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Dhalgren

by Samuel R Delany

This book about many things

must be for many people.

Some of them are

Joseph Cox, Bill Brodecky, David

Hartwell, Liz Landry, Joseph

Manfredini, Patrick Muir, John

Herbert McDowell, Jean Sullivan

Janis Schmidt, Charles Naylor, Ann

O'Neil, Baird Searles, Martin Last,

Bob & Joan Thurston, Richard Vriali,

& Susan Schweersand

and

Judy Ratner & Oliver Shankalso

also

Thomas M. Disch, Judith Merrell,

Michael Perkins, Joanna Russ, Judith Johnson, & Marilyn Hacker

"You have confused the true and the real."

— GEORGE STANLEY/In Conversation
The Recombinant City

by William Gibson

A Foreward

Samuel Delany's Dhalgren is a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors. Once established in memory, it comes to have the feel of a climate, a season. It turns there, on the mind's horizon, exerting its own peculiar gravity, a tidal force urging the reader's re-entry. It is a literary singularity. It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it. This has never caused me the least discomfort, or interfered in any way with my pleasure in the text. If anything, the opposite is true.

Dhalgren is not there to be finally understood. I believe its "riddle" was never meant to be "solved". I do not believe that this has to do with any failure of coherence on the part of either the author or the text. I find both to be exceptionally coherent. Author and text are determinedly self-aware, in ways that less exploratory authors and their tales never are. Dhalgren is quite literally an experimental novel, and exploration of the cultural envelope of fiction. Delany, equipped with the accumulated tool-kit of literary modernism, heads straight for the edges and borders and unacknowledged treaties of the consensual act of fiction. And, most remarkably — almost uniquely, in my experience — he succeeds; the text becomes something else, something unprecedented.

To enter Dhalgren is to be progressively stripped of various certainties, many of these having to do with unspoken, often unrecognized, aspects of the reader's cultural contract with the author. There is a transgressive element at work here, a deliberate refusal to deliver certain "rewards" the reader may consider to be a reader's right. If this is a quest, the reader protests, then we must at least learn the object of that quest. If this is a mystery, we must at least be told the nature of the puzzle. And Dhalgren does not answer. But what of this recombinant city, the reader asks, this metamorphic Middle American streetscape, transfigured by some unspecified thing or process, where nothing remains quite as it was, and the sky itself is alight with primal signs of Tarotic portent?

And Dhalgren does not answer, but goes on.

Revolving. A sigil of brass and crystal, concrete and flesh.

I place Dhalgren in this history:

No one under age thirty-five today can remember the singularity that overtook America in the nineteen-sixties, and the generation that experienced it most directly seems largely to have opted for amnesia and denial.

But something did happen: a city came to be, in America. (And I imagine I use America here as shorthand for something else; perhaps for the industrialized nations of the American Century.) This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid. Its inhabitants nonetheless knew, at any given instant, whether they were in the city or in America. The city was largely invisible to America. If America was about "home" and "work" the city was about neither, and that made the city very difficult for America to see. There may have been those who wished to enter that city, having glimpsed it in the distance, but who found themselves baffled, and turned back. Many others, myself included, rounded a corner one day and found it spread before them, a territory of inexpressible possibilities, a place remembered from no dream at all. We would find that there were rules there as well, but they would be different rules. Down one half-familiar street, and then another, and perhaps we came to a park…

It proved to be possible to die in the city, and no book was ever kept of the names of those dead. Many survived there, but did not return. (Some said that those who did return had never quite been there.) But for those who remained, something else gradually happened: the membrane eroded, America and the city seeping into one another, until there is no America and there is no city, only something born from their intermingling.

I would not suggest that Dhalgren is any sort of map of that city, intentional or otherwise, but that they bear some undeniable relationship. (Those who would prefer to forget the city say that it produced no true literature, but that too is denial.)

In Dhalgren, the unmediated experience of the singularity has survived, free of all corrosion of nostalgia.

When I think of Dhalgren, I remember this:

A night in DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C., amid conditions of civil riot, when someone, as the police arrived with their staves and plastic shields, tossed a Molotov cocktail up into the shallow stone bowl of the Admiral's memorial goblet. The District's lesser monuments were often in decay, and the Circle's tall fountain had stood dry for however many summers, and I suppose trash had accumulated there, mostly paper, crumpled Dixie cups tossed up by children making baskets in imaginary hoops.

I did not hear the bottle shatter, only the explosive intake of gasoline igniting, flames throwing black shadows against the concrete; our shadows, running. We were all running, and in the eyes of a Kennedy-jawed girl from the Virginia suburbs I would see something I had never seen before: a feral shiver, a bright wet shard of ancient light called Panic, where dread and ecstasy commingled utterly. And then the first cannisters fell, trailing gas, and she was off, running, like a deer and in that moment as beautiful. I ran after her, and lost her, and sometimes I imagine she is running still.

Several years later, settling into the long slough of the pre-punk seventies, when Dhalgren was first published, I remember being simply and frequently grateful to Delany for so powerfully confirming that certain states had ever been experienced at all, by anyone.

The flame-lit park already so far behind.

I distrust few things more deeply than acts of literary explication.

Here is a book. Go inside.

   It's your turn now.

         Circular ruin.

               Hall of mirrors.

