Reaction: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (by Michael Chabon) is a hard book to classify. Its speculative elements, while important, are so small that a non-genre reviewer could easily be baffled by those who consider it a genre work; its details are precisely realistic, but its tone is ironic, and its arcs are fantastic in extent and form. It attempts to argue for the compatibility of two different modes of literature (and life), and exemplifies their co-existence in its own nature: it is, on the one hand, a hyperbolic, implausible, accessible, rollercoaster popular adventure novel; and yet it is also a meditative, incisive, psychologically and socially critical literary realist novel. It does not, in my opinion, quite succeed at being either, but even the attempt at synthesis, and the extent of its success, are noteworthy.

Amazing is the tale of two Jewish teenagers in New York: wise-cracking semi-cripple native, Sam Clay, comic-book devotee and aspiring novelist, and his melancholy, introspective immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, whose passions have been directed into stage magic, escape artistry, amateur radio, and finally the fine arts. Together, the two of them concoct a superhero, “the Escapist” and seek to have him published; the novel spans about twenty years, from the mid thirties to the mid fifties, but mostly takes place during the Second World War, charting the highs and lows of the two men, their partnership, their careers, love-lives and families, and, as the title suggests, their amazing (if never quite impossible) adventures.

This was my second reading of the novel, and as it followed no more than a couple of years after the first, it was perhaps a little dulled by familiarity. The review quote on the front page, for instance, (just above the ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’ sign) promises that the reviewer knows of no book that has made him cry more than this one – and yet on a second reading I didn’t cry at all, though my eyes became damp at one point.

Because this is, in many ways, a brilliant novel, it may be best to talk just about where it goes wrong. To begin with, the pacing of the initial section of the book is deeply flawed. It is not giving much away to summarise the initial chapters: we see Clay being introduced to Kavalier, the new arrival, before flashing back for the story of his escape from occupied Prague, moving on then to some brief back-story for Clay, and then the endeavour to create a superhero character.

None of these parts are, by themselves, flawed. Indeed, the Prague sections – a complex adventure which gives the feeling of Joe’s escape not only from Prague itself but also from out of the labyrinth of nested flashbacks itself, the pace slowly gathering from the imprisoned beginning to the tense, breathless conclusion – rather overshadows the subsequent, New York, events, and it is not until the second half that the writing rises to the same quality. Put together, the impression is of troubled engine trying to start: it coughs, it splutters, it roars into life in Prague, it dies, it builds again, it drops out, it struggles to find a gear… and it takes too long to get going again. I’ve recommended this book to many friends, and several have given up at some point in the first half; and, although this is an error on their part, it is an error for which the uneven pacing of the novel provides too many opportunities.

Related to this is the authorial voice – ironic, whimsical, apparently callous. It is brilliantly judged in its tone – in the darker and more serious sections, when the characters are older and the stakes are higher, where the light, detached touch provides a perfect counterpoint to both the tempestuous events (which might otherwise be painfully melodramatic) and the painful introspection (which might otherwise be leaden, didactic, mawkish or depressing). In these places, the whole assumes a Mozartian quality – a synthesis of playful delicacy and deep, enduring suffering; and yet Chabon is either unwilling or unable to vary his voice to match the words, and when, as in the earlier sections, the subject-matter is mostly light, ephemeral or joyous, the ironic prose often struck me as pompous and affected. This unnecessary thickness of tone adds considerably to the initial slowness. It does, however, come into its own in creating the distinctive mood of the middle portion of the book, which is one of hope and pleasure mingled with foreboding – although the hope and pleasure could have done with a softer touch, the foreboding is well-served by the ironic cautiousness, sprinkled with well-judged premonitions and foreshadowings. Unfortunately, as I knew what was being foreshadowed already this time, I was able to brace myself, which made both the ramp and the fall less affecting.

A more controversial complaint I have is with characterisation. By this, I do not mean that the characters are unbelievable, or that they are shallow, or that they lack the life-spark of authenticity; they do seem to have depth and reality, but we are not shown enough of it. Both the central characters are isolated and habitually private – they are not prone to showing their innermost feeling through their action; this, indeed, is in large part the point of the novel; but it makes it difficult for us to live their lives with them – instead of being shown how they feel, we must all too often simply be told what they think. This is a problem that Chabon does not have the talent to consistently overcome; in the later stages, he breaks through by so layering his prose with parallels and symbolism and metaphor that the whole world around the characters is infused by their inner conflicts, and we cannot help but live experience them; but in the earlier parts, his justified desire to keep things light (in the sense not of levity but of simplicity and of not weighing on the stomach) closes this avenue to him, and the characters’ moods and actions can seem opaque or detached. This is particularly a problem with Joe, who is in any case the more alien and the more dramatic figure, and although his mental state is developed superbly in the second half of the novel, the initial ‘setting up’ of that state seems too forced, too required by the plot, and too detached from the reader; Sam’s experience is closer to that of the readers, and as a result more familiar and inhabitable – and yet, appropriately but damagingly, Sam’s story feels continually overshadowed by that of his more charismatic, more flamboyant, more melodramatic and romantic cousin; it is as though, partway through the novel, the author has fallen so in love with Joe that Sam has been relegated to the shadows and the intermissions. Combined with the distance between the reader and Joe, this creates something of a… well, not perhaps a void, but at least a rarefaction of the emotional content.

