“to wound the autumnal city.”
This is the entire first line of Samuel R. Delany’s Ulysses-class novel, Dhalgren. If you are a science fiction reader, or even if you just happened to grow up at a particular time, you may have encountered this book. I want to tell you about how this book has influenced
and been influenced by my life. No spoilers, as far as I know, in here—so if you’ve read it, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. And if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.
Dhalgren is copyright 1974 and published in paperback in 1975; the copy shown above was printed sometime in 1976, and I bought it in 1977. I bought it at the MSA (Minnesota Student Association) bookstore in Coffman Union. At the time, I was working and taking three classes (Minnesota was then a quarter or “trimester” school) and I found this left me a lot of time to read. I regularly dropped by the MSA bookstore, especially in my early days at the University, to look for new and interesting reading.
I was 19 years old, and, like most 19-year-olds, I was interested in sex. Already a science fiction reader, I had discovered that sex came up in a number of science fiction novels. So when, browsing the bookstore, I came across a novel almost 2” thick that began with a sexual encounter between the protagonist and a mysterious woman, well, I grabbed it. I read it over the next few weeks and discovered there was a great deal more to it than sex. I’ve read it twice more over the intervening years, and I’m now on my third reading.
The novel is what I like to think of as social science fiction, and it was not my first encounter with that school of writing, but it was the first time that I realized just what you could do with that approach. I had previously read Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, which dabble in the same vein, but I was much younger then (14 and 16, respectively). Dhalgren hit me at just the right time and in just the right way.
Its protagonist could be almost anyone between 20 and 30, living in the late 1970s. With its casual attitudes toward sex, sexuality, drugs, drinking, hygiene, money, and more, it reflected the period perfectly. in 1977, we lived in a sucky economy and under the threat of nuclear destruction (and I was already a fan of apocalyptic fiction—which I had initially [and incorrectly] assumed Dhalgren to be), and the lesser fears (e.g., what we then called VD and what today we call STDs) had been conquered with antibiotics. AIDS wouldn’t raise its head in the US for five or six years yet. And so we lived, to great extent, in a casual yet hedonistic world.
Dhalgren took that world and twisted it. It’s classed as science fiction because things happen that don’t happen in our world, and because there are gadgets (holograms, and the beaded chains of mirrors, prisms, and lenses). But the point is that the book isn’t about the gadgets. It’s about human beings and their interactions. The gadgets are mere decorations.
Delany, a seemingly bizarre combination of things (a gay, black, science fiction and fantasy writer with the unlikely nickname of “Chip”) was a veteran of the communes and music of the ‘60s (see Heavenly Breakfast). Dhalgren is, in a sense, an expansion of that period. What if everyone had to live communally? What if money lost its meaning? How would we deal with that?
I think that the book influenced me in that it made me far less cognizant of money. There are times (like when my spouse and I are buying a house) that I’m acutely aware of our income and outgo) but, most of the time, if I have a couple of dollars in my wallet, I don’t worry about it. That’s a problem, because I’m not living in Bellona, the fictional City in which Dhalgren is set.
I grew up believing in free music and entertainment. In my younger days, I didn’t worry about drug use (these were times—I remember going to movies where joints and beer cans would pass freely up and down the rows; we didn’t worry about bodily fluids or adulterants). My early experiences with sex largely echoed those of Dhalgren’s nominal (sort of) protagonist. Thinking about it now, I realize that Dhalgren was something I read as a mirror and introduction to the times.
But I have influenced Dhalgren as well. Or rather, influenced my own understanding of it. The second time I read it, I knew far more about homosexuality and the gay culture than I did when I first read it (and more about sex, generally). When I read it now, I can identify with the Richards family (indeed, in some ways, my morning time writing this blog reflects Mr. Richards’ attempt to love and escape his family).
In the end, Dhalgren is a painful and difficult book. It holds up to us mirrors, prisms, and lenses through which we can see our lives. I don’t know, honestly, if anyone reading it today would appreciate it in the way I did on my first reading in the ‘70s. I kind of doubt it. But I suggest that if you haven’t read it, you do so.