Stranded in the Jungle--7


AMNESIA. The protagonist of Samuel Delany's 1974 novel Dhalgren remembers everything, except for his own name. His experiences are rich and varied; only a name is missing, a self to refer them to. In the course of the novel's 879 pages, he is variously called Kid, the Kid, and Kidd. But there's really no right way to name him. His identity is dispersed, in space and in time. For instance, he says he is 27 years old; but he looks a lot younger, and a count from the year of his birth makes him out to be much older. All these versions coexist; none by itself is the correct one. There's no common measure for the events recounted in the book, no focal point at which they might converge. "It is not that I have no past," Kidd muses at one point. "Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now." Time is shattered, as in a kaleidoscope. Without a center to ground the flux, it's impossible to distinguish past from present, or memory from premonition, or actuality from dream. There's always an odd sense of deja vu. Each new scene Kidd comes across seems vaguely familiar, as if he had encountered it before. He even finds a notebook in which portions of his story are written before they have happened. The novel's last, incomplete phrase--"I have come to"--almost loops back to its opening line--"to wound the autumnal city." But if you try to read the book as a closed circle, the stutter of the repeated word "to" will throw you off course. There's a glitch in the process of repetition. The details are subtly different each time. Things return, but they are changed by the very fact of returning. Just as time is skewed, and no longer linear, so space is no longer homogeneous. The city of Bellona has been altered in a strange cataclysm. The familiar laws of physics don't entirely hold. You can't quite be sure of distance and direction. Fires break out at random, and burn inconsumably. Buildings twist and collapse. The dense fog almost never clears; smoke and debris are everywhere. The city is largely depopulated. The few remaining inhabitants scavenge in the rubble. They make a living out of waste and ruin. There are always more abandoned supermarkets to plunder, always more empty apartments in which to squat. The destruction is never-ending, but it is also never total. Even after the apocalypse, life goes on. The activity is as frantic as it is pointless. Neurotic white people hold dinner parties and pretend to go to work, striving to maintain a facade of bourgeois normalcy. Multiracial gangs roam the streets, disputing empty turf. Cliques and factions rapidly form, and just as rapidly dissolve. Earnest social workers make their rounds. A psychiatrist keeps office hours. There's a daily newspaper, a bar with drag shows, and a church with regular services. But none of these activities has any point to it; none can be done for a profit. The principle of scarcity doesn't apply. Either what you want is there for the taking, or else it can't be found at all. In both cases, money has no use. The city's economy produces no tangible goods. Its one medium of exchange is gossip. Everyone knows about everyone else's business. The tiniest details undergo intense scrutiny. Why does Kidd wear a sandal on one foot, but leave the other foot bare? Why are those fingernails chewed down to the root so sexy? Who slept with whom last night, and in what odd configurations? Who got beaten up by whom? How is it that the fog for once parted, and an immense, bloated sun glared for hours in the sky? Such events defy interpretation. They are wholly gratuitous signs. They cannot be ascribed to any one particular cause. They don't mean anything in themselves, but they provide endless matter for speculation. They are seen as portents, and they give rise to stories. Power flows from them, as they circulate around town. Kidd becomes a prestigious figure in Bellona, through no particular merit of his own. Really, he just drifts passively through it all. But as the gossip flows, he finds himself acclaimed as a poet, credited with enormous sexual magnetism, recognized as the leader of a gang. His amnesia is his one great asset. For it frees him from the burden of goals and expectations. What good is a proper name, when you're stranded at the exhausted end of time? All enterprise is futile. Tomorrow will be no different from today. Time cannot be used productively; it can only be wasted. Dhalgren is a huge, beautiful paean to wasting time. There's nothing left to do, except fuck, fight, and party.

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