Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pinchon is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever tried to read. There are those who compare it to Ulysses by James Joyce in that the path does not follow a very linear narrative and the reader must work to even come close to understanding what’s going on.
I, however, am not one of those who compares those two books. To me, Gravity’s Rainbow most closely resembles (in spirit, alone, certainly not in plot or character) Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney.
One of American science fiction’s greatest living writers, Delaney has created masterwork after masterwork, each more controversial than the last, each examining racial, sexual and personal identity and how each relates to the outer society.
Often described as the most literary of science-fiction writers, Delaney isn’t fascinated by the economic impact that instantaneous, inexpensive teleportation would create. Instead, he’d rather look at the different ways in which the new technology allows men and women to indulge their more. . . slippery. . . impulses.
A man fascinated by the mechanics of the physical act of sex and the emotional aspects of love and hate, Delaney is one of those rare authors who can define or create a genre simply by going ahead and writing whatever the heck is in his head that day.
I’ve long meant to go back and try and read Dhalgren again, having run up against a brick wall the last time I attempted a read through. (Hey, I was in my teens and a callow youth. Gimme a break.)
So imagine my joy when I found out that I could get one of the first electronic copies of Dhalgren, made available through the good folks at NetGalley, which is a place where publishers can give out advance copies of their book in return for an honest review.
I got the book and the review is coming in just a second. After this, in fact. A quick plug that Dhalgren and eight other Delaney classics are now available for the first time as electronic books, including the Nebula Award-winning Babel-17, as well as Delany¹s Hugo Award-winning literary memoir, The Motion of Light in Water, from online booksellers all over the world.
So. Dhalgren. This was a difficult read when I was younger. That, at least, hasn’t changed. Full of digressive runs and almost stream-of-consciousness narration, Dhalgren tells the story of the Kid, a mostly unknown ambisexual man, with very little memory of his past or his identity, recently arrived in the city of Bellona.
Bellona is located in the geographic center of the United States. The book opens some time after an unspecified . . . something happens that drives away most of the citizens of the city, leaving behind only madmen, criminals, the deliriously inane and the Kid.
As with so many young people, the Kid is searching for answers to the perennial questions of “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What’s the point of it all?” Who, at one time or another, hasn’t asked those questions?
It’s possibly one reason that this book has such a demented pull on the minds of so many people. Despite the difficulty in reading this dense, interweaving narrative, there’s something about it that keeps drawing me back to it.
I did get through the end, although it wasn’t easy and I know I didn’t get from the book everything I should. The last part of the book consisted of “found texts,” excerpts from other texts, the equivalent of footnotes and other variations on traditional narrative take away whatever sense of temporal progress that had been gained earlier.
Dhalgren is without a doubt one of the most ambitious books published in many, many years. And, while I’m ready to admit to you dudes that it could be just me, I’ve the feeling that Delaney might have reached for something a bit to far for him to grasp this time.
Still, it’s not like I felt my time wrestling with Dhalgren was wasted. It wasn’t. I eventually made my way through Gravity’s Rainbow and managed to learn a bit about it with each attempt.
I have a feeling Dhalgren is going to be my next literary obsession, a book that I will return to and do battle with, over the next few years. It is a battle I anticipate with a great deal of excitement.