Staging A Beautiful Apocalypse


Today is the birthday of one of my very favorite living writers, Samuel R. Delany.

(I spoke once here before about how I share with Junot Diaz an abiding love for Delany’s work.)

All it took for him to become my favorite was to read his legendary, mind-boggling and notorious sci-fi apocalyptic epic Dhalgren a few years back when I was living in an old Edwardian in the Sunset District of San Francisco and working for lawyers in the Lake Merritt District of Oakland.

Some nights, after all that complex commuting, all I wanted was a massive book to take to bed with and Dhalgren became that perfect bed companion.

The book’s eight-hundred pages of gorgeous madness pivot on the goings-on within a decimated, smoldering, crime-ridden American city called Bellona, all told through the amnesiac and schizoid viewpoint of a bisexual drifter poet named the Kid.  The book demands innumerable rereadings as well as the recitations of entire paragraphs to a room full of ex-astronauts and defrocked priests.  It’s certainly a divisive book and arguably one of the most divisive sci-fi books ever written.  Adored, questioned and feared, it is a book that makes things happen inside of you, not unlike some psychotropic jungle vine.

My life when I first read Dhalgren felt charmingly amphibious and interstitial, a state of being I was at first uneasy with — I was single for the first time in years, I had some money from performing, what seemed to me,  humorously Kafkaesque administrative tasks and I was often roaming, night and day, between my two cities searching for whatever out-of-the-way revelations I could find.

Mostly I rode my bicycle through the industrial backwaters of Oakland until I reached Jack London’s old watering hole. If I missed the last train ride home, I sought out any old friend’s warehouse to crash in.  Sometimes I slept in an old bank vault. Other times I was pursued by strangers who thought they knew me or that they owed me money.

Dhalgren was exactly the book I needed to read to feel at home in this frantic, mobile city-scape that was composed of charming paradoxes and devilish contradictions.  (Some commentators, in a more extreme example have seen parallels between Dhalgren’s catastrophe-created city and the New Orleans that Katrina made.)

Since reading Dhalgren — being stunned and shaped by it, inspired and humbled by it–I’ve accumulated about a dozen of Delany’s books out of the forty plus he’s written.

This week in New York Magazine, Sam Anderson shares his wonderful take on the theatrical adaptation of Dhalgren called Bellona: Destroyer Of Cities which is set to premier today on Delany’s birthday at The Kitchen.

According to Anderson:

“The notion of turning Dhalgren—this disorienting vortex of pure textuality—into a functional play seems, at first, like some kind of literary joke, the equivalent of turning the Tao Te Ching into a murder mystery.”

But, a few paragraphs later:

“The surprising thing is that it all seems to be working. When I sit in on a rehearsal, the feel of the novel is unmistakably present: the openness, the casual strangeness, the charmingly aggressive discomfort.”

So there’s one more AMAZING thing to do in New York, people.

And one more life-altering book to get your hands on.

Happy Birthday Samuel Delany!

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →