…it was that more people finally realized what’s been going on in the world for decades now.
So I was at the University Clinics today to get my TB skin test checked (completely negative—zero mm of induration—although they say everyone in health care eventually converts), and I was reading an old Newsweek (or Time or U.S. News World Report or some other mass-media simplification of reality) and almost all the articles had something to do with September 11th (which I recently realized was the three month anniversary of the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Now if that isn’t something for conspiracy theorists to ponder….) And then when I got home, I started reading some of the book reviews in the February 2002 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and guess what book they were reviewing: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany.
I managed to finally finish the book early this morning at 1:30 a.m. I had started it in October while studying for finals and the weird—well, not exactly parallels—but, maybe, allusions to, no, coincidences with September 11th really struck me. A major U.S. city is devastated by catastrophe, but life in the city goes on.
What also struck me about it is that it was a crystallization of my own thoughts with regards to cities. Ever since I moved out to Chicago in 1999, and after visiting New York about five times for about a total of a month and half, and then consciously trying to experience Los Angeles as a visitor instead of an exiled resident these past few times I’ve gone there, I started thinking about The City. That is, the Platonic concept of a modern city. Not to say that I’ve traveled much, but I like comparing the various metropolitan areas I’ve lived in or at least visited: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Manila. And I know that I’m not the first to think these thoughts, but the similarities of these cities struck me much more than their differences.
I remember writing something about it after my New York trip in 1999, borrowing T.S. Eliot’s phrase “Unreal City.” Books, movies and video games have helped congeal my ideas: BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) in Neuromancer, Philip K. Dick’s San Francisco in The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s Los Angeles in Bladerunner, Orwell’s London in 1984, Dark City (which, in retrospect, almost seems to be loosely based on Dhalgren), Chicago (really Sidney) in “The Matrix”, and even recently, New York in “Vanilla Sky”, not to mention Midgar in “Final Fantasy VII”. The list could go on and on. So when I started reading Dhalgren and about the Delany’s city of Bellona, I felt like I was entering familiar territory.
Still, what really struck me about the book review of Dhalgren was that the reviewer’s thoughts completely echoed my own as I read the beginning of the book. This is science fiction at its finest. Even 30 years after being published, it is still alive and completely relevant to the present. Maybe it’s because everything now is a direct sequelae to the 1960s. But Delany got a lot of things right. Like the author of the review, it struck me as completely relevant to September 11th, in complex ways that I can’t even begin to articulate.
It helps that I have my own memories from the L.A. riots of 1992 to supplement my imagination. Juxtaposing them with imagery from September 11th came naturally, and was almost a good starting point from which to imagine Bellona.
Jumping a little, what struck me most about Dhalgren’s relevance to this current War on Terrorism is that the war seems to make it OK not to talk about issues nearer and dearer, issues that were nowhere near solved in the 1960s, issues that we’ve been struggling with since even before the nation was founded: the issues of class, and even more visible than that, the issues of race, and the real issue of all, the intersection of class and race. These are the issues that Delany tackles with a “show don’t tell” philosophy. And these are the issues that, in a convoluted manner, underlie what happened last year, and will decide what happens this year, in terms of the survival of democracy. In reality, race and class underpinned the Cold War (Al Qaeda is a unexpected consequence), and race and class underpin Global Capitalism, which, anyway you spin it, colors much of what is going on in Afghanistan and the Arab World in general. Marx may be dead, but Neo(-Marx) is quite alive. The conflicts of the future will not be between Communism and Capitalism, but, ironically, between Democracy and Capitalism.
Anyway, my thoughts are scattering quite rapidly. I just wanted to close with a couple of quotes from Dhalgren:
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to…. to wound the autumnal city.
This is the last phrase of the book and the first. Many people suggest a circularity in the novel. Regardless, the opening line: “to wound the autumnal city” sent shivers down my spine, thinking of New York and September 11th.
You have confused the true with the real.
This is the epigraph.