Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg (1972)
David Selig was born with an awesome power – the ability to look deep into the human heart, to probe the darkest truths hidden in the secret recesses of the soul. With reckless abandon, he used his talent in the pursuit of pleasure. Then, one day, his power began to die…
Universally acclaimed as Robert Silverberg’s masterwork, ‘Dying Inside’ is a vivid, harrowing portrait of a man who squandered a remarkable gift, of a superman who had to learn what it was to be human.
Blurb from the ibooks 2002 paperback edition.
It is Manhattan, 1976 and David Selig is looking back on his life, a story which is delivered to us in first person, sometimes personally addressing a long-lost love in the hope that she may be reading this, and now and again objectively and dispassionately in the third person.
Selig is 42 and confesses immediately that from an early age he was able to read the thoughts of others, although apparently unable to project his thoughts into their minds.
Now, Selig realises that his talent is waning and his ability to delve into the thoughts of others diminishing day by day.
Previously, novels which have dealt with telepathy are most often associated with Homo Superior; generally benign upgrades on Homo sapiens for whom telepathy is an essential tool for communication and understanding.
Silverberg presents a different view in that Selig’s talent makes him anything but superior. At a very early age he realised that he was different and learned to hide his telepathy from everyone. Growing up, the very ease with which he is able to analyse others’ motives and opinions prevents him from developing the social skills with which to initiate and maintain real relationships.
During the course of the novel he encounters one other like himself, Tom Nyquist, a man seemingly at ease with his telepathy and with whom Selig shares an uneasy friendship, since the freakish talent is one of the few things they have in common. Nyquist has no qualms about exploiting his talent to work the stock-market, lifting sensitive share information from the minds of those in the know and selling the tips on to a regular cadre of investors.
Selig employs his talent only to produce written-to-order term papers for students at a local university, tailoring the essays to their individual strengths and weaknesses and guaranteeing them a minimum mark of B+.
The only other person in Selig’s life – his adopted sister Judith – is bound to him by both familial relationship and her long experience of Selig’s talent. It is interesting that Silverberg has created this character as a sister only in name (i.e. not genetically connected) and yet still taboo in terms of a true sexual relationship one presumes, particularly within an orthodox Jewish community.
Their relationship is a prickly yet indissoluble one, and as John Clute points out in his scholarly foreword to this volume, he has ‘married her more deeply than any man she sleeps with’.
Selig’s insights into the human soul give him a unique view of the human condition, mostly depressing since he is able to see the truth behind the smile; the hidden motives underlying seemingly kind words and actions.
His one experience of true happiness within a human mind occurred in his childhood where he slipped into the mind of a farmer, experiencing the old man’s almost Buddhist sense of enlightenment and oneness with the natural world around him.
On another level, as Clute notes, the novel is very much autobiographic. Selig=Silverberg. The two men are the same age, have the same religious ethnic background and inhabit the same geographical territory. Selig, although he fails to realise it, is a writer, if not a poet, himself. It is easy to see Selig’s telepathy as a metaphor for the process of writing, the process of ‘getting into someone else’s mind’ at a time when Silverberg was at the end of a decade of furious production, having published some twenty novels and countless short stories over the previous ten years.
Selig’s fading talent eventually sputters and dies, engendering a personal crisis and a downbeat finale, but one which shows a new beginning for Selig in which he fumblingly begins the forging of relationships based on superficial trust.