                     Ring of flesh.

The smoldering outskirts reconfiguring with each step you take.

Bellona.

Remember me to them.

 Vancouver, B.C. August 23, 1995
I: Prism, Mirror, Lens

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses scowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

He rubbed his palms against denim. Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.

The leaves winked.

What had been wind was a motion in brush below. His hand went to the rock behind.

She stood up, two dozen feet down and away, wearing only shadows the moon dropped from the viney maple; moved, and the shadows moved on her.

Fear prickled one side where his shirt (two middle buttons gone) bellied with a breeze. Muscle made a band down the back of his jaw. Black hair tried to paw off what fear scored on his forehead.

She whispered something that was all breath, and the wind came for the words and dusted away the meaning:

"Ahhhhh…" from her.

He forced out air: it was nearly a cough.

"…Hhhhhh…" from her again. And laughter; which had a dozen edges in it, a bright snarl under the moon. "…hhhHHhhhh…" which had more sound in it than that, perhaps was his name, even. But the wind, wind…

She stepped.

Motion rearranged the shadows, baring one breast. There was a lozenge of light over one eye. Calf and ankle were luminous before leaves.

Down her lower leg was a scratch.

His hair tugged back from his forehead. He watched hers flung forward. She moved with her hair, stepping over leaves, toes spread on stone, in a tip-toe pause, to quit the darker shadows.

Crouched on rock, he pulled his hands up his thighs.

His hands were hideous.

She passed another, nearer tree. The moon flung gold coins at her breasts. Her brown aureoles were wide, her nipples small. "You…?" She said that, softly, three feet away, looking down; and he still could not make out her expression for the leaf dappling; but her cheek bones were Orientally high. She was Oriental, he realized and waited for another word, tuned for accent. (He could sort Chinese from Japanese.) "You've come!" It was a musical Midwestern Standard. "I didn't know if you'd come!" Her voicing (a clear soprano, whispering…) said that some what he'd thought was shadow-movement might have fear: "You're here!" She dropped to her knees in a roar of foliage. Her thighs, hard in front, softer (he could tell) on the sides — a column of darkness between them — were inches from his raveled knees.

She reached, two fingers extended, pushed back plaid wool, and touched his chest; ran her fingers down. He could hear his own crisp hair.

Laughter raised her face to the moon. He leaned forward; the odor of lemons filled the breezeless gap. Her round face was compelling, her eyebrows un-Orientally heavy. He judged her over thirty, but the only lines were two small ones about her mouth.

He turned his mouth, open, to hers, and raised his hands to the sides of her head till her hair covered them. The cartilages of her ears were hot curves on his palms. Her knees slipped in leaves; that made her blink and laugh again. Her breath was like noon and smelled of lemons…

He kissed her; she caught his wrists. The joined meat of their mouths came alive. The shape of her breasts, her hand half on his chest and half on wool, was lost with her weight against him.

Their fingers met and meshed at his belt; a gasp bubbled in their kiss (his heart was stuttering loudly), was blown away; then air on his thigh.

They lay down.

With her fingertips she moved his cock head roughly in her rough hair while a muscle in her leg shook under his. Suddenly he slid into her heat. He held her tightly around the shoulders when her movements were violent. One of her fists stayed like a small rock over her breast. And there was a roaring, roaring: at the long, surprising come, leaves hailed his side.

Later, on their sides, they made a warm place with their mingled breath. She whispered, "You're beautiful, I think." He laughed, without opening his lips. Closely, she looked at one of his eyes, looked at the other (he blinked), looked at his chin (behind his lips he closed his teeth so that his jaw moved), then at his forehead. (He liked her lemon smell.) "…beautiful!" she repeated.

Wondering was it true, he smiled.

She raised her hand into the warmth, with small white nails, moved one finger beside his nose, growled against his cheek.

He reached to take her wrist.

She asked, "Your hand…?"

So he put it behind her shoulder to pull her nearer.

She twisted. "Is there something wrong with your…?"

He shook his head against her hair, damp, cool, licked it.

Behind him, the wind was cool. Below hair, her skin was hotter than his tongue. He brought his hands around into the heated cave between them.

She pulled back. "Your hands—!"

Veins like earthworms wriggled in the hair. The skin was cement dry; his knuckles were thick with scabbed callous. Blunt thumbs lay on the place between her breasts like toads.

She frowned, raised her knuckles toward his, stopped.

Under the moon on the sea of her, his fingers were knobbed peninsulas. Sunk on the promontory of each was a stripped-off, gnawed-back, chitinous wreck.

"You…?" he began.

No, they were not deformed. But they were… ugly! She looked up. Blinking, her eyes glistened.

"…do you know my…?" His voice hoarsened. "Who I… am?"

Her face was not subtle; but her smile, regretful and mostly in the place between her brow and her folded lids, confused.

"You," she said, full voice and formal (but the wind still blurred some overtone), "have a father." Her hip was warm against his belly. The air which he had thought mild till now was a blade to pry back his loins. "You have a mummer—!" That was his cheek against her mouth. But she turned her face away. "You are—" she placed her pale hand over his great one (Such big hands for a little ape of a guy, someone had kindly said. He remembered that) on her ribs—"beautiful. You've come from somewhere. You're going somewhere." She sighed.

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