This low density is not filled by the supporting cast, perhaps because there barely is any. The third character of the novel grows and strengthens as the book goes on – it is her entry that really marks the beginning of the story – but she never gets full billing with the star pair, and she retains throughout a degree of inscrutability and aloofness – an aloofness not above the other characters, but above the plot and themes of the book itself (those themes could well have been applied to her as well, but here, surprisingly, the parallels are left unstated and the themes quiescent, but for the barest of suggestions here and there). Aside from her, there are no real adult characters available for us to empathise with – and this lack is not at all forced on us by the exigencies of the plot. Sheldon Anapol could have been a protagonist – but he is too stock, too little vivified and made unique; Jack Ashkenazy is barely a plot device. George Deasey at times plays with assuming his proper role as a central protagonist, but he remains – appropriately but frustratingly – almost entirely outside the limelight, while other characters – Longman Harkoo, Tracey Bacon, James Love, and Shannenhouse to give a few examples to those who have read the book – are either too little seen or too little explored to fully display their considerable dramatic and emotional potential. All these characters could have enriched the book by being given more screentime, yet the author insists myopically on focusing tightly on the central pair, with a little room for the third character now and then.

The overall result is that the characters are not poor in themselves, but are inadequately presented, as though they are all real people trapped behind a thick, distorting glass that makes everything appear blurry. This is exaggerated by the ongoing difficulties with dialogue. Although bountifully supplied in other areas, Chabon has not been given the gift of an ear for dialect and region, and in a novel so eclectically populated as this, that hurts – what should be a riot of speech is instead rather flat. This flatness is made more noticeable by the style of the book, in which large, often flamboyant and portentous, periods of prose are bullet-marked by flashes of dialogue – in which, unfortunately, the density of prose tends to put more weight and expectation on the dialogue than it can fully bear. This is particularly the case with Joe, whose adequate but intentionally stilted and unnuanced immigrant English is occassionally funny, sometimes even poignant, but too often is a shackle on the surrounding prose. It feels like a play where one actor always comes in late – however good his lines, the little extra wait for them makes us place on them too much scrutiny. A similar problem occurs with the child characters in the novel, who lack the sophistication of adult speech without ever really capturing the feeling of childhood, often talking in a way more adult and more polished than their actual thoughts as we are given them.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Despite the pacing problems noted above, by and large the book is gripping and high-velocity, with really unexpected twists alongside inevitable, foreshadowed, developments.

Emotion: 4/5. Although above I have complained about emotional distance from the characters, this is nit-picking. At first read, this would have been 5/5; however, the very fact that the impact does rely to a degree on the shock value of certain events, and will thus be reduced on re-readings, fairly detracts from the score here.

Thought: 3/5. Nobody could accuse this of being a braindead read, as the author effectively ties the adventure story into deeper themes with real significance; but I never felt either that the themes were strikingly novel or that I was being compelled to think about them in any depth. There’s enough content here to make my brain feel that it’s had a nourishing meal, but not enough to wake it up and let it distract attention from the more visceral level of enjoyment.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is often peculiar in its word-choice and in its prosody, but that doesn’t prevent it from being elegant, polished and nuanced. The imagery is extremely striking, from the level of metaphors to the level of plot events.

Craft: 4/5. There are some flaws, but they are only scratches on the face of what is truly a professional work. Prose, plot, imagery, foreshadowing and theme are all solidly under control throughout, and particular mention must be made of the extensive research put in by the author (there is a two-page list of reference works acknowledged) which make the setting immersive and thoroughly convincing – a verisimilitude which produces a large part of the overall experience of the book.

Endearingness: 4/5. Here, the slight disconnect I experienced with the characters (which is not entirely the fault of the author) hurts the book, as otherwise this would have been perfectly adorable. Even with that half-inch of separation, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading and would recommend to all.

Originality:  4/5. There are no completely original elements: the characters, the episodes, the themes, are all things we’ve seen before. However, as a whole, the novel is unpredictable, individual and possessed of a unique character.

Echo: 1/2.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. For those keeping track, this is tied with Leibowitz as the best book I’ve reviewed (though not the best I’ve read), and I think that for first-time readers it is likely to be even better.

Reaction: Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

“the boys i mean are not refined
they go with girls who buck and bite
they do not give a fuck for luck
they hump them thirteen times a night […]

they speak whatever’s on their mind
they do whatever’s in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance”

[First and last stanzas, “the boys i mean are not refined”, E. E. Cummings]

Perhaps this is a strange place to begin; but when entering a wilderness we cannot follow roads. To enter the unexploited territory, we must at some point step off from where we know, and navigate by moon and stars, and by the rough and uncontrollable topography of the earth, as the earth curves, and not by lines and human compasses; and one point to step off the road is much the same as any other. And if, as quite unarguably is the case, this strained analogy is too pretentious, too verbose, too ceremonial, for the purpose of opening a handful of thoughts on an old book… well, that’s probably appropriate, given the book in question.

For those of you who don’t know, Dhalgren is a novel from 1975. A man, suffering from amnesia and lacking, arrives in a city in the American West, but Bellona is not an ordinary city. The tops of the buildings burn eternally, and the sky is perpetually overcast – when it clears, strange things are seen. No contact can be had with the outside world – radios and televisions do not work. The world outside remains, but has forgotten about Bellona. Most of her inhabitants have fled – of one of the dozen or two largest cities in the world, only a few thousand people remain. Our anonymous hero is born into the world in surrealism – words give way to images, give way to strange, dreamlike scenes, give way, after the first chapter, to seeming realism. My copy bears a blurb from the Libertarian Review, calling it a “Joycean tour de force” that stakes a claim as “one of the enduring monuments of our national literature“. Strong words. The front page bears the tag line: “The Major Novel of Love and Terror At the End of Time“. Bold. The opening epigram: “You have confused the true and the real”. The famous first lines?

