Books I read 10/13/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I read:

Dhalgren by Samul. R. Delany – Dhalgren has elicited extremely strong reactions both for and against it; Gibson wrote the forward to my addition, and clearly holds it in immense esteem. Phillip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison famously loathed it. It is deliberately sort of impossible to describe, but a thumbnail sketch of a story is part of the convention of a book review and I'll abide by it. Very basically, it is the story of an unnamed protagonist (referred to as Kid or Kidd or the Kid, though this is not his name) who comes to visit a city called Bellona which has suffered some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, the exact nature of which is left unclear though in addition to largely emptying the city of people and destroying most vestiges of civic life it has also upended basic laws of time and causality. It doesn't exactly have a plot beyond that. Kid wonders around a while, he meets people, he has lots of graphic sex. He spends some time moving the last remaining bourgeoisie family in the city into a new apartment building. He becomes the head of a gang of miscreants. He writes poetry. He has long discussions with another poet and an astronaut. That's about the sum of it.

It is, needless to say, not a typical genre novel, but it's also not quite as strange as it is made out to be. It's far more comprehensible than a lot of other post-modernist texts (I'm looking at you, Gravity's Rainbow). There is one main character and most of the text is, in and of itself, fairly coherent. That is to say that while it doesn't have a narrative in the normal sense, and it's sort of unclear why things are happening and even when they are supposed to take place within the larger narrative it's also fairly easy to understand what's happening at any given point.

There are two kinds of post-modernist texts; the first, far the rarer, is one which is difficult to understand because the author is so much smarter than you are, and has worked so hard to obscure his meanings. Ulysses is the ultimate example of this – if you chose to spend months with critical texts, and work through each sentence, you could understand what exactly he is trying to get at, figure out all the obscure allusions and metaphor. The other type is a book which is difficult because the author himself does not really understand what is going on, or at least he has written a book which no amount of time or effort could entirely decipher. Dhalgren is the latter – there is no key which will allow you to determine the hidden meaning of the text. Indeed I am not convinced there really is one – it is hallucinogenic, it is dreamlike.

But this isn't exactly a bad thing – the point, so far as I could gather, of Dhalgren is more to elicit certain feelings from the reader than it is to be completely understood. I read it as, in essence, a vast commentary on the anarchic 60's living of which Dhalgren was a part, a sort of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test but with more fighting. Also, unlike Tom Wolfe, Samuel Delany does not more or less openly loathe his protagonists. The descriptions of the gang that the Kid runs towards the end of the book in particular had a real feel to them. Delany supposedly had a rather checkered history and the 'nest' amongst which Kid lives seems to have the strong echo of reality.

Dhalgren is about a lot of other things too, however, and those subplots don't all come together as well. One major theme is the way in which writing happens, and the mind and life of a writer, and frankly I did not find this to be one of the stronger portions of the book. Likewise, the shocking sex scenes very quickly stop being shocking and become outright banal, as shocking sex scenes often to do, until you get to the point where you're skimming a protracted gang-bang scene out of sheer boredom.

I'm honestly not sure I could recommend it to anyone, given that it's so long, and not super easy to read, and if you were willing to put the time and effort into something there are bluntly put a lot of better books you could be reading. All that said, gun to my head I'm on Gibson's side. The book has a real pulse to it, some energy, and if you can overlook the fact that it's not doing a lot of the things a book is supposed to do, it's actually surprisingly enjoyable.

Were there swords? There were bladed weapons, does that count?

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – This is an easy one – run out and read it. I have no idea why it took me this long to read a James M. Cain book, but I assure you it won't take nearly so much time to get to the next one. The story of an insurance agent and a soon-to-be-widow and their murderous plot is as sharp and brutal and mean and blunt as it was when it was written. Tons of fun, strongly worth a read. Get to it.

Were there swords? Nope, no swords.

Right Now I Am Reading: Peace, by Gene Wolfe.