In our new series Quarantine Reads, writers present the books they’re finally making time for and consider what it’s like to read them in this strange moment.
I started reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a prismatic, nightmarish work of speculative fiction, in New York City a couple weeks ago, when the coronavirus had just begun to spread into the West. Italy had fallen and the threat in the United States was imminent, but the real panic and anxiety still hadn’t sunk in. Stubbornly, and against better judgment, I decided to go through with my plans to take a three-week trip to Japan. I continued reading Dhalgren on my way to Tokyo on March 14. As I was reading on the nearly empty plane, I kept looking down at my hands, getting up, washing them, until they were dry and cracked and my knuckles started bleeding, and by the time I disembarked it looked like I’d been in a fistfight. Dhalgren has been my only real traveling companion this week: gently purring in my hands with the landscape tilting outside the window of the Shinkansen; in the coffee shops of Ginza and Shinjuku, wiped with sanitizer each time, carefully, front and back; and in my lap on a park bench overlooking a river, across which stands the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the battered dome of a ruined building.
The German-language writer Elias Canetti—most famous for his book Crowds and Power—deeply admired Dr. Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, a powerful and lucid account of the days and weeks following the Hiroshima atomic bombing. In a short essay from 1971, Canetti wrote of Dr. Hachiya’s profoundly vivid hellscape, of the uncertainty each new day brought to the doctor’s treatment of victims (while trying to understand what was happening to his own body), and of the doctor’s narration of the ever-shifting new realities of something completely unknown. As Canetti writes, “In the hardship of his own condition, among dead or injured people, the author tries to piece the facts together; with increasing knowledge, his conjectures change, they turn into theories requiring experiment.”
It had been years since I’d first read Canetti’s essay, but the notion that I should reread it popped into my head while I was distractedly strolling through the crowded Hondori shopping district of Hiroshima. It’s difficult, of course, not to jam the coronavirus into every thought, and I couldn’t help but draw connections to the bombing of Hiroshima—and to a fleeting question that Canetti poses in this essay: “Is misfortune the thing that people have most in common?” Walking around Hiroshima today, with the scars of its past barely concealed to anyone looking for them, I noted the surreal and incongruous way the city still functions normally despite the threat of the virus. The city’s past—even the name, Hiroshima, evokes carnage and loss—seemed to offer a brief moment of perspective: bacteria, an invisible terror, feels somehow less threatening when reminded of this human atrocity, of our capacity to inflict destruction upon ourselves.
One of the things that Canetti found most captivating—and horrifying—in Hiroshima Diary was that it was written in real time, as the events unfolded. This sense of narrating and revising the shifting facts resonated with me, not only because of the strange state of the world, but also in thinking about Dhalgren, which, though I’ve been reading every day for the past couple weeks (but don’t these weeks feel like years?), has felt at times impenetrable, surreal, frustrating, unpredictable. Dhalgren eludes me at every turn—I have a notebook now nearly full of scribblings and half-baked ideas about themes I’d wanted pick apart (about hygiene, the uncanny, mythology, race, migration, disaster, et cetera). I keep trying to wave the book in the air to see if the coronavirus waves back.
Dhalgren takes place in the fictional city of Bellona, a city that once had a population of two million but because of a strange disaster (a series of fires? a race riot?), there are only about a thousand inhabitants left there. In general, Bellona is a pretty dangerous place to find yourself: people die unexpectedly; acts of violence or debauchery occur randomly and often; and a gang of thugs, called the Scorpions, run the streets by night. To stay safe, it’s best to wear an orchid, a bladed weapon that I imagine looks like the Wolverine’s fist, if you have one.
Soon after arriving in Bellona, Kidd (or Kid, or the kid—he’s not even sure of his own name) meets Tak Loufer, who, in these first pages, serves as a guide to the ravaged city. Laufer explains, “You know, here… you’re free. No laws, to break or to follow. Do anything you want. Which does funny things to you. Very quickly, surprisingly quickly, you become… exactly who you are.” Kidd, is, as he soon discovers, a poet. But he is also a nomad, a flaneur, an adventurer, an eyewitness.
The reader explores the city of Bellona through Kidd’s fragmentary perceptions: time unfolds in loopy swirls because, for the most part, Kidd is figuring things out as he goes and he has a very tenuous relationship not only with his own consciousness but also with his past. Some conversations or events happen multiple times—seen from different angles, in different lights—while other, seemingly important details are withheld indefinitely. Ideas and images are introduced, partially developed, refracted, cut down. Reading Dhalgren is a bit like being held upside down from your ankles and dangled off the back of a speeding truck.
My own reality this week has rivaled the novel’s uncertainty. I’ve changed my return flight four times so far, committing to the irresponsible delusion that I might be able to outwit the spread of disease. To travel under these conditions you need to be delusional, selfish, a little stupid, always ready to embrace the unknown. In Japan, where I speak the language with the proficiency of a toddler, I’m never quite sure what’s happening around me, what the real situation is here. Am I in danger? What awaits me back home? Am I invisible enough—keeping enough distance, using enough sanitizer, wearing a mask enough, am I in safe spaces? The trains, bars, restaurants, and department stores are still, as of today, full of people. But this could change at any moment. One Japanese friend said that things are much worse than they appear but the government has been downplaying the crisis—there was a similar response, and mistrust of Japanese public statements, after Fukushima. Another person I spoke to, a friend from high school (who used to be a reasonable person, maybe a little too gullible back then), said that he’d heard the coronavirus was an act of bioterrorism, somehow perpetuated worldwide, but sparing Japan, by a group of Jewish Zionists living on the small island of Awaji in Japan’s Inland Sea. I couldn’t make sense of this bizarre notion, which seems to be the conflation of several different wild conspiracy theories. One rare certainty this week: I will not fear of the Awaji Jews.
In Tokyo, everyone wears a face mask. Not everyone, but nearly. Talismans, shields, work most efficiently against the ineffable. I’ve seen thousands of faces but very few smiles. A few days ago, I saw a well-dressed businessman on his lunch break at a ramen restaurant, wearing a face mask, who daintily pulled the mask above his upper lip before he slurped each bite of noodles, and then chewed with the mask lowered. It must’ve taken him much longer to eat this way. I feel a kinship with the absurdity of this ramen eater, who, rather than dining safely at home, would sacrifice his dignity in order to enjoy a meal. But this was an anomaly. Most people seem to move about as they normally would. “If a bomb had fallen, we’d be dead. This is something perfectly natural. And we have to make do, don’t we, until the situation is rectified?” the almost unflappable Mrs. Richards explains to Kidd. He’s come over to help her family move apartments—another largely symbolic gesture of normalcy in the face of crisis.
As I’ve been reading Dhalgren, I keep seeing strange parallels to the proliferating unknowns of traveling (or even staying put) during the coronavirus. The novel demands qualities of its reader—patience, flexibility in most things, stubbornness in others, paranoia—that are also helpful now. One of my favorite characters in the book, the perfectly pretentious, rambling poet from New Zealand, Ernest Newboy, states midway through the novel: “There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.” Dhalgren isn’t for everyone. Delany’s formal and linguistic experimentations are a bumpy road to follow. It’s not a very comforting book, and, of course, it’s not a comforting time to be traveling either. In hindsight, Dhalgren probably isn’t the book I should be reading during the plague, but it might be the book that I deserve.