“to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know:”

I wanted to like this book. I succeeded, and I failed.

—————–

So, my strange starting place: there are many kinds of homoeroticism. I mean this word in a literal sense, and not as some euphemism for homosexuality. Eros, as Plato defines the concept, is the love of an internal beauty. This should not be confused with Kantian ideas of beauty, in which we are to admire beauty in a disinterested fashion; as Nietzsche says, Pygmalion was not without aesthetic feeling. The love of beauty can be a visceral love, and when that beauty is encapsulated in a human being, the expression of that love can be a sexual expression. Yet at the same time, there is something alienating about eros: Plato says that ultimately what is loved is beauty itself, not its presentation in a particular person; Nietzsche, less metaphysical and more psychological, says that it is desire itself that we love, and not the desired. And most often what is desired is desired for what is lacking in ourselves.

One type of homoeroticism, eros between two men, sprang loudly and repeatedly to mind, like an overstimulated puppy, when I was reading Dhalgren: the erotic (in the above sense) fixation between a (usually) old, scholarly, introverted artist and his strong, young, unlettered, wild and beautiful subject. It’s a timeless theme, both among gay writer and among (theoretically) heterosexual ones. Cummings turns to it repeatedly, but most unambiguously in the poem quoted, where nearly five stanzas of what seem like superior condemnation pass before the inferiority complex of the artist takes the stage in the final line. “Oh, how wonderful they are,” we might imagine the poet’s subconscious sighing, “they actually do things. Not like poor old me, out of touch with the world.” We can see it in Ginsburg, likewise. Perhaps we can see some part of it in the suave, athletically amoral heroes of cowboy and gangster films – we can hear the bespectacled writers sighing with lust, not sexual, but existential. “Oh, to be like that…” We see it, sticking with muscular American writers, in McCarthy’s depictions of young cowboys in Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy. A century before, we saw it, both implicitly in his work and explicitly in his philosophy, in Oscar Wilde – and he in turn traced it back through Shakespeare to the Greeks.

Yet alas the svelte young bucks so many old men seem to fantasise about (in some cases sexually, in other cases only philosophically) are not always good subjects for literature: they only act, they do not explain, and so we need some other viewpoint to see them through (unless, as in Blood Meridian, we are content with dreamy and absurdist orgies of mechanical bleedings and ejaculations, our dancing boys on the stage silent like marionettes). And at the same time, perhaps it can become awkward for such writers to justify themselves in their tweed apartments. Why don’t they go out and be like the men they write about? The question must have seemed particularly pressing in the wake of the War, when social norms were falling and men no longer had to ride out west to be wild, but could do it in their own living rooms, and on their local streets. Yet the answer was inescapably clear: what, be like them? Be like those idiots?

“the boys i mean are not refined
they cannot chat of that and this
they do not give a fart for art
they kill like you would take a piss”

 

What decent self-respecting middle-class intellectual artist would want to be like that? The last bit, yes, that’s strong and bold and manly and noble savage and why can’t we just murder those irritating critics wouldn’t that be wonderful… but the rest? Oh good god, think how boring the dinner parties would be!

No, what was needed was a middle-class savage – an artistic savage. Somebody who had all that erotic savagery but could still talk about alexandrines. What was needed was, as Kerouac described his movement:

“a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way… characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization…”

The Beatnik: Cummings and his dancing boys unified in a single unwashed man, topped up with a little Nietzschean malaise and countercultural antimaterialism.

Incipit… The Kid!

Swoon over his youthful beauty!

Shiver at his manly scars!

Sigh at his ability to pen sweet poetry in public toilets!

Tremble before his fearless daylight robbery and gun battles!

Thrill to his tales of debauchery, his unquenchable libido, his iron erection!

(But don’t worry, he can conduct himself well at polite dinner parties too, even if there is a polite little sneer on his face when he does so… who knows, maybe that weedy little poet sitting next to you and looking so superior does so because really, in his secret identity, which he never quite gets around to acting out, he too is the wonderful man-machine of many-levelled beauty we know as…. the Kid!!!!!) (and yes, he hitchhikes into town – what respectable beatnik wouldn’t?)

In case you hadn’t guessed yet…. Dhalgren really, really, annoyed me. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – just an infuriating one.

I’ve spent a thousand words on this line of thought. Perhaps the same effect could have been achieved more quickly with the concept of a “Mary Sue”. You know what it means. There’s a nice test on the internet to tell you how much of one your favourite character is. They advise you to take heed at a score of over twenty, and worry over thirty. By my calculation, the central character of Dhalgren scores over one hundred on that test, only a few points this side of Jesus Christ, in a realm usually reserved for the central messianic self-insertions of truely bad epic fantasy. In a world with no (or little) magic and no Messiahs, that’s quite an accomplishment for the Kid.

