Sunday, February 08, 2009

Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside (1972) SFMW 59

‘Living we fret, dying we live. I’ll keep that in mind[…] until I die again’ (p. 199)

David Sellig is a fractious, self-indulgent, emotionally needy middle aged man who has squandered such talent as he has and exists by writing term papers for NYU undergraduates.

He can also read minds.

His gift, however, is abandoning him in incipient middle age, and the novel focuses on the sense of desolation, loss and missed opportunity that will be familiar to all those who have left the first flush of youthful optimism behind them and reflect in their quieter moments on what they could have achieved, if only: ‘I am able to pick up isolated blurts and squeaks of discrete selfhood: a fierce jab of desire, a squawk of hatred, a pang of regret, a sudden purposeful inner mumbling, rising from the murky orchestral smear of a Mahler symphony[…] When one knows that something is dying inside one, one learns not to put much trust in the random vitalities of the fleeting moment. Today the power is strong yet tomorrow I may hear nothing but distant tantalizing murmurs’ (pp. 3-4).

‘There are people with doctorates who are fifteen years younger than I am. Isn’t that a killer?’ (p. 54)

The novel is arresting in several regards, but perhaps its most unusual element is Silverberg’s insistence on reproducing some of Sellig’s term papers in full. The entirety of the fourth chapter, for example, is given over to the recitation of ‘Paul F. Bruno, Comp Lit 18, Prof. Schmitz, October 15, 1976: The Novels of Kafka’ (p. 16). This, together with the novel’s overly-elaborate references to a host of poets, novelist, playwrights, scientists, philosophers, artists and composers in its scant 199 pages speaks perhaps of the neuroses of a novelist uncomfortable with his success as a genre author and attempting to demonstrate the validity of his credentials as a writer with loftier ambitions. I would prefer to read this in the more playful manner that Silverberg’s novels have a tendency to invite, however, and interpret this scholarly overegging as a critical double-bluff on the author’s part which nestles neatly within the purview of his protagonist’s somewhat juvenile obsessions.

Silverberg is never anything but singular and interesting when he focuses on sex, and Dying Inside is no exception. He remembers sex with Toni whom he considers to be archetypal of women in general. As they come, Selling considers, they ‘are islands, alone in the void of space, aware only of their bodies and perhaps of that intrusive rigid rod against which they thrust, When pleasure takes them it is a curiously impersonal phenomenon, no matter how titanic its impact’. (p. 31) The sexual curiosity that forms part of the narrative drive of The Book of Skulls also features in Dying Inside, and Silverberg’s skirting around homosexuality in this novel is equally fascinating (pp. 94-95 et al), although I will have more to say on this subject in a forthcoming review of the former title.

Among the more startling insights that Silverberg allows his protagonist to share with the reader within the narrative world he constructs is the assertion that ‘the mind may think in Spanish or Basque or Hungarian or Finnish, but the soul thinks in a languageless language accessible to any prying sneaking freak who comes along to peer at its mysteries’ (p. 15), as well as a journey into the mind of a bee (p. 63) and the revelation that a seemingly dour farmer is an ecstatic mystic (p. 65). Sellig’s insight into the mind of the politician is mercifully veiled, although whatever we may choose to speculate the outcome was, it is evident that it was far from a positive one: ‘why should I vote? I will not vote. I do not vote. I am not plugged in. I am not part of the circuit. Voting is for them[…] I looked into [Richard Nixon’s] mind, and what I found in there I will not tell you, except to say that it was more or less what I should have expected to find. And since that day I have had nothing to do with politics or politicians’ (p. 131)

If Sellig’s situation has a tragic core, it is that he lacks the strength of character to revel in the unique advantages that his gift has endowed him with. As his powers wane, he is left to reflect on what could have been rather than to pick over the treasure house of memory that he should have been accrued from his experiences. He is instead left to rue the missed opportunities and the chances passed over on the basis that he never felt that he either wholly owned nor was in control of his telepathic abilities, which as a consequence became a burden to him rather than a benefit: ‘I always thought of the gift as something apart from myself, something intrusive’ (p. 55)

There were good times, early on: ‘mortals are born into a vale of tears and they get their kicks wherever they can. Some, seeking pleasure, are compelled to turn to sex, drugs, booze, television, movies, pinochle, the stock market, the racetrack, the roulette wheel, whips and chains, collecting first editions, Caribbean cruises, Chinese snuff bottles, Anglo-Saxon poetry, rubber garments, professional football games, whatever. Not him, not the accursed David Selig. All he had to do was sit quietly with his apparatus wide open and drink in the thought-waves drifting on the telepathic breeze. With the greatest of ease he lived a hundred vicarious lives. He heaped his treasurehouse with the plunder of a thousand souls. Ecstasy. Of course, the ecstatic part was all quite some time ago’ (pp. 60-61). ‘It was like that all the time in those early years: an endless trip, a gaudy voyage. But powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything goes. Everything dies.’ (p. 67)

