As Americans struggled to grasp what was unfolding in New Orleans, the word unimaginable frequently recurred–even though the catastrophe had been imagined many times. Thirty years ago, the novelist Samuel R. Delany wrote, in rich 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 describes a group of people who choose to remain in Bellona despite–in part because of–its dystopian qualities (including lack of water and sanitation). This surreal work of science fiction seemed especially relevant the first week after Hurricane Katrina hit, as fires raged; stories of racism, rape, looting, and murder proliferated; and Mike Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, continued to blame the victims who had not evacuated the city. Dhalgren suggests what the holdouts might have found if they had succeeded in staying.
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 and possibly 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, and 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."
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. 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 a 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 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."
And New Orleans? Amid far too many stories about floating corpses, the Associated Press mentioned in passing a body with just one shoe. It's an image that haunts Delaney's work; and it isn't the only moment when real life seemed to echo his novel. After Katrina, about two dozen people refused to accept the cancellation of the scheduled Southern Decadence gay pride parade. They donned wigs and beads, and they 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 nonexistent policy of "small government," private citizens from unlicensed medics to New Orleans hoteliers proved their ability to keep functioning in an unreal city.
It was a start–not only for the city's will to rebuild itself but for the inhabitants who hoped to stick it out until then.?