Or, to summarise: if you don’t like characters who never wash and yet have sex five times every night because every woman swoons over how sweatily manly they are, despite their scarred hands, and who then sit naked in a public park in the morning writing insightful lyric poetry…. you, like me, will find this book annoying. And yet… and yet… he almost pulls it off. Annoying as he can be, I never dislike Kidd. I dislike Samuel Delany (oh, how I dislike him [Later edit: NB. ‘Samuel Delany’ strictly as the author of this novel, I know little about him as a person]), but I don’t dislike his characters. Nothing personal, I’m sure he’s very nice, but his book forces me to dislike him. I either dislike him or I dislike his book, and I think he’d be happier with me blaming him for its sins and trying to take it on its own merit. Try to forget that, like the central character, he’s a mixed race bisexual poet. (No, there’s nothing wrong with being mixed race or bisexual. Or even, probably, with being a poet. There’s not even that much wrong with his characters sharing his racial and sexual identity. My problem is that the book is written in such a way that it is instantly obvious that the author is bisexual and mixed race and a poet simply from the fact that his beloved main character is, and so I knew this with absolute certainty before I read any biographical detail about him). Imagine that I can’t see thinly-veiled and homoerotic self-adulation under every paragraph…

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Kid looks younger than he (thinks he) is. The paradox of his age is part of the central paradox of his character – which, and I am trying not to beat a drum here, honestly, is a paradox of homoeroticism. Kid is both lover and loved. On the one hand he is young, suave, svelte, aliterate, a man (or boy) of action; on the other, he is middle-aged, gruff, alienated to a degree from the excesses of the boys around him, and a poet. Delany is able to adore himself doubly – he can adore his idolised boy-image, and he can also adore his older poet-image. And, because his character is bisexual and because he doesn’t limit himself to one idol per book, he can even adore his poet-image while his poet-image is in the act of adoring his idolised boy-image.

That sentence started out mocking Delany, but by the end of it I found myself unable to escape admiration. That’s sort of how I see this book. Each time I try to deride it, the thought is perverted into praise. Each time I try to praise it, the thought is diverted into derision.

The duality continues. On the one hand, Kidd is a hero; on the other hand, he is a villain. One the one hand, he is respectable, concerned, curious, polite; on the other, he is violent, amoral, antisocial, rude, superior, filthy and countercultural. The duality is his chief characteristic. When he complains about misrepresentation by the public, he is told that a noble action “isn’t two-sided enough for you. It’s just straight heroics”. Everything he does must have two sides to it.

A character with depth and texture and tone? Well, no. Because duality isn’t just his central characteristic – it’s his only characteristic. He is, essentially, a passive and colourless man – he says himself, “I don’t think, I’m just an observer”. And that’s what he does: observes. The facets of his public image are only that – an image woven by exaggeration from a handful of acts that, as he says, represent only a fraction of his time in Bellona. Those acts are not themselves the product of a conflicted personality, but only, and self-admittedly, moments of whimsy in a sea of boredom. He’s immensely bored all the time so occasionally does things that might be mildly vaguely interesting. What he seems to do a lot of is write poetry – but we don’t exactly get to see much of it, so it has little impact on our perception of him. Even when he does things, he shows little interest or volition: as he puts it, they are “things that have happened to me, not that I have done.”

I have just this moment finished reading the book. I decided to insert this paragraph randomly into the review as a homage to its style. I have thrown the book at a wall, hard – the first book I’ve ever thrown (I wanted once to throw a book by MacKinnon against a wall, or preferably something more damaging, but it was a library copy and fragile, and I didn’t dare). Then I picked it up again, paced around the house, and spent a few minutes throwing it against things, partly out of anger, partly out of melodrama, and partly just because it actually felt quite nice and made a nice sound. It dented it a bit and scratched it, but it’s a solid and strong old second-hand copy and the bruising just adds to the character, I think.

The dullness of the central character need not be a deadly flaw, if the people he observes are themselves interesting. Here again Delany fails, albeit with style. He write his characters well. He has that knack of making a man real with a few words, and I know the minor characters here better than the main protagonists of many novels. Some of them are even interesting. Kidd’s girlfriend, for instance, is genuinely multifaceted and sympathetic, and merely having more of her in it would have made the book a lot more enjoyable. But against this is a certain violent bloody-mindedness the author seems to exhibit, in which he intentionally makes his book as painful to read as possible. In this case, many of the minor characters are obnoxious, and those who could be tolerable are portrayed so unsympathetically that they become repellent. I was particularly horrified by the treatment of Frank – the only character in the novel who avoids fawning over the beautiful wonderfulness of Delany/Kidd, his punishment is to have both author and character determined to undermine, second-guess and vilify his every move and word.

Instead, Delany/Kid prefers people who can’t stand up to the Kid, and as the book goes on it increasingly focuses on mostly-brain-dead personality-free thugs who spend their time in meaningless sex and vandalism. Worst of all is the Kid’s boyfriend (no, it’s not a big spoiler, it’s obvious he’s going to get one), who, while admittedly sympathetic and even likeable as a person, is dead weight in a narrative – aside from being beautiful and (illegally) young, his chief characteristic is getting confused whenever he thinks too hard. Even the Kid admits how boring he is. The most flattering description of him in the book is “like a warm dog” – an unconditionally-loving happy bounding puppy.

A few hours later: I have felt drunk all evening and filled with an inarticulate bloody-mindedness and an urge to make poetically vatic and/or surreal replies to everything said around me. It cannot be denied that the book has had a deep effect on me, though not an altogether good one. In any case, much of this may be put down to me – I tend to become strange when I’ve finished a book.

