Pleasure Principles

Dhalgren BY Samuel R. Delany. Vintage. Paperback, 816 pages. $20.

The cover of Dhalgren

SAMUEL R. DELANY'S work is dense. It's like wriggling through consciousness itself and it's so much about writing, about philosophy, and always about sex. He's the genius who once said in an interview that all sexual relations are class relations, which if you think about it is true. That's probably the greatest difficulty with Delany's writing. It's true. So you can get your foot stuck in it for a while. And his protagonist only wears one shoe, a sandal.

Each time I picked up Dhalgren (which is 879 pages long and was published in 1975) I thought period piece, I thought ehh too dreamy for right now. I need to focus. I need to relax. But then the world changed radically a little while ago. And I'm one of the people who are still hoping it will change again. I'm slightly in an interregnum state of mind. So what should I be reading now? Something elegant, something slow, something hippie, something surprising. Something that clearly likes female bodies and males for different purposes. Something that lives in a world that's multiracial because it is.

Delany's writing is so poetic, and by that I mean the pace is incremental, and suddenly quickens into normal. It grows, and growth includes anything. It's leafy, it's overhanging, it's a life undercover, and in that dense growth so much happens, in a world that doesn't know beginning and end. Delany loves Americana but it's kind of a farce. Something really horrible has happened in Dhalgren. In the town of Bellona where it's set, but elsewhere? Maybe so. The main narrator does not know his own name. He remembers when he had one, that people called him by it in other places, so what is him is partial, moving, and almost because of that he's writing, he's unabashedly sexual, and yes he is a poet. It seems he's just begun. He's got a notebook. Weirdly the world of Delany in Dhalgren feels a little bit like the current exhibition at the New Museum of Pipilotti Rist. I mean because I am currently looking for two things in life. Activation and consolation. It's a shrinking and expanding time. We don't know where we're going. Yet we need work that fits. I took a trip to that show with some friends on my birthday. The show was a being in. Rist asks us to throw ourselves down on mattresses and nice hard pillow dots and allow the horizon of the immersive video to cascade above and below, to see gnarly human hands rise up and do things among the weeds and shifting hues. I was told she used the hands of a farmer. There's unexplained bad singing in Rist's immersive show. It travels around and informs the work spottily. The main protagonist in Dhalgren is glad to do work. He's cleaning out another devastated apartment and there's yelling in the halls. There's always danger in Delany's world yet there's an exquisite trust in the necessity of moments well felt and dwelled in to ballast us against a huge unknown. Where are we going. I like art that doesn't know. I love a long novel that uses intelligence and the erotic instinct of humans to investigate the Earth and hold us to each other as we go. Dhalgren in its crafted way of negotiating global trauma is someplace to go right now.

Eileen Myles is a poet whose next book, Afterglow, will be published by Grove.