what I am reading right now: Blood Oranges, by Caitlin R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. (Typo I corrected: writhing as Kathleen Tierney.) I am not very far into it, but so far this is an absolutely brutal takedown of paranormal romance starting from the basic premises of the subgenre-as-she-is-labeled-these-days. The protagonist has also referred to Stephanie Meyer, within the first forty pages, as 'that Mormon git'. I am enjoying it a great deal.
what I plan to read next: some set of: Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm (on loan from nineweaving, and one should not keep loaned books forever); Heretical Empiricism, Pier Paolo Pasolini; The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects, Renée L. Bergland.
what I recently finished: Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delaney.
Now that was a much better book than the first six hundred pages made it seem.
As I have mentioned already, I was having reading protocol issues with Dhalgren, because I have read a fair amount of Delaney's pornography and also his memoir and was consequently recognizing things and expecting things just all over the place. It was sometimes hard to see the page under the pile of 'I know what I expect you to be doing', and then when I could see the page I was underwhelmed by what he seemed to be really doing.
For one thing, a large portion of the book is wandering through things other SF writers of the time were doing as part of the New Wave, and pointing out some issues with that, and while those issues are there I would rather read J.G. Ballard when I want to read J.G. Ballard, instead of having Delaney turn out to be secretly J.G. Ballard. The entire chunk of Dhalgren taking place in and around the apartment house is secretly J.G. Ballard and I really had to grit my teeth to get through it because Ballard does do that better. As, come to think of it, does Disch, which may have been the more direct influence.
And so I was quite bored for a long time and then it dawned on me-- both the main thrust of what the book is working with and the reason it was such a massive bestseller-- and I said oh okay, I mean I think I said oh okay right out loud, and I proceeded to enjoy the rest of it violently and without reservation. The problem is that the best way for me to explain it is yet again via reference to another book. I have not seen a book so made up out of books as Dhalgren in quite some time, so it is unsurprising that I find myself frantically cross-referencing it, including to things that were written much later. Anyway, Dhalgren is structurally the same as Molly Gloss's Wild Life, and I am perfectly content with that and of course it sold massively.
Those of you who have not read Wild Life are now waiting for me to explain, and those of you who have (and everybody should) are probably waiting for me to explain in an even more confused fashion, honestly. The thing I mean: without spoiling much, because it shouldn't be spoiled, Wild Life is a book in which a person who has been raised in one culture and civilization encounters a different one, and in which the rules of the new place are intuitively obvious to the reader before they are intuitively obvious to the POV character. As the POV character understands more and more about the new place, the reader's intuition goes farther and farther into the depths of that place, so that by the end of the book we are, by a transition so gradual it cannot be pinned down, reading the text using the rules of the new place and culture. The character who entered the new place, the traveler from afar, does not necessarily entirely internalize the new culture; the reader does. The reader becomes part of the POV of that culture, as much as the author can manage that, which is surprisingly extensively. The reader views the traveler (and thus, the reader's self, through identification with this viewpoint character and protagonist) through the eyes of the new-to-the-reader.
In most books in which we have a traveler into a new culture, whether the books are SF-nal or not, the reader either learns about the new culture as the traveler does, or else has some kind of POV connection with someone in the new culture who acts as a source of information. Dhalgren and Wild Life are the two books I can think of off the top of my head where the reader has no POV connection to the new culture but is always at least one step ahead of the traveler in terms of cultural understanding.
(Irrelevant sidenote: I tried initially to read George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light this way, back when I first read it, and that's not what Martin is doing at all, which is why that book took me a very long time to read and gave me a nasty headache, though I did like and admire it very much.)
So the reason Dhalgren was a bestseller is that this method of introducing a new culture makes the reader feel more intimately connected and identified with that culture, because the reader has had to work out the rules on their own rather than being told about them. It is therefore a more immersive experience than a tell-all travelogue. And Dhalgren was represented by its publishers and marketers as an SF-nal tell-all travelogue of the then-contemporary counterculture. So people who wanted to read travelogues about said counterculture, and there were a lot of them, would therefore find it a more immersive experience than other, similar fictional travelogues. (And were not the people the SF commentary is aimed at, but this is a multiplex book doing different things for different audiences.)
I don't think Dhalgren is a faithful travelogue, although of course I wasn't there; I suspect it of being rather utopian.
Which is why the book emotionally kicked me in the gut: I realized it had been boring me because, while the protagonist of Dhalgren, the Kid, is in the interesting position of coming home to his native culture which he knows nothing about, I had been being bored to pieces because said culture is in many ways pretty much my native one and I was sick of waiting around for him to understand it. I mean, it took him forever to get that they don't use money. It was so obvious to me that they wouldn't that I didn't understand for a while that he genuinely didn't get that.
My normative experience is polyamorous. Is one in which women have sexual agency, and so do men, and so does everybody who isn't either. Those are the values I have in my head, and tend to have in my friends-group, and I do get the feeling sometimes that I live in a bubble, of course. There is a hell of a lot of work to be done both in my head and in the world. But I would like to relate to you an anecdote.
A few years ago, I was working at an unpaid internship for an art restorer. Most of our conversation was about the job, but we did gradually get around to talking about his wife and young son, and then he asked me whether I was married, and I said yes, and he said what's he like, and I said my wife and I met in college, and then we got into a basic terminology discussion. Because he said she? your wife? and I said yes, and he said (really very politely, he was clearly asking out of ignorance and trying not to be pressure-y) if she is your wife are you her husband? and I said no, I am her wife, she is my wife, we are married, we are spouses. He said oh. And then he said well, thank you for telling me, I won't tell anyone.
And I was gobsmacked. Because, well, it had just been that many years since it mattered. It had been that many years for me since I had cared about whether anyone knew about my same-sex marriage. There is no one, on the entire planet, whom it would harm me to have find out about it, I mean no one I know in a personal sense because there are some violent crazies out there, but still. I am out to my family. I am out to my friends. I am out to my bosses when I have them, I am out in my bio blurbs for cons and articles, out about this is normal status quo, out about poly is damn close to that, and it had been so long and so far from the repression of my youth that I had forgotten other people might assume it was not public knowledge.
Yes, I know how incredibly lucky I am, and that this has a lot to do with being privileged in other ways, and with living when and where I do. But. I genuinely forgot. And he and I stared at each other on either side of a gap I did not have any idea how to explain, because he simply assumed I had some shame or embarrassment or confusion or reticence, and I simply on this topic do not anymore. I never did get it through to him.
Do you see how I am coming from a place more like the sexually vaguely-utopian culture of the city in Dhalgren than like the place the Kid is traveling away from? And when I noticed that, that is when I teared up, and was thrilled by the rest of the book. That, even if only for one person, things have changed that much. That I live even close to there.
Also the myth-arc kicks in in the last two hundred pages, and I find that very much more interesting than the SF-criticism bits. And now I know what the main thrust is doing I will probably like it better should I reread.
Oh, and a note, because it is so rare: in the edition I just finished of Dhalgren, there is an introduction by William Gibson which is lyrical and interesting and personal and interprets the book well and does not overstay its welcome. It was a treat to read all on its own (after the novel text, of course, what do you take me for). That is so unheard of in the standard kind of introduction that I really do want to mention it.
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