If not the characters, perhaps the plot is worth commending. Ha! A laughable suggestion. There is no plot. Thing happen – dreamlike, symbolic, usually sexual in content or suggestion or import. Things don’t relate to other things, and things die away without consequence. Sometimes we don’t know what things have happened, or are happening; other times, we don’t know what order they happen in. It is, in the strictest sense, a surreal book. The Kid merely wanders around observing things: a surreal picaresque. As he himself says: “My life here more and more resembles a book whose opening chapters, whose title even, suggests mysteries to be resolved only at closing. But as one reads along, one becomes more and more suspicious that the author has lost the thread of his argument, that the questions will never be resolved, or more upsetting, that the position of the characters will have so changed by the book’s end that the answers to the initial questions will have become trivial.” So there. If you go to Delany asking for a plot, he’ll react the same as if you asked for a character: by attacking you with an axe. He is above such mortal things as plot…

Some people will at this juncture interject that I am missing the point, and they would be right. I have glossed over a major defence: all this is intentional. It is part of the purpose, perhaps the entire purpose, of the book to question things like plot and character and other ‘narratives’. These things, the post-narrative artist will object, are not what we should look for from artists. But the question remains: what SHOULD we look for from them? What do they want to give us instead?

I liked this book (as well as hating it). If I seem critical, it is because I am trying to find a reason to like it, and failing at great length. This is a long book – why is it worth reading? Why was it worth writing in the first place? If it takes away narratives, what does it give us instead?

Surrealism means the emulation of a dream. In a dream, plot and character are meaningless and fluid. Likewise here. All there is is a series of events, loaded with symbolic meaning. What to they symbolise?

Sadly, not much. With no characters or plot to enrich, they are relegated to conveying ideas – fair enough. I like ideas. These ideas are mostly unobjectionable ideas. In essence, the book has four themes:

1: Perspectivism. Every narrative is told by somebody. Every argument has at least two sides. Characters are social constructs, which both in reality and, more powerfully, in Bellona then constrain and mould the human being around whom they have formed – public image becomes self-image, yet at the same time self-interpretation of that image remains distinct from the public interpretation. Both the self and the other have their roles in a system of values and expectations that is unique to the individual and that can never wholly be comprehended by another.

2: Relatedly, the inadequacy of language. Writing cannot represent speech; speech cannot represent either thoughts or events: “I suppose I’m getting frustrated by what written words can’t do”.

3: Sex. “Balling a couple of dozen people in one night is merely a prerequisite for understanding anything worth knowing”. And “is art and sex replacing sex and death as the concerns of the serious mind? Life here would make me think so.” [One helpful hand Delany offers to the reader is that if you ever miss a theme he’ll reiterate it for you four times symbolically and then shout it at you again a final time explicitly].

4: Counterculture: the rejection of everything bourgeois and middle-class and quotidian and conventional – a peculiarly bourgeois and middle-class convention/obsession in art, I think.

All four themes are problematic. The first is what destroys all other dimensions of the book. The second is hugely self-centred and annoying, as it revolves chiefly around the agonies of being a successful author and how terribly difficult it is (actually, a lot of the perspectivism revolves around that as well, about how terrible it is to be so greatly admired by strangers who don’t know you at all, and how maddening it is to be driven by hyperbolic fantasies of success and acceptance that your real astonishing success and acceptance can’t live up to). Three objections: if you’re frustrated by what written words can’t do, don’t write eight hundred pages of them. The solution to ‘words can’t represent anything’ isn’t to write a long, long (and it feels longer than it is), long novel in which words represent nothing at all happening. Second: oh, how terrible it is to be you, Samuel Delany, I have sooooo much sympathy. How much am I paying you for this simulation of artistic suffering, exactly? Third: I like my authors to be magicians. I don’t like to see everything being made. I don’t want long soul-searchings about how fraudulent you are, how much is random and how much is meant, whether there’s anything other than fraudulence, and so on (I’m quite able to scent the fraudulence and randomness within this book without it you yelling at me about it). I certainly don’t want you to do your own criticism, or to pre-emptively criticise your critics. Just give me a book, and then we can talk about it. A book talking about you talking about you talking about a book you wrote about you talking about (etc) is just far too self-servingly obsessive, in my opinion.

The third theme is not altogether unwelcome, but it adds to the sterility of the novel. Sex is good colour; it can even play a part in the plot. But ultimately I just don’t accept the Freudian obsessions of the novel in which ultimately everything is about sex. To me, sex in this novel seems causally isolated: it happens for no reason, and has no consequences. It seems as though it’s meant to be important enough by itself to not need consequences. Both those quotes above were given shortly after a ten-page gangbang scene. I have no objections to gangbangs in my novels, and I guess that on a theoretical level I don’t necessarily even object to them being ten pages long – although this one certainly became rather monotonous by the end. But remarkably for ten pages of group sex, this scene was not titillating in the slightest, nor in any but the most peripheral way (a chance for a brief lecture about accepting other people’s sexualities and a moment of superficial self-analysis ending in a shrug) illustrative of, or progressive/productive in terms of, character. Nor did it advance the plot. Nor did there really seem to be any theme or meaning displayed other than the ubiquitous ‘think how other people feel, perspectives are important’ and ‘woah! yay! sex! cool!’. Nor do the repeated ‘thoughts’ that reduce to thinking about each observed event in turn and thinking ‘maybe this is all about sex’ really illuminate the meaning of life for me. Yes, sex, we got it. That’s nice.

Last, and indeed least, the countercultural obsessions are frankly childish. I am the last person to argue in defence of ‘mainstream’ culture, but Delany make the two disappointing errors of trivialising his opponents (it’s easy to make people look despicable when you give them no redeeming features and then explicitly, in case we didn’t get the message, say ‘he’s despicable’) and hagiomorphing his allies. The result is an argument so lopsided it’s hard not to oppose it from sheer stubbornness.

