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.
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 , Hogg in Hogg , and Roger in "We, in Some Stranger Power's Employ Move on a Rigorous Line" ). 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.
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.
The "Kid" in Greek mythology mostly likely represents a student of the Greco-Roman gods Pan, Bacchus, or Dionysius. One should note that these three gods predated Greco-Roman theology but were incorporated more fully than other pre-Hellenistic gods. The goat, or "Kid", was long associated with these gods, agents of the human emotions and the wilder, more violent and sexual side of human nature. The protagonist, the Kid himself, suggests the dual nature of Pan and Daphnis. Despite his wild nature, Pan had was a teacher and mentor to those he favored. Daphnis was the son of Hermes. He was a poet, a bisexual, and a youth. In addition he was Pan's pupil. Pan taught him to play the pan pipes, or, in Dhalgren, their modern equivalent, the harmonica. When Lanya plays, the harmonica has an intoxicating effect on its audience.
The strange celestial happenings (the double moon and the immense sun) suggest the sun god (Apollo) and the moon goddess (Diana). Apollo is also often associated with the goddess Bellona, and Kid plays Apollo's role in the replaying of the Daphne myth. Apollo is also credited with sending the scorpion Scorpio to kill Orion in some versions of the Orion myth, while the gang Kid eventually leads call themselves Scorpions. The song Lanya composes throughout the story might be interpretable as a paean, and Lanya's harmonica, also known as a blues harp, may represent the lyre or kithara. This song, like the paeans, is played at the celebration for Kid and his book of poetry.
In the chapter "House of the Ax", the Labry Apartments suggest ancient Crete's Labyrinth. "Labrys" is the Greek name for the double-headed ax—the sign beside the doorway into the historical labyrinth. The suggestion here is possibly some form of the following: the complex of rituals which Mrs. Richards goes through to mimic a normalcy that simply can not obtain in this devastated landscape is so complicated that anyone who once enters them has little hope of ever getting free of them. The optic chain that circles the body and holds it, coherent, together, suggests the thread of Ariadne, which Theseus used to escape the maze.
George and June may represent Jupiter and Juno: George is sometimes portrayed in scenes with lightning and has many consorts and children. June's similarity to the goddess is most strongly suggested by her name and her association with George, as well as aspects of her personality, especially jealousy. When Kid talks with George about June, he describes George's response, "His eyes will explode like blooming poppies." Poppies are associated with Juno, and--at that point in the novel--with June.
Tak, who meets nearly everyone who enters the city, can be associated with Charon.
Kid can be read as a personification of Orpheus, the son of Calliope, the muse of poetry. Orpheus is, alternately, the son of Apollo or King Oeagrus of Thrace, depending on the source. Calliope herself was the daughter of Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne is also one of the names of the river dividing the lands of the living and the dead, in which all who cross it forget their earthly lives, especially their names and personalities. Orpheus was also, young, bisexual and was mentored by Dionysus, and also by Apollo.
Orpheus eventually fell out of favor with Dionysus for abandoning his worship for the worship of Apollo, and becoming exclusively homosexual. He was then torn apart by the Maenads, Dionysus’s ecstatic band of female worshiper, for denying them his sexual attentions.
Writing in the Libertarian Review, Jeff Riggenbach compared Dhalgren to the work of James Joyce. A quote from his review was included on the inside advertisement page of the fifteenth printing of the Bantam edition. As the critic and novelist William Gass writes of Joyce, "The Homeric parallels in Ulysses are of marginal importance to the reading of the work but are of fundamental importance to the writing of it. . . . Writers have certain ordering compulsions, certain ordering habits, which are part of the book only in the sense that they make the writing possible. This is a widespread phenomenon." Almost certainly this is also the case with Dhalgren: Writing about the novel both as himself and under his pseudonym K. Leslie Steiner, Delany has made similar statements and suggested that it is easy to make too much of the mythological resonances. As he says, they are merely resonances, and not keys to any particular secrets the novel holds.
