Natural Disasters

Dhalgren in New Orleans

What an old science-fiction novel can tell us about the Big Easy

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As Americans struggled to grasp what was unfolding in New Orleans, the word "unimaginable" recurred frequently—even though the catastrophe had been imagined, and envisioned, many times. Thirty years ago, science fiction writer Samuel Delany wrote, in high detail, about the unfolding of racially-charged violence, rape, and looting in "Bellona," a major American city struck by an unspecified catastrophe and ignored by the National Guard.

Delany's Dhalgren focuses on a group of people who choose to remain in Bellona despite—and partly, because of—its dystopian qualities (including lack of water and sanitation). This surreal work of science fiction seemed especially apt last week, as fires raged and stories of racism, rape, looting, and murder proliferated, and then–FEMA head Mike Brown continued to blame the victims who had not evacuated the city. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco publicly disagreed over whether residents would be forcibly evicted from their homes during the cleanup, while thousands of the city's approximately 10,000 remaining residents remained adamant in their resolve to stay. Dhalgren suggests what the holdouts might find if they succeed.

Dhalgren's micro-detailed images of the streets of Bellona portray a city that is both hellish labyrinth and temporary autonomous zone. Bellona's residents (mostly poor and black) live on looted cans of food; there's no economy to speak of, gossip is the most highly valued commodity, and a gang of thugs (eventually headed by the main character, Kid, an amnesiac Native American poet) runs a haphazard protection racket. Delany writes, "The city is a map of violences anticipated. The armed dwellers in the Emboriki [a department store], the blacks surrounding them, the hiss from a turned tap that has finally stopped trickling, the time it takes a group who go out to come back with bags of canned goods, packaged noodles, beans, rice, spaghetti—each is an emblem of inalienable, coming shock. But the clashes that do occur are all petty, disappointing, minor, inconclusive, above all stupid, as though the city prevents any real anxiety's ever resolving. And the result? All humanity here astounds; all charity here is graced." Last week, New Orleans was more than hellish ("Worse than Iraq! Worse than Afghanistan!" those who have recently visited both declared). But in the months before the rebuilding starts, it's worth asking whether it can also be a space where new ways of making and speaking and existing can come into being.

While some residents of Bellona refuse to adjust, insisting that nothing has changed and the old way of life will come back intact, others take advantage of their unique position to break taboos. Since money is meaningless, Kid mugs somebody just to see how it feels, and his primary lover Lanya prostitutes herself for the same reason. But they don't get much out of criminal gestures. Delany is better at depicting the openness that Bellona bestows upon promising new ways of interacting. Some of the most beautiful parts of Dhalgren concern Kid's attempts to write poetry in a language that's appropriate to the strangeness of the city, and Lanya's intricate experiments with tape-loops and harmonica.

Even though all sorts of horrors hang in the city, Kid and Lanya occasionally stumble onto remarkable new ways of inhabiting their world. Sometimes, they even manage to draw other residents into these projects, thereby enlarging their perceptions of what sorts of actions are possible. Most people that Kid writes about recognize themselves in his poems and feel elevated. Lanya, who refuses to identify as an "artist," successfully starts a school; later, in one of the book's best scenes, she ropes Denny, a teenage thug, into performing in her experimental composition. And Lanya and Kid spend all night in an abandoned art museum, looking at paintings for hours. When they leave, Kid hangs his favorites upside down, hoping that this will get others to pay them more attention.

In a journal, Kid reflects on how difficult it is for Bellona's only newspaper to reflect the city's warped reality. He concludes that his poems, which wouldn't make much sense anywhere else, do so in Bellona. He writes, "Today I cut down the block where I'd heard the scorpions [the thugs] had their nest. 'What kind of street do they live on?' in the grammar of another city, that sentence would hold the implication: What kind of street are they more or less constrained by society to live on, given their semi-outlaw status, their egregious manner and outfit, and the economics of their asocial position? In Bellona, however, the same words imply a complex freedom, a choice from hovel to mansion—complex because every hovel and every mansion sustains through that choice some remnant of our ineffable catastrophe."

Like Kid, who leaves the city after losing Lanya and other friends in the fire and confusion resulting from a race riot, those who choose to stay in New Orleans will, in all likelihood, come to harm. But, I hope, not before glimpsing more than the city's nightmares. About two dozen people in New Orleans refused to accept the cancellation of the Southern Decadence gay pride parade scheduled for last weekend. They donned wigs and beads, and celebrated in the streets. A restaurant started giving away $20,000 worth of free food, and two bars in the (mostly dry) French Quarter remained open through the hurricane. In the absence of any controlling legal authority, residents even formed ad hoc defense committees. You wouldn't know it from the blathering of countless columnists, but while Katrina was busy disproving some non-existent policy of "small government," private citizens from Wal-Mart to New Orleans hoteliers proved their ability to keep functioning in an unreal city. It's a start—not only for the city's will to rebuild itself, but also for the inhabitants who hope to stick it out until then. There are many stories about the bodies still afloat in New Orleans, but this one, with its detail about a corpse with one shoe on and one shoe off (an image that haunts Delany's work) stands apart.