The hagiomorphy is most worrying. Much of the book revolves around the Scorpions, essentially street gangs – and essentially the “unrefined boys” of the Cummings poem. Strong, usually handsome, sex-obsessed, healthily counter-cultural, mostly bisexual, frustrated, bored, sporadically violent – cf earlier comments on the homoerotic fixations of middle-aged academics. Now, street gangs are not a purely speculative-fiction business: we have them in real life, too. Delany does an admirable job of making them and their world and motivations sympathetic and understandable, showing that they aren’t just criminal thugs. Bravo!

…And then he looses all control and makes them saints. They’re unlettered, but they’re constantly reading the Kid’s poetry. They’re apparently uneducated, but they still use elaborate words and make insightful comments into the nature of life and humanity. Oh, they’re vandals, certainly, but they just smash things because they’re bored, they aren’t actually malign. Violent? Here’s a sample confrontation, describing a rival group of youths who get into a fight with the gang: “But after they got as nasty as they dared, I guess it struck them how stupid they were being; a couple of times they got pushed into a wall, though.” Oh, well, that’s OK then. As long as you’re not suggesting that gang violence might actually, you know, be violent. It’s just a matter of realising how stupid you’re being and getting pushed into walls a little. Honestly, a more bourgeois street gang I’ve never seen! [Similarly the sex scenes – despite the clear ‘we’re not bourgeois’ screaming throughout the book, they mostly reminded me of middle-class swinger parties (err, the popular representation thereof, that is, I should clarify, not speaking first-hand there). In fact, there’s barely one or two characters in the book who are believably non-middle-class]. In a similar manner, a rapist character is given his say: it was just rough sex, she really wanted it even if she didn’t say so. Fine, OK – show the different perspectives… but don’t side with the rapist every single time! Anybody who opposes any form or instance of sex seems always to be wrong in this book – and usually contemptible. And how about drugs? Oh, there’s lots of drugs. The gang members are all on drugs. But don’t go suggesting that drug addiction might possibly be a factor behind the violence – don’t go suggesting anything other than pure, uncontaminated nobility of spirit as an explanation. As a member explains: “Most people here have taken a lot of dope. But we don’t got too many people here who need it”. Of course not. Drug addiction, you see, is one of those things that mainstream culture has. You just don’t find drug addiction down in the streets, authentic beautiful young sex-positive gang members don’t have that problem. And certainly not the beatniks! Beatniks, of course, don’t have flaws.

Of course, he has his reasons. Bellona is a town with a self-selecting population – those who can’t stand it leave. That’s why only libertarian superheroes and their contemptible antitheses have remained (with a few others passing through). But, to be frank, that just tastes of stacking the board in his favour yet again.

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So: character, plot, and themes. What else could redeem this novel? How about prose? How about… no. Delany adopts the sort of hyper-macho muscular (yet super-educated) prose that one would expect, given what I’ve said about his latent homoeroticism. The three writers I would most compare his writing style to are Joyce, Cummings and McCarthy. Unfortunately, the comparison would almost always be “not as good as…”. He simply doesn’t have the ear for rhythm and beauty that McCarthy has, or Joyce’s ability to move from showmanship to workmanship whenever needed, or Cummings’ sweet and sharp simplicity of word-choice. A fourth and less flattering comparison would be Stephen Donaldson: long, rambling sentences stocked with barely-appropriate five-syllable words. As it happens, I sometimes kind of like that style. Delany just isn’t much good at it. He isn’t outright bad at it, either – there’s some really beautiful things in this book. Beautiful images, beautiful lines, even beautiful paragraphs. There ought to be – there’s eight hundred pages of it and every second sentence is a flight of metaphoric, lexical or syntactic fancy. Entire pages are given over to prose ‘poems’ that are nothing more than disconnected meanders of mad, meaningless muttering, sounds floating by without purpose or apparent symbolism. If there weren’t some beautiful moments now and then, in among all that, it really would be an astonishing failure. Monkeys and typewriters spring to mind.

I suspect the model the author sees himself most in the shadow of is Joyce; and indeed Joyce is a frequent comparison, looking at reviews. And he hasn’t just limited himself to Joyce’s sweep or grandeur or inaccessibility – he’s also followed the master into the toilet. Masturbation… eating nasal mucus… examining the colour of faeces… explaining the feeling of having a shit. Delany is a Real Man, and he’s not afraid, in his masculine way, to talk about whatever he wants to talk about, because he’s a Man. Not that he wants to talk about those things, specifically, but he makes a strained and very visible effort to not avoid talking about them when they come up. If he’s showing us a man’s consciousness and he happens to be having a shit, that’s what we’ll be thinking about for that page. And given the characters in question, we’ll be lucky if they wash their hands. Now, none of this is a big problem necessarily. In Joyce, it was perhaps admirably shocking. In Delany, though, it just looks childish – ‘look what a real man I am, bourgeois readers! I bet you think this is shocking! Respect how little I need your respect!’. Somebody once said that the toilet was the ultimate taboo – that many people had brought us into the marital bed long before Joyce brought us into the toilet. I think it’s just that toilets are really fucking boring. There were reasons to show us people in bed – not only was in interesting in itself (assuming that, as in most books not by Delany, it’s not a ten-page repetitive gangbang (the intimate scenes that actually were relevant to plot or character I had no problem with, and some of them were even rather sweet – I am, I’ll admit, a hopeless romantic at heart, and the romantic domesticity of the threesome was well-conveyed and pleasantly unusual)), but it could even have an impact on the plot! People on the toilet is just… dull. Delany only does this once (plus a few short flashbacks), but it’s entirely pointless and it’s stuck in near the end of the book as though he realised he had forgotten to include such a scene. Am I going on too much about it? Yes, it’s only one scene – but it’s a scene that showcases both his dedication to dullness and his tedious quest to shock. That’s not an exciting combination.

