Okay, first things first: Dying Inside is not really a scifi book. It’s a rather small story about David Selig, living in the second half of 20th century America. Selig can read minds – only he and one other guy he meets can do this – and his power is diminishing. That’s it. No speculative science, no future worlds, no space stuff, nothing, just one guy who inexplicably can read minds. That’s not a negative, it’s just something candidate readers should know.
Dying Inside easily fits in with earlier scifi, taking mental powers seriously – just like books as diverse as Foundation And Empire (1952), Childhood’s End (1953), The Demolished Man (1953), More Than Human (1953), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) or The Lathe Of Heaven (1971).
In a way, Dying Inside is the most pure of all those: Silverberg doesn’t give justifications for Selig’s powers, there’s no paranormal scientific framework, no Freudian veneer, no nothing. Selig’s powers are a coincidence. On the surface level, it’s just a character study of a speculative character losing his mutant mental power. On top of that, Selig doesn’t do anything spectacular with his powers. He doesn’t try to make money out of it, there’s no action, no mystery plot, no sleuthing. So, space opera fans should look elsewhere for their dose of entertainment.
All these caveats aside: I liked Dying Inside. Why? What’s a way to approach and appreciate this novel? I don’t care much for the approach of Michael Dirda – Washington Post book critic – who points to the easily recognized surface metaphor: yes, Dying Inside is about a character realizing he will die someday, “a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age”. I don’t feel Silverberg has particularly interesting or profound things to say about that shock. So, another approach maybe?
I’d suggest Dying Inside is a kind of speculative White Noise: the narrative voice Silverberg uses is straightforward & ironic. It is a flexible voice though, Silverberg uses all kinds of techniques: first person narrator alternating with that same narrator switching to a third person voice talking about himself (detachment!), fake letters, real college papers, imagined college papers, etc. To dub Dying Inside truly experimental is a bridge too far: in literature in general these techniques were well in vogue by 1972.
Not only the narrative tone reminded me of DeLillo’s 1985 book – also the content did. Dying Inside portrays the inner life of a self-centered academic white American male during the second half of the 20th century, just as White Noise does. David Selig isn’t really a likeable character, and he tends to see others as stereotypes. People calling this novel racist or sexist don’t seem to get the difference between what a character thinks and feels and what this book’s author thinks and feels, let alone that they have a solid grasp on what the novel as a whole tries to convey. Examined closely, Dying Inside is clearly satire – aimed at the human crudeness underneath the layer of intellectual sophistication.
Silverberg drops a lot of names. Mahler, Beckett and Ulysses are mentioned on page 4, and Kierkegaard & Sophocles & Fitzgerald on page 6. At the end of the novel’s 199 pages all these guys (and 2 girls) are mentioned:
Marx, Freud, John Dewey, Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Bosch, El Greco, Kant, Aeschylus, Aristotel, Forster, Bach, Dostoyevsky, Sophocles, Euripides, Brueghel, Harper Lee, L’Avventura, James Joyce, Proust, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Bartok, Stravinsky, Charles Mingus, Dante, Montaigne, Allen Ginsberg, M.G.E. Escher, Schoenberg, “late” Beethoven, Mahler (again), Alban Berg, Bartok, Wagner, Jules Vernes, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Sabatini, Kipling, Sir Walter Scott, Orwell, Fitzgerald (again), Hemingway, Hardy, Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Sturgeon, Clarke, Stapledon, Beresford, Joyce (again), Proust (again), Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Zola, Balzac, Montaigne (again), Celine, Rimbaud, Baudelair, Laurence, Woolf, Freud (again), Jung, Adler, Reich, Conrad, Foster, Beckett, Bellow, Pynchon, Malamud, Mailer, Burroughs, Roland Barth, Thomas Carew, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Hemingway (again), Russel, Pound (again), Malraux, Kierkegaard (again), Sinatra, Updike, Levi-Strauss, Simone de Beauvoir, Verlaine, Mallarmeé, Baudelair (again), Lautréamont, Tennyson, Whitman, Timothy Leary and Shakespeare.
That’s 99 names! Straight from the venerable canon of Western literature & music!
At first I was annoyed by this, but slowly it dawned on me Silverberg was taking a piss on intellectual snobbery. There’s this line two thirds in:
(…) summoned here by way of demonstrating our host’s intellectual versatility, his eclectic ballsiness.
Or this one:
‘Are you a poet?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘You look like one. I bet you’re sensitive and suffer a lot.’
Near the end of the book, there’s a great quote about Henry David Thoreau – a favorite among American intellectuals. In this quote Silverberg combines the intellectual theme with the straightforward sexuality that’s also pretty pervasive throughout the novel. It dismantles and mocks the image we have of intellectual artists.
‘As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence. Silence is audible to all men, at all times, and in all places.’ So said Thoreau, in 1849, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Of course, Thoreau was a misfit and an outsider with very serious neurotic problems. When he was a young man just out of college he fell in love with a girl name Ellen Sewall, but she turned him down, and he never married. I wonder if he ever made it with anybody. Probably not. I can’t imagine Thoreau actually balling, can you? Oh, maybe he didn’t die a virgin, but I bet his sex life was lousy. Perhaps he didn’t even masturbate. Can you visualize him sitting next to that pond and whacking off? I can’t. Poor Thoreau. Silence is audible, Henry.
A few pages later, there’s this, on one of the apparent philosophical themes of Dying Inside: silence, death, decay.
Here’s another little literary gem:
Every sound shall end in silence, but the silence never dies.
Samuel Miller Hageman wrote that, in 1876, in a poem called Silence. Have you ever heard of Samuel Miller Hageman before? I haven’t. You were a wise old cat, Sam, whoever you were.
After the book’s barrage of names, Silverberg drops a name hardly anybody knows, and finally exposes namedropping for what it is: posturing.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s quote on the cover of a serious, artsy edition (“Dying Inside is an artist’s summit that doubles as an allegory of the artist’s quandry”) to me seems to miss the point entirely, because the quote takes itself so, so serious.
Sure, Silverberg wrote a book about someone who has problems with connecting to others – is that an artistic allegory? It seems to me that artists don’t tend to try and connect, but first and foremost try to put forward their vision, their work – singularly. If it resonates with a part of the public, well done, but great artists don’t usually try to cater to their audience. So I’m not sure what quandary Lethem means exactly. If you have an idea about it, feel free to chime in below.
Yes, this novel is many things. It’s about alienation from oneself & from others, mental decay, entropy. It is also about the inability to love, the lust for sex, and guilt and self-pity. But the way I experienced it, Dying Inside is first and foremost about the smugness of intellectual life: students buy ghostwritten term papers, academic standards are lowering, and characters put their highbrow record collection on display to puff up their self-image, just as David Selig feels superior to his sexual partners who aren’t as sophisticated as he is.
Oh, yes, ladies and gentleman, you are in the presence of a well-read man!
It’s not a brilliant book, but Silverberg’s pacing is great. It’s a quick, fun read that’s actually way more sophisticated than the surface sophistication it uses to lure readers in.
Definitely recommended if you’re interested in 70ies slipstream.
The end might be read as a message: don’t get complacent, and don’t be blindsided by habits. I’m sure that’s advice we all could use, not only artists struggling with their quandary.