29 June 2010

Difficult Dhalgren

The Millions has a fun series going -- short posts about "difficult books".  "Difficult" is, of course, a relative term, and I could spend the entire afternoon analyzing it, but I won't, because I'd rather celebrate Garth Risk Hallberg writing about Samuel Delany's Dhalgren.

The post is one of advocacy more than analysis; it's Hallberg making the case to read the book, to give it a shot.  He's one of the better literary critics I know of, so I hope he'll return to Dhalgren at more length.

I have no problem with Dhalgren being labeled "difficult" -- I've talked to lots of people about it over the years, and most of us who came to love the book got to that point from a moment of difficulty, both difficulty with the book and, to broaden the implications of the word, difficulty with things outside the book.  Indeed, it's one of those novels that seems to benefit from being read at certain times: difficult times.  I know multiple people who couldn't really get into it until they were at a moment of transition in their lives, a moment when they felt between worlds, a bit lost, maybe drifting.  In such moments, Dhalgren is no longer itself difficult -- it is necessary, both consoling and challenging.

My masters thesis was called The Road to Dhalgren, and the last chapter is a fragmentary and very much incomplete bit of musing on connections between Dhalgren and the book Delany was writing along with it, HoggHogg is a truly difficult book, in just about every sense of the word I can think of.  I've published various pieces of The Road to Dhalgren over the years, but have not published the last chapter because it feels more like an outline to me than a finished piece of writing, but below the cut I'll past a section from it about the two books, since this section addresses some of what Hallberg says...



"Rhetoric is the ash of discourse" (Longer Views 144)

"We're just grubbing in the ashes" (Dhalgren 745)

Dhalgren is sexually explicit, as is Hogg.  The latter is pornographic because one of its most important meanings relies on sexual arousal.  Dhalgren does not rely on arousal, but it also does not discourage it.
            The arousal that I take Hogg as requiring is complex and, for most readers, I expect, not only sexual, but also — perhaps predominantly — an arousal to disgust, horror, anger.  Why is this book doing this to me? I asked myself many times when I first read Hogg.  And then: Why do I respond in this way? Few readers will find all of Hogg arousing; few readers will find none of it arousing.  I would find it difficult to read Hogg without thinking about such arousal, without interrogating its meaning, without being afraid of its presence.  Because the book is so violent, so disgusting, so evocative, I cannot read it without also watching myself read it.  I cannot read it without paying attention to my own fascination.  The engine of that metatext is arousal. 
     It is difficult to read Dhalgren without thinking about reading it, but not because of arousal.  The engine of Dhalgren's metatext is expectation and habit.  Why is this book doing this to me? remains a question, but the source is different: It is caused by being unable to put apparently straightforward prose together into a coherent whole, a narrative.  Everything in the novel is subject to slippage and erasure.  The conventions of reading that we bring to it do not work for very long, regardless of what those conventions are — we can read parts of it as a science fiction novel, parts of it as a literary novel, parts of it as pornography.  Even if we abandon Delany's own rubric of codic systems, the problem remains, because Dhalgren does not meet the expectations we have for this thing we call a novel.  Yet we call it that, because novels are overdetermined forms of discourse, and the tradition of the novel is a long, vast one encompassing everything from Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year to Richardson's Pamela to Sade's Juliet to Godwin's St. Leon to Austen's Pride and Prejudice to Lydia Maria Childs's The Rebel to Pushkin's Dubrovsky to Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Dickens's Bleak House to Stevenson's Treasure Island to James's Golden Bowl to Firbank's Valmouth to Woolf's The Waves to Hammett's Red Harvest to Sarraute's Tropismes to Barth's Giles Goat-Boy to Kawabata's Snow Country to Brown's Da Vinci Code to Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow.  An ability to read all of those books could be helpful to coming up with meanings for various parts of Dhalgren, but I do not know of a way to read any one of those novels — or any five, really — that would also be a way to read, and bring sense to, Dhalgren.  And that is part of what is going on in the book.  It is unsettling because it is unsettled.  Much of the book is written in what usually gets called "straightforward prose"; it may have bits of rhetorical adornment, moments of figurative language, but for the most part it relates things that happen and what people say.  The challenge for us as readers is that the things that happen are sometimes contradictory, sometimes disconnected, and often difficult to link in a meaningful pattern to other things that happen, just as the many things people say (this is a book full of dialogue) often do not feel purposeful within the pattern we know of as a novel — that is, the dialogue often seems to exist for its own sake, like overheard and transcribed conversations, rather than for any reason of plot or even character.
            At some point or another while reading Dhalgren, it is likely that the reader will become bored.  We read the words because the words are there, but we do not know why they are there.  Boredom is a complex emotion, though, and can spur us on to thought, wondering: Why do I respond this way? 
And that is the moment — the moment of active boredom, the moment of questioning, the moment of awareness of the self as a reader — when we begin to comprehend Dhalgren.

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them — they are so far away from me!
—John Ashbery
from "The Instruction Manual"


"Mike Harrington wrote a book," Mr. Richards objected. "A very good book, too."

"Oh, Arthur, that was an instruction manual...on stresses and strains and the uses of a new metal!"
—Samuel R. Delany
Dhalgren (146-147)

4 comments:

  1. The first time I read Dhalgren, I had just moved back to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. In fact, I read it right after Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen and right before Harrison's Viriconium. Maybe I was half consciously seeking books that seemed to make sense of living in a broken city. (I know I had some half-assed justification that I was looking for how cities were discussed in fiction since I thought, and still believe, that the field of American history has mostly bunged its analysis).
    But anyway, I totally agree about Dhalgren being easier if you are in a difficult place. I know I didn't completely understand it (it is effectively styled to resist that level of comprehension) but there was definitely some reciprocity going on between the text, myself, and the place I was living.
    Now five years later, your post has me thinking I should reread it and see what has changed. I am still living in NOLA, and again its a place that is in a difficult spot. I would like to see how it compares to my reading of Ship Breaker a few weeks back.

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  2. Did you see that someone who owns the rights is actually making some moves towards trying to film Dhalgren?

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  3. I'm really glad you've posted this. In fact, I've been interested in reading your MA thesis for a while now.

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  4. Ah, the never-dying question: "Who the hell reads Dhalgren?" I think you may have hit it, Matt -- the other categorizations I've heard have sounded comparatively self-congratulatory ("people who know the score") or deluded ("lying snobs"). My own first obsessive plunge (as near to one sitting as I could manage between sleep and [bodily] attending high school) certainly occured at a time of transition, albeit not during what would prove the transition's most wrenching stretches.

    I never felt bored, though. For this reader in that particular period of transition, the novel's doubled genre -- the expository expectations of science fiction readers, the musical expectations of high-mainstream fiction readers -- successfully transferred the Kid's hyperattentive suspicion that each detail of experience, no matter how apparently trivial, must somehow be determined by some structure outside the experience proper.

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