ulysses’s evil twin | 2018.12.22

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany | Review

delany, samuel r._dhalgren

Publication: Bantam Books 1975

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 801

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Last summer, a lowly, long-distance sci-fi book group picked this one out their usual scramble for fodder to inspire great, or at least amusing, literary and scientifically-charged discussion. At the book’s half-way point by late October, two out of the three members were ready to throw in the towel. This is not an uncommon response, it seems. A good number of the book reviews I found online that tackle Delany’s masterpiece (I’m just going to boldly put that out there) focus, much like my book group in our initial stages, on the difficulty of this book.

Yes, it’s 800 goddamn pages. Yes, the writing tends toward the experimental both in style and format. Yes, the sex is explicit and detailed without the familiarity of superfluous erotica expectations, and, yes, the plot is as shadowy as Bellona’s cityscape, which Delany describes with the repetition of a rower’s oar trying to surge its owner’s escape through a haze of on-the-verge-of-continuously violent friendships that seem to offer little to no edification. (That last one was a terrible attempt at emulation, by the way. More practice needed.)

By mid-December, my book group agreed (or perhaps we agreed to disagree after we’d quit towel-tossing and got back to the business of intellectual debate) that to ask, “What happened?” in the midst of this book’s circular-reasoning mire of philosophical quandaries was to miss the point of the book completely.

Instead, we found this is the type of book that pulled out all the stops, tackling race, sexual expectations, social norms, the sham of economics, the impenetrable fortress of humanistic religion (is there any other kind . . . really?), identity, gender, ageism, literary form, and every other stereotype imaginable. Perhaps there is a way to scale this type of philosophical mountain other than with experimental prose and plot structure, but in reading Dhalgren, I came back to my old prejudices about this topic. Clockwork Orange couldn’t have the same gut-punching impact if it used the language of the average Joe Schmo. It is in the poetry of language that the soul, or whatever you want to call the intangible element of sentient beings, finds its true voice–to be too clear is to put the potential of interpretation in a straitjacket.

Let’s not forget also that Delany was writing Dhalgren on the heels of multiple cultural revolutions that drastically changed the face of the United States, or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves over and over again. Reading Delany’s giant, which has been called “Ulysses’ evil twin,” made me wonder if the author had left the 1960s with bittersweet regard.

To say this book is a metaphor for the mayhem of American culture, with all its self-absorption, inescapably demoralizing money-grubbing, overly-concerned religious frittering, and endless identity crises, seems a bit on the nose. But to hell with it: I’m pretty sure this book is a fucking metaphor. If you’re not into metaphors or allegories or lyrically gorgeous philosophical wonderings, well, there’s always Rocky Flintstone.

out from under Jane Austen’s skirts | 2018.07.11

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett | Review

Follett, Ken_The Pillars of the Earth

Publication: MacMillan 1989

Genre: Historical Fiction

Pages: 973 | Audio Length: 40 hours, 58 minutes

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

Having a well-placed sex scene in any book can be absolutely great, don’t get me wrong. Yet Follett’s repeated use of steamy rollicks around misty forest floors mixed in with gruesome rape scenes seem to teeter on the edge of gratuitous descriptions of both violence and soft-porn levels of intimacy. I guess that’s life, isn’t it? (Rape should never be in that category, mind you.) George R. R. Martin uses explicit sex descriptions like this also, along with many other authors, so I guess maybe it’s time I pulled my head out from under Jane Austen’s skirts of propriety and got with the program (terrible, terrible metaphor, I know).

Honestly though, I found this book has so much more than heart-felt and heart-wrenching sex scenes (albeit all of them straight as could possibly be because, of course, non-binary sex wasn’t a thing until June 26, 2015…oh, oh dear!) to offer its readers. The crux of this epic really seems to be about overcoming impossible odds and maintaining some shred of integrity in the shadow of the ever-reaching arm of greed-driven deception and malice.

I’d like to give Follett a huge round of applause for the power and respect he manages to provide his female characters in this book. The women are portrayed not only as strong-willed (a quality when given to any characters other than heterosexual males usually becomes a vehicle for the shrew-stigma to take full charge), but also as intelligent, brave, and often leaders of events that end up advancing the welfare of themselves and their communities. He allows (and takes great measures to encourage) the women in his book to rise above the stereotypes that the more traditional masculine characters try to impose. After a particularly brutal rape, for example, Follett doesn’t have Aliena’s character stab her rapist to death. Instead, he allows the narrative to endow Aliena with the fortitude and economic savvy to pinch her adversary’s earldom out of the market completely, leaving him the destitute fool the reader knew him to be all along.

And the plot structure! This piece is truly an epic bit of storytelling, which Follett pulls off beautifully by knowing when to build his readers’ expectations around each of his multiple main characters, when to push a character toward action to move the story to the next big stake or goal-oriented adventure. Follett also seems to understand the value of making his readers wait for the bigger and better payoffs at the end . . . and that’s all the spoilers I’m going to allow myself regarding that topic. After finishing this one over the summer, I think I finally understand how the book has developed such a devoted cult following.