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Sci-fi grandmaster Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren became his most commercially successful endeavor.

First published in January, 1975 by Bantam, Dhalgren has sometimes been described as an experimental novel, or a circular novel.

Penguin Random House details this book:

Bellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there … The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young man—poet, lover, and adventurer—known only as the Kid. From https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/38904/dhalgren-by-samuel-r-delany-foreword-by-william-gibson/

“Something has happened there —…”

The disaster, which has included riots and fire, lack of electricity and infrastructure, still intermittently seems to going on in the Kid’s present. (or is it? Or will it?) The disaster may have caused something very weird to happen with time, because sometimes burned buildings are back the way they were and sometimes they aren’t.

What was it? Looking for either authoritative answer or revelations from the novel regarding how or why the disaster happens to Bellona.

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    Dhalgren is a difficult read, so I can't say that I've got a good handle on it... but I don't think we get any more than that, plus descriptions of some of the effects where relevant... Nov 1 '21 at 19:24
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    I think the point is that's unknown.
    – Mithoron
    Nov 1 '21 at 19:37
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    I'm voting to wound the autumnal city because I have come to Nov 3 '21 at 14:07
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I've read Dhalgren three times, cover to cover, without interspersing any other fiction each time (that is, I wasn't reading any other novel while reading Dhalgren), most recently in the 1990s. I still don't understand it (linguistically clearer than James Joyce, but no simpler, would be my description, and the "clearer" is probably dependent on Delany being American, as am I, where Joyce was unabashedly Irish), but I'm confident the nature of the disaster was very carefully not defined internal to the story.

Various parts of Bellona had electricity, and didn't; had water service, and didn't; had food left in stores, and didn't, were burning or had burnt -- and weren't. It seems very much as if there are (only) a few paragraphs missing between the last words and the first where the story might wrap around.

As one comment noted, at certain points it seemed as though effects preceded their causes, as if Kid were living backward (not in the meaning of speaking backward or getting younger, but as if what happens today depends heavily on what will happen tomorrow).

Given the situation, especially with time, it seems as if the disaster was both past and present, but at no point was it defined clearly except in terms of its effects: mass flight from the city, and complete disruption of the workings of civilization.

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+150

As William Gibson famously observed (in his forward to the Vintage Edition), Dhalgren "is not there to be finally understood. I believe its 'riddle' was never meant to be 'solved.'" With that said, I do have my own, unprovable theory on how Bellona is constructed: The entire city is in a closed time loop. (Closed time loops are a favorite of Delany's --he explored one, less successfully, in Empire Star. Compare also Diana Wynne Jones' Tale of Time City.) Events there are cyclical, they happen over and over again --not necessarily identically, and not necessarily with the same cast. Thus, the events that are in the recent past at the beginning of the book are in the near future at the end of the book. As part of this, the city is self-renewing. It burns, but is not consumed. It is looted, but never exhausted.

The narrator/main-character is one of the archetypal inhabitants of the city. He enters at one point of time, and exits at another, but yet in some sense he, or some other version of him, has always been there. Through the diary entries it is suggested that he experiences the complete loop, and that he is present in the city both before his arrival, and after his exit. Due to his amnesia, it's unknowable how many times he has actually lived through the cycle, or if all the versions of him we follow throughout the book are actually the same person.

So what then is the disaster that has created this time anomaly? I think that too can be discerned by a careful reading between the lines. What can create a singularity capable of warping time in on itself? The crashing together of two celestial objects. In this case, the sun and the moon of Bellona are June, a young sheltered white girl, and George, a crude, powerfully built Black man privately and publicly lusted over by half the population of the city. The two of them circle each other at a distance throughout most of the city's cycle, but the consummation of their sexual attraction is the actual disaster that causes the city to detach from the rest of America. Their pairing appears, at a superficial level, to be the exact scenario used by white supremacists to justify the oppression of Black people, the brutal rape of a young innocent white girl by a brutal, powerful, bestial Black man. However, Delany subverts this by suggesting the young girl has cold-bloodedly murdered her own brother to prevent him from revealing her hidden desires, that the Black man is a quiet humanitarian, and that their coming together is a bit of mutually consensual play-acting for their own sexual pleasures --the white supremacist's worst nightmare. It's the contradictory nature of these two scenarios, and the way they go straight to the heart of the American psyche, and its sustained racial dysfunctions, that tears Bellona right out of time and space. (It's a uniquely Delanian conceit that the disaster is sociological and psychological, not physical.) Subsequently a white sniper shoots at Black protestors, riots ensue and buildings are burned, and the city descends into a repeating set of scenarios that feel as familiar and as inescapably current in the year 2021 as they must have back in 1975. Maybe Delany was onto something.

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    Beautifully done, and a better answer than mine.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 19 '21 at 15:43
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    @ZeissIkon How can I argue with that; moved the answer. I think both answers provide what I was interested in understanding better. Nov 19 '21 at 15:50
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    @ZeissIkon - Thanks! This is my all-time favorite book. Although I've certainly never read it three times in a row, despite the temptation to complete that last sentence :o I would imagine you really experience that circular effect that way... Nov 19 '21 at 15:51
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    I didn't read it three times in a row -- I read it three times over a period of fifteen years. Got a ratty old paperback copy on my shelf right now that I bought in the early 1980s.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 19 '21 at 16:06
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    Intriguing enough that I will re-read the book. Although with a near fifty year gap between reads, I don't really expect to understand it any better than the first time. But I have to say, a rigorously provable explanation should be worth a lot more than 150 points! Jan 6 at 22:26

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