"The major novel about love and terror at the end of time."
That may be a bit much. Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany, is a major novel. It's definitely terrifying at times, and terrible (in the "formidable" sense) in scope and construction.
The novel is classified as science fiction. I'm not sure I agree with that classification, but if we accept it, then it's one of (if not the) best science fiction novel I've ever read. Beyond the questionable genre assignment, it's one of the best novels I've ever read, in general. It should be studied at every level of academics. It should create its own genre and classification, because there simply isn't anything else like it out there, at least in my 33 years of reading.
The story follows the life and adventures of a man who cannot remember his own name, but who is soon given the appellation "Kid." It suits him, and of course it refers to a few of the Greek, Roman, and pre-Greco-Roman gods on whom the character is based. Reducing the character to its ancient references would be criminal, however.
Kid is a drifter, apparently, who has some mental problems in his past, has selected but deep amnesia, has a tendency to lose time (sometimes hours, sometimes days), may be a touch schitzophrenic, and writes poetry that may or may not be brilliant.
At the opening of the book Kid is headed to Bellona, a city in the American West that has been devastated by some unknown tragedy, and because of this has dropped off the map--both literally and from the consciousness of the country. Perhaps a few thousand people remain in a city which was once home to many millions. There is no law and no explanation for how this came to be. In time it becomes apparent that Bellona may not actually be in America anymore, though how and why it shifted into whatever dimension it now inhabits is never explained.
Kid quickly begins to meet the major figures of Bellona. Things get off to a good start with Tak, a gay leatherman who shows Kid around and takes him home for the night. Lanya quickly enters the fray and becomes Kid's girlfriend. She remains the next major character for the duration of the story, but don't think his relationship is simple--Kid also aquires a boyfriend before too much longer. What's that? A three way bisexual relationship at the center of a major literary work? Yes, this was first published in 1974.
Don't think for a second that Delany deals with the unusual sexuality of his characters in an oblique way. No, this novel is very nearly pornographic. In fact, had it not so much literary value, I would simply call it pornography. But Delany has written a lot of pure pornography, and to reduce Dhalgren to that status would be incorrect. Still, I have never had a hard-on so much while riding the train to and from work! Gay, straight, bi, butch, femme, interracial, gangbangs, oral, anal, vaginal...they do it just about every way possible in this book.
But I think I've been a touch unfair, as all my glowing praise and rampant sexuality may have the reader running out to buy the book. And you should! But I must confess, nothing about this novel is so simple.
Bonfire admitted, after he'd given me the book and I was drawn in, that this was one he had never been able to get himself to read. And, researching the novel as I neared the end of it, I found that some literary critics at the time the book was first published couldn't stand it--one literally threw it against the wall 300+ pages into it, and refused to pick it up again!
Because you see, Kid may be schitzo. Or time may be running in reverse, occasionally. Or perhaps Bellona is warping space, because nothing is ever in the same place twice. It's entirely possible that the book begins in the middle of Kid's story. And none of the mysteries are explained. That's right--none of them. Why do half the inhabitants of city wear an "optical chain" of prisms, mirrors, and lenses? Why won't anyone explain how they got the chains? What do they mean? Why do some buildings in Bellona burn for weeks, but never fall down, and sometimes show up whole and unburned at a later time? Why are there two moons?
Whatever is going on in his head, Kid quickly becomes a big man in town. He gets a job working for the Richards, a family whos matriarch is intent on denying that anything has gone wrong in Bellona, even as anarchy reigns outside her apartment building. Kid is smart and just, and so becomes the de facto leader of the scorpions, a rough gang who live communally, wear projectors that can surround their bodies with holographic shields, and who are feared and respected more for the violence of which they appear capable, rather than anything they've actually done. The town is lead by the never-seen Roger Calkins, who prints the local newspaper (and every day usues a different, apparently random date), and who ends up publishing a book of Kid's poems. The interaction between the classes who remain in the city, between Kid and the various outrageous characters who inhabit the city, and with his own mental challenges, form the basis of the novel.
But there is no linear plot arc. Kid doesn't have an arch nemesis to overcome. The story is circular. It returns to the beginning, repeats, refracts, changes slightly, and repeats again. There is no beginning, middle, and end. It's a riddle. It was not meant to be solved.
This novel is structured dramatically different than anything you've ever read before. If you can relax and enjoy that, then you'll love the hell out of it. But if you want the traditional rewards for reading, you may end up throwing it against the wall and never picking it back up.
One of the major themes is writing, which is definitely a subject that interests me. As Kid fills in the blank spaces in the notebook he finds at the beginning of the novel, he writes his poetry, but must struggle with the question of how much of that art is his own product and how much was inspired by the unknown previous owner of the notebook. From where does the urge to write come and why does it overtake him when it does? Are Kid's writings any good, and who gets to decide what is good, anyhow? Was the novel itself written by Kid, or was it written by an unknown third party who found Kid's notebook? When the passages of the book begin to break apart, end suddenly, begin in the middle, and repeat with small variations, how much of what we are reading is real and how much is fantasy, delusion, or simply recalled incorrectly?
It's a challenge. But in the end, it's a challenge I'm glad I was able to stick out. Because while the ordinary rewards are not there, I feel I may have learned more about storytelling from this book than I have since I was a child. I feel I have experienced something that is truly unique and has no peer in literature.
I really hope I get to meet Samuel Delany soon. I'd almost go back to college just to hear him speak.