The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book List Blues: Naomi

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.



  1. I did read all 801 pages, and I didn't throw the book across the room, but I was a bit . . . perplexed by it. There were things in it that I liked quite a bit, and I appreciated the experiment as an experiment, but overall, it didn't do a lot for me. It didn't offend me; I was just kind of "meh" about it. I've also read *Babel-17* and *Empire Star,* to much the same effect. I remember all three has having interesting bits and playing with cool ideas, but I can barely remember anything else about them.

    I want to love Delaney's work, but I'm afraid I don't, although I heartily approve of its existence (particularly since speculative fiction has such an overwhelming history of white, straight, male monoculturalism).

    I think the comparison with Joyce is an apt one: I love intertextuality, allusiveness, and experimental style, but I lose patience when things get too abstract. I wonder whether you'd feel similarly about Harrison's *Viriconium,* which I read not too long ago and also feel ambivalent about.

  2. Aaaaaand now I've added "Virconium" to my reading list. I was disappointed with Delaney...I LIKE big, complicated books! I just couldn't get into this one, and the more I tried to like it, the farther I wanted to chuck it across the room. But thank you for chiming in, and making me feel less irritated that I didn't like it (rather than not "getting" it.)

    I will give "Virconium" a shot, and let you know. As it is, I am happily re-reading Margaret Atwood at the moment, prepping for reading "MaddAddam!"

  3. I would love to talk with you about Virconium after you've read it. And I'm trying to prep for MaddAddam, too. Year of the Flood was fantastic.