Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg
Posted September 28, 2010on:
Dying Inside is the intimate memoir of David Selig, who had the power to read people’s minds.
As a young child, David realized he could do something other people couldn’t. A bored child, he used his powers to see what girls were thinking, to spy on his parents, and to confuse the school psychologist. We’re so used to stories where a protagonist with special powers is drawn to use their powers for good, it was refreshing to read about a mutant who doesn’t use his powers for good, or bad, or anything except occasional mostly harmless fun. David eased his way through school (he could find the exam answers in the teacher’s mind), through dating (he really knew what women wanted), through many jobs, trials of life, etc. And it’s made him lazy. Why work when you can freelance a little here and there for money? Why stay in a relationship when you know your partner is no longer interested, but you don’t know how to tell her you know? How can you ever have a normal conversation or a normal life when you always know exactly what the person is thinking? He hasn’t been surprised by anything in a long time. He can count on one hand the people he has shared his secret with.
Soon David will be forced to have a “real” relationship with someone, to have a “real” conversation with someone, to enjoy the surprises in life, because his mental powers are waning. Some days he gets static, some days he gets nothing, and he has never been so scared in his entire life.
The story jumps between first and second person perspective, with David mostly narrating his middle-aged life, and Silverberg giving an “over the shoulder” feel to flashbacks to David’s childhood. Sometimes David jumps into second person when talking about his present failures and feelings, as if he can separate himself from the sad, pathetic person he has become. The novel takes place over the course of a year of his life, David attempts to reach out to his estranged sister in a real, honest way, while realizing that he’s wasted his life in more ways than one. This is not one of those books preaching that “mutants” need to use their powers for good. David wasted his life because he never had an honest relationship. He never had that closeness, that intimacy that the rest of us experience. He could look into anyone’s mind, into anyone’s soul, and it made him the loneliest person on earth.
David may be a sad, pathetic character, but in no way is this a sad book. It’s just a story, about a guy who can finally say that he’s normal, and he’s not sure how to feel about it. Feeling “normal” is strange, if it isn’t normal to you.
As with other Silverberg novels I’ve read, I had to keep reminding myself I was reading fiction, as the prose and style of the novel feel more memoir than fiction. There is plenty of drama between David and his sister, but it’s never over dramatic. Brothers and sisters everywhere will recognize the conversations, fights, and tensions between David and Judith as common sibling arguments.
Silverberg could have easily turned Dying Inside into a story about a man with a special power who becomes a superman, who uses his power for good. But David isn’t a superman, he isn’t interested in becoming famous, or helping people. In fact, the idea of “using his power for the good of the world” is never brought up, because I think part of what Silverberg is trying to tell us is that being special is not at all related to the person’s interest in being special. Originally written in 1972, this new printing offers an introduction by Silverberg, who is amused with the memory of presenting his original manuscript to his editor, whose said she was fearful for him while he went through a midlife crisis. Silverberg recounts that this is not a midlife crisis book, but simply a book about changes. Our lives change, our abilities change, and we can be depressed and fearful of the changes, or we can relish the new world that opens up to us if we would only let it. Silverberg’s style comes off as relaxed, but shining with the subtleties that show time and time again his artistic talent as one of the leading authors of our time.
Perhaps it’s the summer blockbuster movie advertising, but I couldn’t help comparing David’s powers to something that would be in an X-Men movie (minus the action), and then thinking about what would happen if Wolverine suddenly came down with a nasty case of rheumatoid arthritis.