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A combination of great and pointless
am 13. Oktober 1999
Capsulizing my reaction to this book is difficult, as I find compelling reasons both to love it and to hate it. Delany certainly has a better technique than any other author of science fiction. He can write with precision to evoke a mood or a sensory impression, and with imprecision to provoke thought. For example, the initial description of a character or place often omits a detail, allowing the reader to fill in the blank. Delany then clarifies the description later, forcing the reader to question why he or she chose to envision a particular race, gender, color, or other attribute for that character or place. There are many interesting scenes in the first 650 pages. I can also offer unreserved praise for the final chapter, which brilliantly mixes incomplete notebook pages with text and later commentary.
But, but, but -- much of the text is pointless. For example, a multi-page description of a recording session reads more like a creative writing class exercise than actual literature, and certainly proves Elvis Costello's observation that writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- uninformative and pretentious. Descriptions of the decaying city are initially interesting but they become dull with repetition. The characters' endless philosophizing is obscure, and often trite. This and other verbiage makes much of the book tough going, and buries key elements of the story line.
Finally, Dhalgren should not be seen as science fiction. The only new technologies are peripheral to the plot, and there are no societal developments to differentiate Dhalgren from the world of the late 1960s. Rather, the book is more a ham-handed magical realism, with the city of Bellona a bloated, pornographic Macondo.