As the novel opens, the unnamed hero finds himself on the road to the deserted city of Bellona. He has lost most of his memory; he does not know where he comes from nor why he is going to Bellona. Bellona itself is equally mysterious. The city has been deserted by almost all of its inhabitants. The few people who remain roam the empty streets living like parasites on what remains. Some have banded together to try to build a new community in the city’s main park. Others formed gangs that extort whomever they can. A small handful hang on to civilization by walling themselves up in a large mansion or shutting themselves up in apartments, refusing to accept the changes Bellona has been through.
Bellona has suffered a singularity. It’s not clear why the city has become cut off from the rest of America; no television, no radio, no telephones. Strange things happen. A building catches fire and burns for days without being consumed. Two full moons appear on the rare day when the constant smoke clears. Landmarks appear to shift. A single bus route is still running, its driver going where and when he will.
The unnamed hero, who becomes known as Kidd, never helps the reader solve the riddle of Bellona. He knows little of his past but it seems he was once in a psychiatric hospital. He suffers blackouts that jar the novel’s narration several times leaving more holes in the story rather than filling any. The third person narration is so closely tied to Kidd, that it becomes as unreliable as he is.
Though the bulk of Dhalgren takes place in a single location, it’s essentially a road novel. Kidd moves from one set of characters to another as he moves through the city. He begins at the commune in the park where he meets Lanya, a girl he will form a close bond with as the novel progresses. He spends the night with Tak Lafour, an engineer who moved into the city after its fall and became a sort of wise old man, the guy others go to for advice. Tak knows the fallen city inside out. Kidd gets a job moving furniture for the Richards family who insist on maintaining appearances, pretending that everything is normal as everything around them slowly falls apart. Mr. Richard’s leaves for work each morning, though no one knows where he spends his day. Mrs. Richard’s runs the family’s luxury apartment as she always did, serving empty soup bowls at dinner time in a strange charade of the family dinner.
Kidd has found a notebook, filled with someone’s diary about the city. He uses the blank pages and margins to write poetry of his own which is published in a small edition halfway through the novel by the city’s main celebrity Roger Calkins who keeps a large, walled mansion filled with celebrity guests from the outside world. One of them, a poet, takes an interest in Kidd and encourages his writing. By the end of the novel, Kidd has fallen in with a street gang, the Scorpions, who wear mirrored disks that create holographic disguises. Kidd forms a family, reuniting with Lanya after the commune in the park breaks up, who becomes his girlfriend. The two are joined by Denny, a teenager who shares their bed.
What to make of all this? Should on even try to make anything?
Science fiction author and fan of the novel, William Gibson, has said that Dhalgren is “a riddle never meant to be solved.” But it’s human nature to solve riddles, even when there is no solution.
In the midst of this massive, post apocalyptic science fiction novel, Kidd is writing poems. Here Dhalgren becomes an extended meditation on the creation of art, how art works, where it comes from, how it suffers when it becomes a commodity, how the artists must finally face the reaction of the public. Not something I expected to find in a science fiction novel.
Though published in 1975, Dhalgren is a product of the 1960’s; the influence of the hippie movement on it is clear. It can be read as a critique of the changes American society during that decade. The commune in the park Kidd finds when he first arrives in Bellona is a hippie paradise. Golden Gate Park 1968. The Summer of Love. The commune runs as a collective, everyone helps with the food, the maintenance of their camp and the construction of new shelters. The members move from partnership to partnership, without moral constraints. They are as free as anyone could be. The Richards, whom Kidd works for, don’t know what to make of the commune nor of the changes their city has gone through. They insist on going on exactly like they always have. When their eldest son begins to question their way of life, they force him out and pretend he has died. Their daughter sneaks off to join the commune and to sleep with a radical black leader whenever she can. The commune falls apart, just as the hippie movement did. It ends in crime and exploitation without leaving any mark on the landscape, having failed to build any of the permanent structures they had planned.
There is much more in Dhalgren–as many solutions to its riddle as there are readers. I will be keeping my copy. I’m not sure if I’ll ever re-read it–at 800 pages I make no promises–but if I do, I’m sure I find a new set of answers to its riddles. Dhalgren is that kind of book.
I only keep books that I will either use as a reference or hope to read again after I retire. I’ve been doing this for many years now. I still have my copy of Dhalgren, but I keep reaching for it, thinking I should reread this one now instead of waiting another decade. I loved the book. It’s become one of my top ten all time favorites, though don’t ask me to pin down the reason why. I was unlike anything I had read before or have read since. I’m sure that most people who attempt it give up before they get very far, and it probably frustrates more readers than it enthralls, but you can count me as a huge fan. I may even get to rereading it very soon.