But the novel is far more complex than a simple circle and compares more closely with a Necker cube. Delany conceived and executed Dhalgren as a literary Multistable perception—the observer (reader) may choose to shift their perception back and forth. Central to this construction is the notebook itself: Kidd receives the notebook shortly after entering Bellona. In the first several chapters of the novel we see, on several occasions, exactly what Kid reads when he looks at the open notebook. The notebook appears to take over as the main text of the novel starting at Chapter VII, coming almost seamlessly after Chapter VI. However, though Chapter VII reads as though it is written by Kid, many of the passages shown in earlier chapters appear verbatim in Chapter VII. Yet for Kid to have read those passages earlier, the passages must have been written before he received the notebook. In fact, the last few pages of the novel show Kid leaving Bellona. The last sentence of that departure sequence is the incomplete one that conceivably loops back to the beginning of the book. However, earlier in the novel the notebook falls to the ground and Kid reads the last page. We, the reader, see exactly what Kid reads: the last four sentences of the novel, word for word. This happens well before a point in the novel where Kid specifically states that he only wrote the poems, and "all that other stuff" was already in there when he received the notebook. However, those four sentences are part of a longer section at the end of the novel which, when read, was obviously written by Kid. This means he left Bellona—taking the notebook with him, for how else would he be able to write about his departure—prior to that notebook being found inside Bellona and given to him. Delany has specifically stated that it is not a matter of settling or deciding which text is authoritative. It is more a matter of allowing the reader to experience perceptual shifts in the same way that a Necker cube can be viewed. Akin to the hints regarding its circular nature, Dhalgren also contains at least one hint towards the perceptual shifts: Denny's book of M. C. Escher prints. Additionally, Jeffrey Allen Tucker has written that Delany's unpublished notes regarding the writing of Dhalgren contain direct references to the novel itself working as a Moebius Strip, and makes a direct connection to Escher's "Moebius Strip".
Within the looping text that comprises Dhalgren, many other textual plays on perception can be found. Imagery and conversations, some hundreds of pages apart, closely echo each other. One case in point: The scenes on the bridge mentioned in the "Plot Summary" above. In another, light sliding across the face of a trucker driving at night is echoed in the description of light sliding across the face of a building.
Cover of Vintage edition.
With over a million sales, Dhalgren is by far Delany's most popular book--and also his most controversial. Critical reaction to Dhalgren has ranged from high praise (both inside and outside the science fiction community) to extreme dislike (mostly within the community). Its lack of a linear plot or even a single consistent chronological narrative, its graphically-described homo-, hetero-, and bisexuality, Delany's "modernist" verbal pyrotechnics, and use of stream of consciousness writing has given it a reputation as a difficult novel. It has been compared to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow—not so much because of the styles in which the two are written, but in terms of the complexity and ambition of the two works.
The Libertarian Review stated that Dhalgren "seems . . . to stake a better claim than anything else published in this country in the last quarter century (excepting only Gass's Omensetter's Luck and Nabokov's Pale Fire) to a permanent place as one of the enduring monuments of our national literature."
The Telluride Times-Journal wrote, "Altogether, Dhalgren is a unique and powerful literary masterpiece."
Darrell Schweitzer, writing in Outworlds, Sixth Anniversary Issue (#27, 1976) stated that "Dhalgren is, I think, the most disappointing thing to happen to science fiction since Robert Heinlein made a complete fool of himself with I Will Fear No Evil."
Theodore Sturgeon called Dhalgren "the very best ever to come out of the science fiction field ... a literary landmark." By contrast, fellow writers such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison hated the novel. When the book appeared, Ellison in the L. A. Times (Sunday, February 23, 1875, p. 64) wrote: "I must be honest. I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further." In an interview 27 years later, he said: 'When Dhalgren came out, I thought it was awful, still do . . . I . . . threw it against a wall." What apparently "gulled," "bored" or (possibly) angered Ellison enough to throw the book--on page 361 of the original Bantam edition--is a scene in which a drag dancer, Bunny, in the local gay bar, yearns after a visiting scorpion, Pepper, who is drinking up all his wine.
Four times in the twenty years from 1982 to 2002, editor Ron Drummond proofread and redacted the text of Dhalgren, the latter two times at Delany's specific behest. Dozens of Drummond's corrections were incorporated into two late Bantam printings, and hundreds more in the first and third printings of the Vintage Books edition. Because of Drummond's work, the third and later printings of the Vintage edition are considered by the author to be the most accurate rendering of the text. Nevertheless, the early submission by Delany of a mistaken correction to the publisher and the publisher's prompt (if promptly forgotten) response led, months later, to the inadvertent introduction of the single worst, most meaning-obliterating multi-paragraph error in the novel's convoluted publishing history, an error that Vintage has failed to correct in subsequent printings. On page 791, in the left-hand column, paragraph 16 should have a single pair of quotation marks, one at the beginning and one at the end, with none in the middle: The whole paragraph—"Lanya said you weren't writing too much. She said she thought there were too many people around."—was initially intended as a single utterance by Madame Brown. Even with that error, the current Vintage edition of Dhalgren remains the most accurate published to date.
A hardcover edition was published by Gregg Press (1977). After the Bantam edition went out of print the book was republished by Grafton (1992), Wesleyan University Press / University Press of New England (1996), and Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House (2001), the latter two with an introduction by William Gibson. The Vintage edition is currently (Sept. 2007) in its 7th printing.