist points out that this is impossible.
  • Book Ends: The ending is the beginning of the opening sentence fragment. Also, when the Kid arrives in the city, he is given his orchid by someone who is leaving. When he leaves, he gives his orchid to a new arrival in a scene where the dialogue keeps mirroring the scene where he got it.
  • Camp Gay: Bunny.
  • Cargo Cult: George Harrison (no, not that one) is essentially deified by the citizens of Bellona. He even has his own church.
  • Chaos Architecture: Bellona makes no sense. One day the river is just visible from Tak's roof, the next it's not, the next it's only a block over.
  • Cool Sword: The Orchid weapons, a "cage of blades that fits around the hand".
  • Cozy Catastrophe: Many of the people who didn't evacuate Bellona are perfectly content to stay there, though they could leave at any time if they wanted to.
  • Chekhov's Gun: One of the elevators in the Richardsons' apartment building doesn't work, leaving an empty shaft that Bobby almost steps into at one point. While finishing the move, June accidentally backs him into the empty shaft instead of the real elevator. At least, it was probably an accident.
  • Doorstopper: About 800 pages depending on the edition.
  • Dreadful Musician: Inverted Trope; Lanya is a very good harmonica player, to the point where she can even play discords on a harmonica, which as Kid points out is impossible.
  • Genre-Busting: For one thing, everyone seems to be sure this is science fiction, but to explain how (such as when done by Tak in-universe or in the foreword in the SF Masterworks series edition), one has to resort to complicated structural rationalisations, because basic elements like a futuristic setting or imaginary technologies are mostly absent. The weirdness mostly comes from scientifically inexplicable things that aren't really typical of any genre except something like surrealism.
  • Hologram: The Scorpion gangs are so-called because they use holographic projectors to appear as giant animals.
  • Identity Amnesia: The protagonist remembers who he is, but has forgotten his own name.
  • Indy Ploy: The Emboriky Run.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Any explanation given for the strange things that happen will usually just lampshade the fact that it doesn't really explain anything. The most obvious example is probably when Kid finds the crate of red eye caps.
  • Manly Gay: Tak Loufer.
  • Meaningful Name: The stages of Kidd's progression in Bellona are mirrored by significant people who are also newcomers; when he has just arrived, the poet Ernest Newboy is visiting Bellona. After Kidd toughens up and gets his gay on, the astronaut Captain Kamp is visiting. This may, or indeed may not, indicate that Kidd is a Fisher King and Bellona his Fisher Kingdom.
  • Metafiction: Kidd finds a notebook which contains sections of Dhalgren.
    • Becomes even more metafictional as editor's notes start appearing near the end making us question further what really happened here.
  • Mind Screw: "Holy crap, the sun is so big that it's taking up the entire sky! Wait, it stopped. Never mind!"
    • The entire book, really. In every way. Special mention goes to the opening sequence and the woman the narrator meets, has sex with, and then watches as she turns into a tree.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Jack The Ripper, Nightmare, Thirteen, Dragon Lady, Glass, Copperhead, Spider... And they're Kidd's friends later on in the book.
  • No Ending
  • Noodle Incident: The last part contains references to incidents that are not explained, partly because it's told in the form of a manuscript with missing pages. There are two different occasions when a woman is angry enough to seriously physically attack a man (it's not the same woman or man both times) because of something he did, but both times, it's not told what he did. The narrator also refers to incidents he won't bother to write down, even when at one point he's also saying they were more dramatic than what he is writing about. And there's also this line (slightly paraphrased here), which has no follow-up:
    "I just wonder if he would have done anything differently that evening if he'd known he was going to be shot in the head and neck four times, six hours later."
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: George Harrison claims to be able to spot when women want to be "raped" by him and will just be happy about it, and he acts accordingly. June does seem to want to come back for seconds.
  • Older Than They Look: Kid probably wouldn't have got that nickname if people knew he was in his late twenties, but he can be mistaken for under twenty.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Most of the Scorpions are known only by their nicknames. The main character himself is known only as 'Kid,' since he can't remember his actual name.
  • Painting the Medium: The editor's notes, typos, and Kidd's journal all create something not unlike this trope.
  • Psmith Psyndrome: The narrator can tell when others pronounce his name as "kid", "Kid" or "Kidd".
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Kidd sometimes sees people momentarily having eyes that are all red. It certainly unnerves him a lot, although their significance is never explained.
  • Reluctant Hero: The Kidd spends much of the latter parts of the book complaining that he's been turned into a hero of Bellona
  • Scary Black Man: Subverted by George Harrison who's treated like this but is actually the nicest person in the book... and is also possibly a rapist. Depending on one's point of view.
  • Stepford Smiler: There's an entire family that acts as though the world of the city hasn't ended. Special mention goes to the mother, who everyone else in the family takes special care not to remind what's really going on.
  • Sudden Name Change: The protagonist starts out nameless, acquires the nickname 'The Kid,' then becomes 'Kidd,' before arbitrarily deciding he prefers 'Kid.' His name is Michael. Maybe.
  • Talkative Loon: Some of the narration.
  • Three-Way Sex: The Kid, Lanya, and Denny eventually form a triad.
  • Time Travel: Possibly. Kid "loses" time, from the perspective of the other characters. It could be because of his screwy memory, or it could be that something is yanking him through time so that he'll be in the right place at the right time. Or it could be that as a fictional character, he doesn't exist when his actions aren't written down.
  • Title Drop: Dhalgren is both a name in Kidd's notebook and something he says in a vision-like image.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Well, the fact that the narrator can't remember his own name is a major warning sign right from the start. And then Bellona is strange enough that even he's unsure at times whether he's hallucinating or not. Plus, he 'loses' time, anywhere from seconds to a few days at a go, his only knowledge of what took place during that time being the word of other characters.
  • The Unreveal: All over the place. What happened to Bellona? What is the Kid's full name? What does Dhalgren mean? What are the optical chains actually? Even things that initially look like answers (such as the factory full of optical chains and red eye-caps) just raise more questions.
  • World Sundering

Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to