Michael Dirda Book Review: 'Dying Inside' by Robert Silverberg

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 9, 2009


By Robert Silverberg

Orb. 302 pp. Paperback, $15.95

David Selig is in his early 40s, with his youthful promise long behind him. A lonely child and a smart aleck in elementary school, he grew up feeling isolated from the rest of the world, happiest with his books. Even at the age of 10, he seemed so maladjusted that his hardworking parents sacrificed to send him to a psychiatrist, to no good purpose. He and his adopted sister have cordially hated each other their whole lives.

At Columbia in the mid-1950s, Selig did reasonably well in his literature classes, and after graduation he went to work briefly in a stock brokerage firm. Over the years he fell seriously in love twice, and both affairs ended disastrously. Most recently, he has been eking out a living by ghost-writing term papers for the Columbia students of the 1970s. He lives by his wits, just above the poverty line, and he is going bald.

He is also losing his ability to read people's minds -- and with it his entire past life, his very sense of self.

In the course of "Dying Inside," Selig meets one other person who can read minds, with whom he forms an uneasy friendship. Neither can transmit thoughts, only receive them. But whereas Tom Nyquist uses his power to make easy money on Wall Street, perceive the secret desires of any woman he fancies and generally enjoy a sybaritic lifestyle, Selig is utterly miserable. He has hidden his extraordinary talent from almost everyone. More often than not, to use it makes him feel a scummy, perverted voyeur.

Paradoxically, his easy awareness of people's inner lives has left him isolated and alone. "Without it I might have been a happy nobody instead of a dismal one." Only when he probes deeply into a person, down past the surface personality into the unconscious, does Selig find that his power brings him an experience of nirvana-like, oceanic oneness. Yet now his special gift has grown temperamental, as variable as the weather. But what can he do? "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."

Now widely regarded as Robert Silverberg's masterpiece, "Dying Inside," first published in 1972, has just been reissued in a handsome trade paperback with a new preface by its author, one of science fiction's most distinguished writers. Yet this book is hardly what most people think of as science fiction. As a character, Selig has more in common with Philip Roth's Portnoy than with the more typical superwarriors of, say, Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers." Instead, Silverberg's novel offers an eerily evocative picture of New York life in the late 1950s and '60s: a time of bisexual professors, swinging singles, Black Power, psychedelic drugs and all-round social and political upheaval. Given Selig's bookishness, the novel is also suffused with buried quotations from T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and many other literary eminences.

Above all, though, "Dying Inside" is a pleasure to read, full of that dry humor so common to melancholic intellectuals. Selig's taste in music, we learn, runs to "pretty austere stuff, thorny, inaccessible: Schoenberg, late Beethoven, Mahler, Berg, the Bartok quartets, Bach passacaglias. Nothing that you'd be likely to whistle after one hearing." At one time he contemplates writing a novel about -- what else? -- alienation in modern life.

Most of the time David Selig addresses the reader in a self-pitying first-person voice, though some sections seamlessly switch to third-person narration. Silverberg is a master of multiple verbal registers, catching perfectly the tone of a term paper on Kafka, the period jive talk of a black basketball player, the flirtatious chatter of cocktail parties, the back-and-forth snapping of a brother and sister, the Yiddish idioms of Selig's parents, the earnest fogyness of a Columbia dean, even the stream of consciousness itself.

Some characters, like Selig's promiscuous sister, Judith, and a racist basketball player, are especially vivid creations. Or take the hip French professor Claude Guermantes:

"He is about 40, just under six feet tall, muscular, athletic; he wears his elegant sandy hair done in swirling baroque waves, and his short goatee is impeccably clipped. His clothing is so advanced in style that I lack the vocabulary to describe it, being unaware of fashion myself: a kind of mantle of coarse green and gold fabric (linen? muslin?), a scarlet sash, flaring satin trousers, turned-up pointed-toed medieval boots. His dandyish appearance and mannered posture suggest that he might be gay, but he gives off a powerful aura of heterosexuality. . . . His voice is soft, purring." Selig ultimately judges Guermantes to be monstrous, and yet many of the man's characteristics -- the carefully tended goatee, the dandyism, the voice -- are clearly borrowed from Silverberg himself.

It's insane that "Dying Inside" should be subtly dismissed as merely a genre classic. This is a superb novel about a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age -- the recognition that we are all dying inside and that all of us must face the eventual disappearance of the person we have been. More and more, as time goes by, our bodies break down, our minds start to lose their quickness, and, suddenly, inconceivably, our best work is behind us.

Early science fiction was frequently hopeful, celebrating eye-popping technology or the acquisition of special mental powers. But by the late 1950s and early '60s such naivete was a thing of the past. Philip K. Dick described a future where everything was rusty or broken, and Daniel Keyes left us in tears at the end of "Flowers for Algernon." Since then, flawed or wounded superheroes have become the norm: From Batman to the Watchmen, they are usually all too human, or even less than human.

As his power leaves him, Selig writes: "I make lists now of the things I once could do that I can no longer. Inventories of the shrinkage. Like a dying man confined to his bed, paralyzed but observant, watching his relatives pilfer his goods. This day the television set has gone, and this day the Thackeray first editions . . . and tomorrow it will be the pots and pans, the Venetian blinds, my neckties." In the end, as Shakespeare said long ago, we are left "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Dirda, who can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com, reviews books each Thursday in Style. Visit his online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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