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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Dhalgren is a science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany.

The story begins with this cryptic passage:

to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.

What follows is an extended trip to and through Bellona, a fictional city in the American Midwest cut off from the rest of the world by some unknown catastrophe.

William Gibson calls Dhalgren "A riddle that was never meant to be solved."<ref>David Soyko, "Dhalgren", on-line review (2002) SFSite</ref>

Plot introduction

A singularity, enveloping Bellona, prevents all radio and television signals, even phone messages, from entering or leaving the city. A rift may have been created in space-time. One night the perpetual cloud cover parts to reveal two moons in the darkness. One day a red sun swollen to hundreds of times the size it ordinarily appears rises to terrify the populace, then sets—and the same featureless cloud cover returns, with no hint that it was ever otherwise. Street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while time appears to contract and dilate. Buildings burn for days, but are never consumed, while others burn and later show no signs of damage. Gangs roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. The few people left in Bellona struggle with survival, boredom, and each other. It is their reactions to (and dealings with) the strange happenings and isolation in the city that are the focus of the novel, rather than the happenings themselves.

The novel's protagonist is a drifter who suffers from partial amnesia: he can remember neither his own name nor the names of his parents, though he knows his mother was an American Indian. He wears only one sandal, shoe, or boot. (Characters in two other Delany novels and one short story dress the same way: Mouse in Nova [1968], Hogg in Hogg [1995], and Roger in "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ Move on a Rigorous Line" [1967]). Possibly he is intermittently schizophrenic. Not only does the novel end in schizoid babble (which recurs at various points in the text), but the protagonist has memories of a stay in a mental hospital, and his perception of the "changes in reality" sometimes differs from that of the other characters. Also he suffers from other significant memory loss in the course of the story. As well, he is dysmetric, confusing left and right and often taking wrong turns at street corners and getting lost in the city.

Plot summary

Beginning in a forest somewhere outside the city, the novel recounts the protagonist's meeting with a woman. After they make love, he tells her that he has "lost something"—he cannot remember his name. The woman leads him to a cave and tells him to enter. Inside, he finds long loops of chain fitted with miniature prisms, mirrors, and lenses. He dons the chain and leaves the cave to search for the woman who led him there, only to find her in the middle of a field, turning into a tree. Panicked, he flees. From time to time, he sees other characters in the novel wearing the same sort of “optic chain” (as it is called in the novel), suggesting they have been through a similar initiation, though its specific meaning is never fully explained and may have no real significance at all beyond the personal. Eventually, on a nearby road, a passing truck stops to pick him up. The trucker drops him off at the mouth of a suspension bridge, across the river from Bellona.

As he crosses the bridge in the early morning darkness, the young man meets a group of women leaving the city. They ask him questions about the outside world and give him a weapon: a bladed “orchid,” worn around the wrist with its blades sweeping up in front of the hand.

Once inside Bellona, an engineer, Tak Loufer, who was living a few miles outside of the city when the initial destruction happened, meets and befriends him. Tak has moved to Bellona and stayed there ever since. Upon learning that he cannot remember his name, Tak gives him a nickname—the Kid. Throughout the novel he is also referred to as "Kid", "Kidd", and often just "kid." Next Tak takes Kid on a short tour of the city. One stop is at a commune in the city park, where Kid sees two women reading a spiral notebook. When Kid looks at it, we see what he reads: The first page contains, word-for-word, the first sentences of Dhalgren. As he reads further, however, the text diverges from the novel's opening.

In Chapter II, "The Ruins of Morning", Kid returns to the commune the next day and receives the notebook from Lanya Colson, one of the two women from the evening before. Shortly they become lovers. Their relationship lasts throughout the book. We meet or learn about several other characters, including George Harrison, a local cult hero and known rapist; Ernest Newboy, a famous poet visiting Bellona by invitation of Roger Calkins, publisher and editor of the local newspaper, The Bellona Times; Madame Brown, a psychotherapist; and, later in the novel, Captain Michael Kamp, an astronaut who, some years before, was in the crew of a successful moon landing.

The notebook Kid receives already has writing throughout, but only on the right hand pages. The left hand pages are blank. Glimpses of the text in the notebook, however, are extremely close to passages in Dhalgren itself, as if the notebook were an alternate draft of the novel. Other passages are verbatim from the final chapter of Dhalgren. It is here in Chapter II that Kid begins using the blank pages of the notebook to compose poems. The novel describes the process of creating the poems—the emotions and the mechanics of the writing itself—at length and several times. We never see the actual poems, however, in their final form. Kid soon corrects any line that appears to a form we do not read—or removes it entirely from the text.

The third and longest chapter, "House of the Ax", involves Kid's interactions with the Richards family: Mr. Arthur Richards, his wife Mary Richards, their daughter June (who had been publicly raped by George Harrison, whom she is now fixated on), and son Bobby. Through Madame Brown they hire Kid to help them move from one apartment to another in the all-but-abandoned building of co-ops, The Labry Apartments, in which they live. All-but-dysfunctional, they are nevertheless "keeping up appearances." Mr. Richards leaves every day to go to work—though no office or facility in the city seems to be in operation—while Mrs. Richards acts as though there's nothing truly disastrous happening in Bellona. By some force of will, she causes almost everyone who comes into contact with her to play along. Kid's interactions with the Richards culminates in the death of one of the family members.

The third chapter is also where Ernest Newboy, a well-known poet visiting Bellona, befriends Kid. Newboy takes an interest in Kid's poems and mentions them to Roger Calkins. By the end of the chapter, Calkins is about to publish Kid's poems.

As the novel progresses, Kid falls in with the scorpions, a loose-knit gang, three of whom have severely beaten him earlier in the book. Almost accidentally, Kid becomes their leader. Denny, a scorpion, becomes Kid's and Lanya's lover, so that the relationship with Lanya turns into a lasting three-way sexual linkage. Kid also begins writing things other than poems in the notebook, keeping a journal of events and his thoughts.

In Chapter VI, "Palimpsest", the novel's penultimate chapter, Calkins throws a party for Kid and his book, Brass Orchids, at Calkins's sprawling estate. At Calkins's suggestion, Kid brings along twenty or thirty friends: the scorpion "nest." While Calkins himself is absent from the gathering, the descriptions of the various interactions between Bellona's high society (or, rather, what is left of it) and what can only be described as a street gang (the scorpions) is a section of the novel that often garners particular attention from reviewers and critics. This is also the part of the novel where Kid is interviewed by William (later passages of the book suggest William's last name is "Dhalgren," but it is never confirmed).

In Chapter VII, "The Anathemeta: a plague journal", the novel's concluding chapter, bits of the whole now and again appear to be laid out. Shifting from the omniscient viewpoint of the first six chapters, this chapter comprises numerous journal entries from the notebook, all of which appear to be by Kid. Several passages from this chapter have already appeared verbatim earlier in the novel, however, when Kid reads what was already in the notebook—written there when he received it. In this chapter rubrics run along beside many sections of the main text, mimicking the writing as it appears in the notebook. (In the middle of this chapter, a rubric running contains the following sentence: I have come to to wound the autumnal city.) Recalling Kid's entry into the city, the final section contains a near paragraph-for-paragraph echo of his initial confrontation with the women on the bridge. This time, however, the group leaving is almost all male, and the person entering is a young woman who says almost exactly what Kid did himself at the beginning of his stay in Bellona.

The story ends:

But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking.
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of
the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the
hills, I have come to

As with Finnegans Wake, the unclosed closing sentence can be read as leading into the unopened opening sentence, turning the novel into an enigmatic circle.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Dhalgren" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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