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Vintage, $18.00, 801 pp
Turbulence: A Log Book by Henrick Drescher
Here is a message in a bottle, written in the days following the attack on the World Trade Center and flash-forwarded a few months to the end of the year, when I imagine you to be reading this. Like many others in this field, I have made a career out of writing and reading apocalyptic novels, something that until a few days ago seemed like an honest late-century pursuit.
All that has changed now. In a few minutes the landscape of a very young century was changed utterly, along with everyone inside it; not just the present altered but the iconography of the future. Many near-future novels written in what is fast becoming a lost world already seem antiquated. By chance I decided months ago to write about a novel that, in retrospect, seems like a message in a bottle thrown to us in 1975, from the day before yesterday.
Sameul R. Delany's Dhalgren has just been reissued by Vintage Books, with the foreword originally composed by William Gibson for a 1996 Wesleyan University Press reprint. It was first published in 1974. For those of us who read it then, Dhalgren less a novel than a genuine experience, a paper-and-ink construct that was the closest thing we had to hypertext, The Matrix, or the innumerable computer games that now litter our consciousness. I can vividly recall first reading, not the book itself but the review of it in The New York Times Book Review: a science fiction novel with sex in it. I bought it a few days later, in the mass market paperback edition that would eventually outsell Gravity's Rainbow. Dhalgren was a book that did not merely change my life; it changed the way I looked at the world and, in a way that only the greatest books do, seemed to change the world itself.
The novel has no linear plot. Taken together, its famous first and last lines complete a circular narrative that encompasses the novel and the world it contains --
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come toto wound the autumnal city.The autumnal city is called Bellona, named for the war goddess who in Roman mythology was paired, as sister or wife, with Mars. But it is looking-glass logic that rules the world of Dhalgren---the novel and the city it describes are filled with lenses, prisms, mirrors, shadows and reflections---and at various points the city seems to be (among others) New York, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit. Bellona is no city and all cities; it is created of the tangled memories of its inhabitants and may in fact be the distorted interior landscape, the "ganglial city," of the character who is closest to being Dhalgren's protagonist.
" . . . somewhere in this city is a character they call: The Kid. Age: ambiguous. Racial origin: same. True name: unknown. He lives among a group (whose alleged viciousness is only surpassed by their visible laziness) over which he holds a doubtful authority. They call themselves scorpions. He is the supposed author of a book that has been distributed widely in town. Since it is the only book in town, that it is the most discussed work of the season is a dubious distinction. That and the intriguing situation of the author tend to blur accurate assessment of its worth. I admit: I am intrigued."This encapsulation arrives towards the very end of 800 pages of some of the most densely written text of the last century; it is the closest one comes, really, to a summing-up of the novel. The novel "begins" with a young man entering Bellona, an American city that has survived an indescribable apocalypse. This holocaust has engulfed the rest of the country, maybe the entire world; it seems to have left the young man an amnesiac; he may also be insane, suffering from multiple personality disorder, or simply experiencing a weird form of synesthesia. The city itself exhibits symptoms of psychic disorders: the moon and sun rise and set and disappear erratically; time runs forwards and backwards or not at all; people cast no shadows, or too many; the sky is lost behind a constant fug of brown smoke. In its final pages, Dhalgren becomes an even more cryptic narrative, with substantial annotations as sidebars to the original text: one is reading the same book that everyone else in the city of Bellona is reading.
Those who live in Bellona comprise a multicultural, multisexual, mutligender stew of outcasts, oddballs, gang members. Notions of sexual or professional identity are no longer relevant. Neither is age, though Bellona's most valued currencies are those perennially favored by the young: Sex, Talk, and Art. Imagine the longest, loudest, strangest, most intense night you ever spent as an adolescent or young adult—fucking, drinking, taking drugs, sleeping, talking, fucking, reading, writing, fucking, fighting, talking, all while wandering through an endless, irredeemably damaged landscape. That is Delany's imagined city; but for those of us who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was a landscape that we inhabited in real time, in Chicago, in New York and the Watts section of Los Angeles; along the riot corridor in Northeast D.C., which is where I lived. Reading the novel then, I felt that I was reading my own story; yet Dhalgren has a minatory epigraph: "You have confused the true and the real."
In a 1983 conversation with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, Delany said
"After all, if the book makes any social statement, it's that when society pulls the traditional supports out from under us, we all effectively become, not the proletariat, but the lumpen proletariat. It says that the complexity of "culture" functioning in a gang of delinquents led by some borderline mental case is no less and no more than that functioning at a middle-class dinner party. Well, there are millions of people in this country who have already experienced precisely this social condition, because for one reason or another their supports at one time or another were actually struck away. For them, Dhalgren confirms something they've experienced. It redeems those experiences for them. For them, the book reassure that what they saw was real and meaningful ..."In the face of inconceivable grief and loss and change it's difficult, if not impossible, to find solace in anything, including literature. It's a shattering realization; yet ultimately one turns back to music, poetry, paintings, film, text, and finds something that was not there before. Dhalgren is not a comforting book, but it is I think a great one---a secret history, a recovered memory of a time that was not, in 1974, our own. That's because its time is the present: We are all, now, residents of an autumnal city that has had its supports struck away.
Even if Henrik Drescher's name is unfamiliar, chances are you've seen his work. Parents will know him as the author/illustrator of children's books like No Plain Pets! and Poems of a Nonny Mouse; other readers will have seen his spidery drawings in places like The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. Turbulence: A Log Book, is described by Drescher's publisher as "an innovative apocalyptic work of art in book form." But Turbulence seems more like e a genuine artifact of apocalypse, a powerful and disturbing work that falls somewhere between outsider art (Drescher is a self-taught illustrator) and the more self-conscious creations of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Its actual subtitle is too long to quote here; it evokes the title of James Hampton's famous mystical assemblage, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly" (itself the title of a poetry collection by Denis Johnson).
Beautifully produced, Turbulence consists of a dreamlike narrative told almost entirely through image. The scant text is drawn primarily from Wendy Doniger's 1975 translation of Hindu myths; it focuses on the Hindu cycles of destruction and rebirth, and seems especially to refer to the pralaya or cosmic catastrophes which lead to the dissolution and reabsorption of our world into the Eternal.
Meanwhile, Drescher's images show a middle-aged man boarding a cruise ship, opening a strange piece of baggage that contains a miniature of that same ship. The man settles, godlike, into a tub with the tiny ship before him. His reveries---variations on the themes of sacred sexual congress and sacrifice---serve to illustrate the earth's destruction by fire and flood, and its ultimate reclamation.
For all its beauty---exquisite laser-cut pages, haunting collages and line drawings and fragments of text---Turbulence is not an easy book to read. Much of its nightmare imagery is extremely disturbing, though there is nothing vicarious or sensationalist about it: Drescher is clearly a visionary who sees"too clearly all that man is born for." One is left hoping that his vision is clear, and that "Immediately at the conclusion of the exhausted Kali Age, the minds of the people will become pure as flawless crystal, and they will be awakened as if at the conclusion of a night.
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