The city of Bellona lies dying at the center of America. There has been some event that left it in this state, uncommunicative with the outside world as those other cities around it move on through normal day-to-day life. A young man who has forgotten his name and his past, soon to be dubbed The Kid, wanders into the city in an attempt to find himself. Dhalgren presents two ideas, postmodernism and psychogeography – fiction brought to life and a city that determines the lives of its inhabitants. It uses these two concepts to display the continued oppression of minority communities – how both popular fiction and cities themselves have the innate ability to destroy black and gay lives.
The Kid’s life begins when the story begins. He has no past; life and personality are built around him as the story moves on. The world asks that he is given a name, yet nothing but wind answers. He dons a set of chains with links of prisms, mirrors, and lenses which he will use to project himself onto, to reflect, and to view the world around him. What the book does not state is that he is the representation of a real person in a fictional world. He is chained into this place given only those possibilities to experience it, and as events unfold he seems to constantly be at the center despite his wishes.
Events in the city occur with no explanation. Metaphors come to life in real-time, such as the sun appearing to engulf the entire horizon or for the lightning to sound like an armada of planes despite no planes in sight. Towers burn ceaselessly in the distance, symbols like scars appear and disappear at random, characters are described in vague terms like outlines in a draft or occasionally are given names that feel more like an author’s idea of them.
The characters are subjected to a world of mindless sex, violence, drinking, and dancing just as other fictional characters are in best-sellers or blockbusters. Yet, with The Kid as a real person forced into this world, the results are not as romantic or exciting as they would typically be. They are almost too real (see his sex scene with Tak where he is covered in a dusting of dandruff-like semen, dried on him from his previous sexual encounter) or repetitive (the eerily similar beatings that occur to him and to others). They are there to titillate or excite the reader but end up destroying the characters in the process.
The city controls what occurs. It was built by the author and given districts, facets, walkways, buildings, and roads, all of which are organized in a way to control and shape those who live there. Kid has no choice: Tak was set up to always be near the entrance of the city (almost certainly by some other psychogeographic means) and thus to meet each new person who arrives. He will always bring them to the commune, back to his place, and the characters (Kid in this case, possibly the girl at the end of the book in the next cycle) will continue on through the novel unknowingly controlled by the structures surrounding them. In life, cities are built by those with power and are structured in a way that will create poverty and wealth in those who they desire to have it. In novels, it is the authors who have this control.
Dhalgren deconstructs what it means to create stories and reveals how cities are built to control one’s life. It presents themes of race and sexuality in the most abstract and bewildering way possible, yet, despite not understanding why, these scenes still manage to evoke a deeper understanding of their purpose. It is like seeing a symbol (maybe a color) and experiencing an emotion based on it without truly understanding why. Delany, this way, manages to give you an almost purely subconscious experience of how our lives are controlled based on how and where we are born or where we live. He shows that a tyrannical governing body is no longer needed to oppress the black and gay communities because our society and our cities have already been built to perpetuate this trend.
And finally, it is not just cities that perpetuate this trend – fiction is also there to solidify in our minds what those in power want us to believe. In so much media (especially at the time Delany was writing this novel) we see only violence in the black communities, only perversion in the gay communities. It is exciting and erotic when experiencing through this fiction, but also reinforces those harmful beliefs – only adding more misguided reasons to persecute those who we believe are harmful to middle- and upper-class ideals. When these communities attempt to stand up to this force, “to wound the autumnal city”, in all likelihood, they will end up powerless; they will flee and pass on the torch to some fresh hopeful soul to continue the fight.
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