As Sellig’s gift begins to fade by degrees, the progressive decline in his abilities is so slight that for years he barely notices their having diminished at all: ‘the power had not begun detectibly to dim until he was well along in his thirties, but it obviously must have been fading by easy stages all through his manhood, dwindling so gradually that he remained unaware of the cumulative loss’ (p. 61).

One of the most enduring and poignant elements of the text, which surely every reader must identify with to some extent, is that once the apogee of potential has been passed (assuming that one believes that this is indeed the case, but in a physiological sense this is of course irrefutable: death is coming for us all) there are only two options: to be paralysed by regret, or to accept that there are opportunities to be enjoyed and rewards to be garnered at every stage in one's life if one can only appreciate the fact. All that one needs to do is to be able to sense their existence, and act upon the felicities of circumstance that either thrust them in our way, or that we are lucky enough to be able to craft for ourselves.

This dichotomy is personified on the one hand by the lugubrious dejection of Sellig, and on the other by the hardy optimism of Tom Nyquist. Sellig is not the only person in this narrative world to be gifted with telepathy: ‘there are others[…] you’re the third, fourth, fifth I’ve met since I came to the States[…] It isn’t important. What’s important is living your own life’ (pp. 90-91). Similarly, not all the telepaths within this narrative appear to be crippled by their powers in the way that the protagonist is. Far from it, in fact: “Nyquist used his gift as simply and naturally as he did his eyes or legs, for his own advantage, without apologies and without guilt.” (p. 88). Equally, Nyquist refuses to engage with Sellig’s assertion that their abilities make them more susceptible to metaphysical angst: for him, it is quite simply a gift to use and enjoy, as by extension are all of faculties. When Sellig asks Nyquist “are you in pain?” he replies “who isn’t in pain?” (p. 74); when Selling insists that ‘the gift tips the spirit[…] It darkens the soul’, Nyquist refutes him by saying ‘yours, maybe, not mine’ (p. 168)

If the reader learns anything from Sellig’s decline, it is that whilst ‘wise men [may] at their end know dark is right,’ there is no cause to stultify what life we have by succumbing to darkness prematurely: ‘You have been present today at an historic event[…] The perishing of a remarkable extrasensory power. Leaving behind this mortal husk of mine. Alas.[…] At any moment, I know, it’s bound to come rushing in on me, crushing me, shattering me; I’ll weep, I’ll scream, I’ll bang my head against walls. But for now I’m surprisingly cool. An oddly posthumous feeling, as of having outlived myself. And a feeling of relief: the suspense is over, the process has completed itself, the dying is done, and I’ve survived it. Of course I don’t expect this mood to last.’ (pp. 146-7)

‘There’s David Selig, they must be thinking. How careless he was! What a poor custodian of his gift! He messed up and let it all slip away from him, the dope. I feel guilt for causing them this disappointment. Yet I don’t feel as guilty as I thought I might. On some ultimate level I just don’t give a damn at all. This is what I am, I tell myself. This is what I now shall be. If you don’t like it, tough crap. Try to accept me. If you can’t do that, just ignore me.’ (p. 189)


Mark said...

Great to see you back with another insightful review. I read "Dying Inside" early last year. A terrific book, even if it does contain one of the most miserable characters in SF. Even though he could read thoughts, he never really seemed to be able to sustain a meaningful relationship with anyone.

My SF reading had slowed down of late - too much in too short a time span. Taking a break with a popular science book about trees. Neat stuff. I'll be back on the SF soon.

Diamat said...

Hi Mark, hope you're well. You're very kind. I've just put the review through a revision for sense, meaning and grammar as it was full of typos and glitches. It was hanging over my head for the best part of a month and I just wanted to be shot of it in the end.

I too have struggled to find time to read SF recently and have been absorbed in WWI aviation, English Civil War titles, and a biography of Alasdair Gray.

Did the book on trees grow on you? :)

Mark said...

Yes, like an epiphyte ;)

Mezamashii said...

I love your classic sci fi reviews!

Diamat said...

Hi Mezamashii. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. As you'll have noticed, my work rate on SFFMWS is pretty feeble, but I only write when I feel I understand what a novel is saying to me, and only then if I have something to say about it.