Normally, I like to write about books I’ve enjoyed. My blog is a forum to proselytize: to share my favorites with my (admittedly small) audience. But I also like to write about books I’ve enjoyed because I am passionate about them. In a bit of a turnabout—which is, after all, fair play—I will share with you a book I tried and really, really hated.
I like to wander bookstores and see what falls into my hands (See my post on libraries and bookstores here). But sometimes I want something new to read and I don’t have the patience to wait for inspiration to strike. It is then that I place my fate into another's hands: I turn to a book list.
Booklists are not rare phenomena, especially in the age of The InterTubes. It’s easy to find some schmuck on Goodreads or Amazon who will make up a booklist of “Musts.” Unless we’re already friends, I usually won’t work off of your personal booklist. I have to respect your brain if you’re going to try to hack into mine with literature. There are, however, some booklists that I am willing to use as guides. I like the NPR summer lists of “The Hundred Best YA Books” or “The Hundred Best SciFi & Fantasy Books.” I like looking at the NYT Review of Books (for “serious” books) and the Entertainment Weekly yearly wrap-ups (for offbeat books).
I found Kage Baker’s Company books because of a booklist. I finally pulled Le Guin’s Dispossessed off my bookshelf and read it because of a booklist. I even read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl because it was on everyone’s “Best of 2012” booklists. As I am a bit contrary by nature, I do not always expect to like everything I am recommended. When a book shows up on multiple lists that I respect, however, and a myriad of people tell me that I really ought to read something, I usually give in to the literary form of peer pressure.
That is precisely how I came to read Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. And now I will never, ever get those precious hours back. I should admit that I did not read all 801 pages; I would have thrown myself beneath a bus. I read the first and second sections, which got me through the first hundred pages. Then I tried to skim through the very last section, the title of which (“The Anathēmata: a plague journal”) was the most intriguing. Then I threw the book with great force across the room.
I recognize that this book is a stylistic experiment. It is only nominally science fiction, and was perhaps categorized as such because Delaney’s other works are traditional scifi. It is an allusive (and elusive) portrait of a city without rules or structure, arguably Delaney's metaphor for the 1960s in America. Dhalgren is also deliberately reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, complete with fragmented narratives and a novel that begins and ends with a sentence fragment. But Joyce was a genius, and I’m not sure that Delaney is. Perhaps if I took a class on Delaney (as “with guidance” that is the only way I am willing to tackle Joyce)… but I am just not interested enough.
I will not try to describe the plot, partly because I did not reading the entire book, and partly because I don’t believe there is one. It is an expressionist book rather than narrative one. The amnesiac protagonist is known as “The Kid." He enters the magical/allegorical/anarchic city of Bellona and becomes entangled in street gangs, poly-sexuality, and the meta-literary world. And, you know, stuff.
With no narrative to drive the book, I look for character, setting, and—above all—language. I can happily sink into an expressionist novel if I am borne aloft on imagery and verbiage. Many of my favorite books have little to no plot at all! But boy, are they pretty to read…
With Dhalgren, however, I found the writing derivative. I recognize that it is deliberately cyclical and fragmented, but somehow it did not engender confusion or disorientation, but boredom. The style was so very self-conscious that it became pompous. The characters are one-dimensional, perhaps the better to project the reader’s self upon a “type.” The sex is meant to be provocative and/or explicit, but is essentially uninteresting.
As I poked around on the ‘net to see others’ reactions to Dhalgren, I realized that the book is remarkably divisive. In most cases, if you don’t adore your friend’s favorite book, they give you a disappointed look and secretly decide not to like you as much. Apparently if you hate Dhalgren, you’re a moron. Oh, and sexually repressed. And racist. *great* For example, random reviewer Stevelvis from Goodreads says “It is interesting to read the long positive reviews by the "smart" people and it's also a laugh to read the negative reviews by the people who just didn't get it or who were offended by its explicit sexuality.”
I didn’t like the book. I can appreciate Samuel R. Delaney as a gay black man with an AMAZING beard. Disliking his writing does not make me racist, stupid, nor a prude. But you know, I must be one or all of those things, because the 'net says so.
Perhaps Dhalgren is a book best read as a timepiece, a reflection of the cutting-edge literary themes of its day. I cannot describe it as a classic, nor as a pleasure to read. If you don’t agree, please change my mind…but try to do it without calling me a moron. That tends to make me cranky.