One last tangent: I don’t think it’s a great spoiler to say that there’s a threesome in the book (in the relationship sense, not in the event sense, although of course there’s plenty of those as well). Hooray, frankly. So many romantic subplots are boring and predictable – it’s nice to see something new. Of course, most books should probably go for romantic plots that aren’t QUITE so new, but this was definitely welcomed – in particular, I enjoyed the way that it was treated maturely, not as an source of titillation. Yes, there were graphic sex scenes, but at the same time there were also intimations of actual emotion and depth in the relationship, and, perish the thought of it in the world of the Kid, actual suggestions of relationship difficulties. Perhaps this is one area in which I should be glad of the similarities between the Kid and the author, as from what I understand his own experiences may be one reason he was able to treat the subject with seriousness, rather than schoolboy prurience. This also should be said: while I’m not thrilled by the constant emphasis on sex in the book, the actual treatment of the sex is mostly, in my opinion, quite healthy – it’s able, mostly, to make the sex something enjoyable to read about by making it clear how fun it is, and the generally positive impact of this on the characters, without presenting it as something to leer over (though it does occasionally fall of the line in both directions, into both mechanical and prurient – when there’s that much of it, some missteps are inevitable). My objections are not to do with how it’s portrayed, only how much it’s portrayed.

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You may think I hate this book: I do. I also think it’s a very good book. This, I accept, may not really seem to follow from all of the above. Why would anybody want to read this rubbish? Well:

1: Because the prose is good. Yes, it’s sometimes hideously over the top, especially at the beginning – but it does have great moments. Like Rossini describing Wagner, really: “great moments, and some incredibly dull quarters of an hour”. It’s very different from ordinary bad prose, and might be worth reading for the good bits. If not, at least it’s different. Who knows, you may even love the style.

2: Because the characterisation is good. Yes, the characters are almost all unsympathetic or dull, but they are well portrayed, there’s no doubt, and they’re varied enough you’ll probably like at least one or two of them. One character has even stuck with me somewhat.

3: Because the plot is good. Plot, what plot? Well, better to say the plots are good. He builds suspense well, he just doesn’t execute it – and that’s intentional. There are plot twists that throw previous events into a new light. There are some really great developments: not to spoil too much, but the words “red eye caps” 2/3rds through the books sent a shiver up my spine in a way that has seldom happened reading any book. There’s a whole bunch of fragments of plots thrown together; some of them are good.

4. Because the ideas are good. It’s not usual to see an author make himself as naked as this, particularly regarding the creative process. I found it off-putting and self-obsessed; your opinions may differ. More importantly, the perspectivism is greatly welcomed by your perspectivist standing here. I had no objection to the presence of these ideas per se, and they are put across well. Sometimes, they are put across brilliantly – in particular, the relevant soliloquies by Kamp and Newboys are masterful, and I’ll have to keep the book if only to be able to refer to them in future. [Tangent: the BBC’s documentaries commemorating the moon landings have shown a sequence of astronauts reiterating, less adroitly, Kamp’s explanation of what it’s like to be on, and then to return from, the moon]. If you aren’t familiar with the perspective he’s trying to put forward, the book would be worth its length for that alone. Unfortunately, I’ve read Nietzsche already. I’ve read Wittgenstein; I’ve even read a little Derrida, and summaries of Gadamer, and a fair bit of generic postmodern commentary. Hence, being hit over the head time after time after time by themes I’m already convinced by was mostly frustrating. But if you’re not convinced by them…

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What do I think overall? I think it started questionably, got better, got a lot better… then stalled. Then it had a few moments of brilliance before gradually stuttering into a long lacuna of tedium with moments of interest spattering irregularly through. The typographical experiment at the beginning of the final section was pointless and distracting. The wider experiment in the final section (he has multiple texts side-by-side, with frequent lacuna and unclear timelines) was genuinely intriguing and filled with potential, but wasn’t really exploited satisfactorily.

What does that add up to? Samuel Delany is an extremely talented and promising writer who’s gone a bit astray here but who will go on to do great things. Except that he’s now somewhat old, and Dhalgren was written at his peak, not at his start, and it’s universally acclaimed as his masterpiece. So… a tragically wasted talent? I don’t know, I’d have to read his other works to find out. Maybe his critics were just carried away by the shock and awe of Dhalgren (and their philosophical ignorance and naïveté? Quite possibly), and wrongly judged it better than other, more subtle and sophisticated, works of his. I’ll probably find out some day – there’s enough in Dhalgren to make me want to double-check his talent by reading other books, even if they haven’t been put to the top of the list.

