DHALGREN begins with a cryptic three lines that seem to announce an incomprehensible post-modern prose experiment. But the first chapter (54 pages) is of fairly classical facture except for the first section (10 pages).
In the first section an unnamed amnesiac protagonist who has himself forgotten his name meets a woman, who seems to be expecting him, just outside the city. They make love, and she guides him to a cave where he finds a chain made of prisms, mirrors, and lenses, that he wraps around his torso and waist (the whole chapter is titled “Prism, Mirror, Lens”). He comes out of the cave, and chases after the woman, only to find her turning into a tree. The rest of the chapter is more straightforward, and I will talk about it in the next post.
This may seem a daunting beginning, but it is so only because it groups together in a small space some familiar SF tropes. In the last few months I have read a science-fiction fantasy novel where the protagonist does not remember who he is or his name (Roger Zelazny, NINE PRINCES IN AMBER), a young woman transforms into a tree (Terry Brooks, THE ELFSTONES OF SHANNARA), a mysterious zone exists after some unnamed event where strange things can happen (Jeff VanderMeer, THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY). So I see no reason to stop reading and to throw the book aside in panic.
The style is dense and poetic, but this is an aid to comprehension. Even if the woman’s transformation into a tree comes in the narrative as a surprise, with no proposed causal mechanism or other justification, it is prepared and foreshadowed in the language used to describe her and the encounter:
The leaves winked. What had been wind was a motion in brush below. His hand went to the rock behind. She stood up, two dozen feet down and away, wearing only shadows the moon dropped from the viney maple (page 1).
The woman emerges, naked, out of wind-moved leaves and maple-shadows and motion in the brush.
The most enigmatic part is the first three lines:
to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
This is rather enigmatic. Much has been made of the conjectured circular form of the novel, where the first line supposedly completes the unfinished last sentence. I do not see that this can be proven, nor does it add anything much to the meaning. Yes, we need to re-read the book to get more out of it, as the example of the woman’s tree-becoming suggests. Delany has revealed that in early drafts for the book he envisioned a moebius strip or a klein bottle structure, but these mathematical figures should not overly impress an SF reader. The message would be: read this several times and your understanding of it will be transformed at each reading.
I see syntactic fragmentation and semantic indeterminacy. There is a theme of damage and decline. The circle-hypothesis makes ” to wound” an infinitive. But one can just as easily imagine a sentence where “wound” is the past of “wind”, e.g.
Around the place he came to wound the autumnal city
This hypothesis is just as plausible if we consider that twisting is as prevalent as circularity in the book. I feel that the notions of ambguity, uncertainty and indeterminacy, and of the necessity for interpretation are being foregrounded here. The “circle” is too reassuring, an empty assumption. Difference, as in the rhizome, undoes circles, as anyone knows. Delany is a novelist of difference since his encounter with Saussure, structuralism, Derrida, etc.
In the next sentence, there is no subject named, which makes its grammatical form reflect its content: “So howled out for the world to give him a name”. This continues the theme of indeterminacy into that of non-identity. Having no name is a potentially psychotic or mystical experience, or merely the post-modern experience of a world where things are less fixed, and have the names they need to have in the situation. Names are “wind”, in both the sense of flatus voci, empty signifiers, or in a more Heraclitean sense of flux:
“The in-dark answered with wind“.
This could be no answer at all, or else a perfectly good answer.