Samuel R. Delany is one of the most powerful and distinctive writers to have emerged in American science fiction in the 1960’s. Both African American and gay, he gave a voice to two groups that had rarely been heard in the genre before, often including echoes of his own autobiographical experiences in his fiction. More than that, Delany, who held the Butler Chair of English at the State University of New York at the time Dhalgren was published and who has since held a number of distinguished academic positions, has long been one of the most challenging critics of the genre. He had already experimented with the structure and narrative voice of his fiction, notably in the self-referentiality of his previous novel, Nova (1968). It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Dhalgren should have been the first significant work of science fiction to have employed the techniques of postmodernism.
The novel famously opens in mid-sentence and ends partway through a sentence, the two linking together so that the novel forms an endless loop. This type of device was employed by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake (1939), which ends with the word “the.” A more appropriate comparison, however, might be between Dhalgren and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Like Ulysses, Delany’s novel tells of a central character’s odyssey through a city that is symbolically imbued with scenes from mythology. While Ulysses is cast within the dramatic harmony of a single day, Dhalgren is outside time. No temporal references in the book ever make sense (at various points, the Kid experiences events that seem to him to occur within a single day, although others inform him that several days have passed). Where Ulysses ends with Molly Bloom’s long, unpunctuated monologue, Dhalgren ends with a long extract from the Kid’s notebook, complete with misspellings, insertions, strikethroughs, and marginalia.
The mythic quality of Bellona and its inhabitants is wild and various, as Delany draws on many different sources. The episode called “House of the Ax,” for instance, largely set in the Labrys Apartments, echoes elements of Greek myth. The final, belated appearance of Roger Calkins behind a screen in a monastery garden calls to mind the wizard from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a small man behind a large screen. The novel’s major mythological reference seems to be the one obliquely suggested by its title....
(The entire section is 1034 words.)