Thursday, August 12, 2010

Notes on rereading Dhalgren during the Summer of 2010

A guest-post and photo-illustration from Monkeyblake, a simian friend of ours:

Unreal City. Moscow. Set off by a historic heatwave acrid smog from the fires burning across the forests outside the city is seeping into apartments, offices and even the underground  Moscow metro, forcing many Russians to abandon the city. All over Russia, the worst heatwave in memory has blanketed the region in 110 degree or more heat, triggering wildfires, igniting peat bogs in central Russia, and choking Moscow with dense unbreathable smog for days on end. Plumes of smoke have gone as far away as Finland. At the same time, a heatwave has descended on the Eastern Coast and parts of the Great Plains of the United States this August. On the the radio reports of flash floods across Pakistan, thousands killed,  many others swept away and marooned, 600,000 homes destroyed, the worst flooding in 80 years...

"Unreal City," Eliot repeats like a refrain in The Waste Land (1922).  "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many," He quotes Dante in hell: "I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet..." like cars bumper to bumper fleeing New Orleans during Katrina.

Unreal City. Suburban wasteland. Nameless. I live where the heat usually goes above 110 even into the 120s during summer.  This summer is unusually mild. Rarely above 90. I am reading Dhalgren again this summer. I was a boy of 15 the summer it came out, the summer I read it, lured by the image of the giant sun on the cover and the thickness of the paperback that to my 15 year-old-mind meant quality, meant serious, Russian-serious. The paper I remember smelled quite  good, though it has since browned quite badly. The summer of 1975. 

When the book came out cities were not like Bellona, the city that is Dhalgren -- cities were not abandoned, off the grid, emptied of most of their populace... Describing such a place was Science Fiction: Dhalgren, Stalker.

No longer. Unreal cities are no longer rare. When I read the book in ‘75 no American city had been abandoned like New Orleans to disaster and its own fate. Not in living memory anyway. Not like Europe or elsewhere. Abandoned. Ruined. Emptied, the fleeing, the fled.  Some survivors and hold-outs trapped or lost.  Standing on roofs to keep from drowning. Shitting in stadium corners. A hole ripped in the man-made dome. Unreal New Orleans. 

Dhalgren was my first Unreal City. It helped me -- withstand the shocks of the later ones I became exposed to, Dresden, Hiroshima, Detroit. A homeopathic post-apocalyptic gem or germ. A shot in the arm for a 15 year old.

Why am I rereading it now? Harder to answer -- and more personal -- the kind of ruins you see around you at 50. A booster shot maybe. That and Samuel R. Delany was suppose to come and visit where I live to receive a prestigious Science Fiction award. We waited for weeks foolishly hopeful after the award was announced that he just might come. He declined. This place, nameless, too much of a wasteland even for Delany.*

As a genre descended from the Gothic, science fiction has many ruined landscapes to roam around in.  Post-apocalyptic novels are made from them. The gritty winds blasting the streets brownstone tenements of 1984. J.G. Ballard's divine books, The Drought and The Drowned World are alike post-apocalyptic and set in ruins. 

Some are even as beautiful as Dhalgren. Though they have plot. Things they say, mean. Things happen in Dhalgren, sure, but really, Dhalgren feels more like a place than a story. A landscape that is coextensive. Not a narrative, an unfolding. As a place, it is one of the most vivid places in letters you can roam in. Roam like the Kidd. You don't care if things happen or don’t happen, don’t care where you go or don’t go, you are happy to forget yourself for a while, keep reading, keep roaming, all 879 pages and then read again.

*Though the guy who is getting the same prestigious award, the Eaton, the guy with a big mouth who must scream, is coming (though few I know can reread him, though we try, no longer 15). He hated Dhalgren by the way.


  1. Belatedly, I would like to thank Monkeyblake for our first-ever guest blog post.

    You've captured the surreal life-among-the-ruins flavor of the book and it's prescient interplay with our present-day reality of cities with lifeless cores and empty quarters.

    Everywhere you look there are two layers of reality: the properous, triving city, and the post-apocalyptic, abandoned city. They are overlayed with each other, "coextensive" as you put it.

    Will Delany come to this town, our town, like the fictional author, Newboy, comes to Bellona? Will we meet him as we wander through the city with one shoe off, one shoe on?

    You've tempted me to consider re-reading this monumental work. It meant a lot to me when I first read it, at age 16 or 17.

  2. Looks like Colton or Moreno Valley in the image.