Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (spoilers)

This book had been in my queue for a while, I tried it years ago but gave up at page 65.  There was a time when I was pretty fickle about books, if I wasn't digging something I'd put it down and start something new.  Then eventually I'd circle back and finish things up.. but I just never had the ambition to pick dhalgren back up.  I got through it in about three weeks, but I was getting increasingly irritable about it in the last week.  My reactions follow, spoilers ahead.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

This novel is very highly acclaimed, there are some noted entries in Wikipedia about critics and authors who didn't like it, but if you do a quick look around the internet for reviews, most noise out there is people that love it.  I don't care so much what others think about a book before I read it, and I know sometimes people (not formal critics) will make outrageous claims like if you don't like this book then you're a) stupid b) don't get it. Just because something is well-liked by critics, does not mean it's something I will enjoy - and it also doesn't mean I'm "doing it wrong" if I don't like it.  I may not like something that is out there to be appreciated for its crafting and intricacies.  I can appreciate those qualities, which dhalgren has, but it's not what I need in a reading experience.

I almost walked away from this book after 700 pages, with 100 pages left.  I've never walked away with that kind of investment, not even considered it.  But I was just so frustrated and tired of the spurts of incoherent rambling, disjointed timelines, strange shift in style, etc.  I was dreading midway in maybe that it was going to circle back to the beginning without going anywhere, and so it was.  I understand it was an unconventional construction, without a standard plot or protagonist, but maybe that's just not something I can appreciate or handle.  I found myself sitting back and sighing and forcing myself to continue reading several times, and by the last chapter rolled around and that odd markup/commentary/editorial plus extra inserted clippings came on I started loudly complaining to people about my frustration with the book.  So here's my feedback/thoughts/review.

I didn't think it was all bad, mind you.  I felt some attachment to Kid, Lanya, Denny.  Their relationship had some tender moments, but too often the unreality of such a perfect little trio killed my suspension of disbelief. It's silly really, but things like Lanya liking Kid's breath.  Seriously people, they rarely bathe and apparently don't brush their teeth.  There's some serious stink going on there, and maybe some have a super tolerance for these things but that to me was just too silly.  I also found some components of the nest endearing; this thought that in extraordinary situation where some unknown disaster occurred but no real threat to life and limb existed most times, that these large groups could laze about in their crowded warm home together peacefully (for the most part) - it had its appeal.  The graphic nature and quantity of sex in the book may put some off, the only issue I took with it was occasionally it felt kind of cheesy between the trio.  I don't think all that sex was necessary in such detail, but it certainly wasn't a major complaint compared to what really did bother me.

We are led to believe by the end, that this novel was Kid's notebook, what with the intermixing of contents he didn't write (so we/he originally thought) and the last chapter, and maybe it's an explanation of some of the things that bugged me.  The continued use of the same imagery for characters like sucking their teeth, putting a fist to their mouth, etc; it started to bug me.  Then in that editorial last chapter, there's a comment about some gesture being done by two characters, is it a forgetful author and the like.  Is that to call out the continued use of the same gestures across characters?  Does it excuse it?  Or is it just some unrelated connection.  I don't know.

I maybe should know better that this wouldn't be my kind of book, I want some resolutions at the end of the day and I don't want to leave the story depressed.  At least this did not make me sad, but it did make me somewhat angry.  I wouldn't say it was a waste of my time to read it, I am glad that I finished it after all - and I found out how it circled back.  In part I wanted to justify my dislike for the book, knowing that it ended as unsatisfactorily as I had anticipated.  I don't take offense to the concept of using this disjointed, merging and splitting timeline - I feel like this could be used in a very intriguing and engaging way.  But the hints are subtle and lost in some much other junk, I feel that it just serves to irritate me in trying to remember when this happened, or to who, the first time or last time.  Which also brings to the question, or knowledge, of our unreliable narrator.  It just seems too much, we have the factor of the city which is twisting and changing (or so we are to believe), but also that the Kid has a history of mental illness that seems to continue rearing its head.  Maybe it doesn't matter, what is in his distorted view and what is truly happening, but I feel lost in the mix of the two.  Maybe I'm just not prepared to "experience" the book as it is.  I want to know more, not to feel my way through.  The back cover makes mention of magical realism, which certainly seems a more apt category than science fiction.  I don't really see anything scifi about it, but if the city truly is as Kid represents, then there's some sort of magic at play.  It's an ever-present character weighing us down, what will be different today.  Where will we end up, and when.

Until all hell breaks loose in the same fashion it did the "first" day the city went to pot, everyone seems content to just stay there forever.  At least I could understand by the end, why they all weren't just hauling out. I get the appeal, but I felt like the other shoe had to drop.  Something had to happen to the utilities, the neverending food, something.  But I guess the shoe was that chance to start the city over again with a new cast of characters.  I know many feel it should be read more than once (also said about something else I read recently, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (spoilers)), I feel like I was able to track somewhat well all the time shifting and connections, and I highly doubt I would enjoy it any more the second time through.  Maybe the stress of wanting to know how disappointed I'll be (how's that for optimistic) would be less and so I could appreciate the pure structure involved.  Don't know, and pretty sure I don't care to find out.  I would probably be willing to reread The Book of the New Sun - even though I wasn't 100% on board with it originally.  But not this.  Not in the next 10 years at least.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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