Dying Inside by Silverberg, Robert, 1972

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I have an internal debate about Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside over whether this book gets genre qualification because of the author, or the topic. This book is essentially a long character study about a mind reading Jewish man who lives in New York City who is gradually losing his extraordinary power. Written in 1972, this falls into the era when Silverberg was at the absolute top of his game. Clute and Nichols have said that it didn't win any awards because it was too intense and "too uncompromising in its depiction of anguish and desperation," to qualify for a broad award category. They are absolutely correct. This book is brutal in the deconstruction of its protagonist, David Selig. It is also an absolute masterpiece of literature that should not be missed. Five plus out of five stars.

In Selig Silverberg has created a character that is richer, fuller, truer and more human than any other character I have ever read anywhere, from Huckleberry Finn to Hamlet and beyond. Nailing down what Silverberg has done here is going to be about as difficult as telling you everything that I really love about my children. But, I will do what I can to get you started, and will just advise you that this is not one to be missed.

David Selig is an approximately 40 year old Jewish Colombia graduate who makes his living by ghost-writing term papers for Colombia undergrads and glomming off of his sister. During his early years he was an incredibly gifted psychic who was able to, with one exception, read the mind of anything more complex than a bumble bee. He could also place his own awareness into the minds of other creatures, including humans, to experience what they were experiencing. The book takes place in our world, and Selig is one of a very few persons who have this gift. He has had the power since birth, and it has colored absolutely everything about his life from his own self image, to how he interacts with others, to his vocation, and so on. Silverberg has so expertly integrated his motif into this one character that it is virtually impossible to tell Selig from a real person, but for the fact that he is on paper alone.

Selig has a very believable love/hate relationship with his power. He blames it for making him feel different than everyone else, yet he is incapable of interacting with people in without it, simply because that is what he has done since birth. From childhood he was repulsed by people who said kind and nice things to him but whose thoughts revealed contradictory and hateful impressions of Selig. Before puberty he became a cynical and hateful little boy who even once tried to focus his mental abilities to kill his adopted sister without touching her. He constantly felt guilt over knowing such intimate details about other people as can be found by rooting around in their minds, but he is a consummate voyeur and cannot stop himself. He uses his skill to bed women and win at sports and fights. He is perplexed because he only has the power to read and not to transmit thought, and he blames this for his inability to relate properly to others. He has always done a decent job of getting sex, but he lacks real intimacy because he mistakes the meaningless physical contact for intimacy. He also creeps people out, who seem on some level to know what he is up to. All of these complex contradictions run throughout Selig's entire life and twist and bend him so many ways that he winds up a neurotic and lonely super-being who retreats from each encounter with society and family with just a little bit more force than he uses to integrate himself. The title of the book refers to his middle-age, when his power starts to atrophy (and eventually dies altogether), but if you ask me, Silverberg gave you a sketch of a person who was already long since dead on the inside, even before his ability cut out on him.

One quote in this book pretty much sums David's life. Its actually a chapter in its own right.

But why does David Selig want his power to come back? Why not let if fade? Its always been a curse to him, hasnt it? Its cut him off from his fellow men and doomed him to a loveless life. Leave well enough alone, David. Let it fade. Let it fade. On the other hand, without the power, what are you? Without that one faltering unpredictable unsatisfactory means of connect with them, how will you be able to touch them at all? Your power joins you to mankind, for better or worse, in the only joining you have: You cant bear to surrender it. Admit it. You love it and you despise it, this gift of yours. You dread losing it despite all its done to you. You'll fight to cling to the last shreds of it, even thought you know the struggle's hopeless. Fight on, then. Read Huxley again. Try acid, if you dare. Try flagellation. Try fasting, at least. All right, fasting. Ill skip the chow mein. Ill skip the egg roll. Lets slide a fresh sheet into the typewriter and think about Odysseus as a symbol of society.

The book is essentially a brief look at Selig while his power is dying, and then completely dies out. Through generous use of flashback Silverberg does a most complete job of telling us about Selig from infancy through family life, college, career, loves and friends (one of whom, Nyquist, shares Selig's ability). Dying Inside is very thoroughly a 1970's novel, and paints a pretty interesting picture of life in the city at that time too. If there is anything negative to say about this novel it is that the language may be a little dated in places, and more than once Silverberg allows himself to go off on rants, like he usually does in his longer works of earlier days. This is one of those books that you should make a point of seeking out and reading. Its one of the most intense and interesting books in the entire genre, and it belongs up there on the must-read shelf with books such as Moore's Bring the Jubilee, Amis' The Alteration, and Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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