Finally: where did he go wrong? Extremism, in my opinion. His philosophical commitments dominate the novel, making its ultimate value rest on their shoulders – I found them appealing, but neither original nor fully explained. I think many of his points could have been compatible with telling a conventional tale (essentially, he’s got a semi-nihilism that I think isn’t merited and that makes him attack his own plot structure). More importantly, he has gone flat-out at making his book unreadable by destroying narrative tropes, when he did not need to have done so – even if he wanted to ultimately stab the reader in the back (ha! take that, expectations of plot resolution and revelations! take that, naïve belief that things will happen chronologically and that we’ll know what happens to all the characters! chaotic, disorganised, meaningless – that’s life, live with it!), he could have done it just as well, and in fact rather better, if he’d thrown us a few more bones throughout the novel. Don’t build everything up and then spontaneously end the novel without resolutions – give us some little resolutions first! Otherwise, we know from halfway through that everything will ultimately be unresolved (even if we’re a little sceptical of just how far he’ll go, expecting more brinksmanship than he displays) – and that just makes the end of the book tedious (which it is, barring the tension created by the curiosity of how he’s going to end it, and the final glorious relief of finishing it).

I think I’ve probably run out of things to say, now. So, verdicty bit:

Adrenaline: 3/5. I want to give it less – it’s one of the few books I’ve come close to abandoning. Some parts do drag. However, my urge to give up came almost entirely when I had for some reason put the book down – it’s hard to pick it up again. On the other hand, when actually reading it it was easy to read for long periods, and actually quite tense. Some bits were genuinely exciting.

Emotion: 3/5. Would have been 4/5, or even 5/5, but I don’t think extreme (albeit passing) anger that the book exists really counts. For the contents, the characters, and in particular the protagonist, are too dull to rarely care about too much. That said, they’re well enough drawn that  I had to care a bit, and there are some tragic elements. Also cosy romantic bits. So, middle score. Maybe harsh?

Thought: 4/5. Difficult to judge. Personally, I didn’t find my thoughts provoked by it, as it was all familiar. But the material is certainly there for the right reader to be really intellectually shaken by it. On the other hand, the ideas are quite simplistic and repetitive, once you’ve seen where they’re going, so not a top mark.

Beauty: 4/5. Yet again, I want to give it less because there’s large chunks of ugliness in it, and a lot of it isn’t to my taste. However, I’ll have to give it the benefit of the doubt – the amount of good (both in prose and in demi-plot, and some conceits and images) means I can’t honestly call this ‘average’ aesthetically.

Craft: 3/5. This might be harsh. Ultimately, it comes down to how much of the failure of the novel is an inevitable consequence of conscious philosophical commitments, and how much is down to a lack of imagination. And that, of course, depends on what you think he’s trying to accomplish. I think, given my reading, that it could all have been done better while retaining everything important – just by being more imaginative, more subtle, and more polished. So, average – or great but badly flawed. If you take the other decision, it’ll go up to 4 or even 5.

Endearingness: 2/5. At last a chance to express my hatred! Actively repellent! On the other hand, I can’t honestly give it a 1 – as I say, I mostly blame the author, and the characters themselves are often quite likeable. It does have some endearing qualities. To be honest, if I’d given lower marks in the other categories, I’d have bumped this one up to average. This is mostly the ‘compensation’ category for things I can’t really express, after all – despite high scores elsewhere, there’s something else off-putting about this book.

Originality: 4/5. In terms of content, I found very little that was fresh or exciting. At the same time, very little was clichéd or predictable either. And the originality of style and structure push it up to 4. If I didn’t have a philosophical and/or liberal background, I’d have called it a 5, I suspect.

Overall: 5/7. I didn’t originally intend to have half-marks (it’s only a vague indication, and I don’t believe it’s possible to be too precise about relative qualities, particularly at the higher levels), but I was tempted to give this 5.5. It’s just too hard to decide whether this is a ‘good’ book or a ‘great’ book. If I compare it to great books, it fails. 5/7 seems fair. But then I look ahead at the sort of solid, reliable books that might be called ‘good books’ – and this clearly has something they don’t. But these a broad bands. And will it really be head and shoulders above other Good books? I think most of those ‘solid’ books will fall into 4/7 (‘not too bad, really’), rather than Good. Yes, Fatherland is there now. Yes, it does seem a bit obscene to give the same mark to Dhalgren (literary, erudite, ambitious, exotic) and Fatherland (popular, pedestrian, straightforward, familiar). But is it really? I think it is tempting, and easy, but also wholly wrong-headed to impose a clear distinction between literature and popular fiction. I want to judge books here on quality, not on which social group they appeal to. Those two books would appeal to entirely different groups – but does that mean they shouldn’t share the same mark? I don’t think so. In particular, I want to give these opinions without fear of shame. You don’t know me – you can’t ostracise me for my lack of taste. So, I want to stand up proudly with this opinions – honest as they are. Fatherland is a very well written book, even if what it attempts is not very great. Dhalgren is ambitious, but it does not fully succeed. I think they should share the same grade. 5/7 it is!

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EDIT SOME YEARS LATER:

After reflection, more reviews, and reading some interesting essays about the book, I’ve ruled the other way on this borderline case and upgraded the overall score to 6/7, and “Very Good”, though the individual componant scores remain the same (in hindsight, I might give Delany more credit for how much is intentional, and hence bump the craft score up to a 4, but I’d have to read it again to be sure about that).

In particular, I kind of want to write another review coming at this from the angle of an autobiographical account both of Delany’s mental health problems and of the experience of urban countercultural revolt in the USA in the sixties and seventies, which may go someway to answering my whole “what’s the point?” criticism. But doing that would mean reading the book again… and I don’t think I’ll be doing that for a little while yet…