Hey there, it's been a little while, hasn't it? I finished the audiobook of Dhalgren a few weeks ago, but I haven't stopped thinking about it.
First, a few notes on the audiobook. I wouldn't have finished Dhalgren without it. That said, the performance of narrator Stefan Rudnicki made me cringe. I try to avoid fiction audiobooks with male narrators anyway, because when men do women's voices it always feels like mockery to me. Rudnicki signals femaleness with a higher pitch, breathiness, and rising intonation, which makes his female characters sound stupid. I mentioned this to my partner, who said: "At least he's not trying to do an Australian accent!" (We are both Australian.) Cue the Australian character Ernest Newboys, whose nationality boiled down to a handful of vowel sounds mostly suggestive of a cry for help.
Much worse than all of this, though, is the fact that Delany makes liberal use of the n-word, including putting it into the mouths of non-Black characters. Rudnicki read each instance in full. There's an argument to be made for preserving the integrity of the text, but that argument did nothing for the whole-body shudder of revulsion I experienced every single time I heard a white man say that word. In conclusion, please have a Black narrator re-record this book, it's 2017.
Onto Dhalgren. I read it the way you'd climb a mountain. I've been walking around for a year or more saying that I wanna write gay science fiction, and this is a landmark of gay SF the way the Chrysler building is a landmark of Art Deco New York. It's also the most sustained of Delany's efforts to write science fiction that is also a serious, literary novel. On that level it's a stunning success. The most similar books I've read to Dhalgren (and they're not particularly similar) are Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, and Lanark. Pynchon's book, published 1973, is near-contemporaneous.
Like its three (post-)modernist doorstopper brothers, Dhalgren feels deeply autobiographical, especially read in conjunction with Delany's actual autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. I'm less interested in the specific correspondences between Delany's life and that of his protagonist Kidd than in the creative transformation of the material. A lot of the book is frankly mythic. A woman turns into a tree. There are two moons in the sky. Other threads are metatextual, almost to the point of jokiness: Kidd finds a notebook containing what seems to be an earlier draft of Dhalgren. Names are Dickensian. Newboys is Kidd's foil in the early part of the book, when he is still finding his feet. Later, more confident and getting his gay on, Kidd spends a lot of time with the astronaut, Captain Kamp.
Yet these flights of fancy are grounded in lived experience, and that's what makes Dhalgren work. Delany's especially good on the negotiations that let us live with one another and ourselves. Kidd's ambiguous erotic encounters and his efforts to negotiate an hourly rate for some contract work are equally, utterly recognizable. Kidd is compelled to write, hates writing, is inordinately proud of his poetry and unsure to the end whether or not it's any good. Delany's women, who are not stupid, face precisely-observed extra obstacles to self-realization, and these are tenderly conveyed. A polyamorous triad that shows up later in the book is probably the best-drawn I have ever read.
Delany has no qualms, though, and maybe this is the rub. Dhalgren was, for me, a difficult book to like. Cruelty and exploitation are drawn with the same cold eye as kindness and affection. Characters have little agency, and when they try to exercise what little they have, they're often ridiculed for it. It's an unsparing portrait of a frighteningly ugly world.
Maybe, probably, liking isn't the point. Dhalgren made me think very hard about my own creative process, and about my way of being in the world. I feel like I lived in Bellona for a little while, saw a nest of scorpions, smelled a decaying corpse, felt the caress of an orchid blade on my skin.