I recently left a note in a writer’s manuscript, letting her know that she was mixing tenses and persons. Most of the chapter was in past-tense third-person: “he”, from the view of an outside narrator following along not quite inside the character’s head. However, there was one long paragraph where the future came into focus for a moment, a future that the viewpoint character could not have possibly known.
Mixing viewpoints and tenses can be done, but to pull it off it takes a skilled writer indeed. As I typed a note to the my client, I thought of Dying Inside.
I knew very little about this novel, though I had heard of over the years. The owner of a local used bookshop had mentioned the book to me more than once, naming it an example of a writer’s masterpiece, scribbled at the height of his powers. Unfortunately he didn’t have it in stock, so finally surrendering after several weeks of searching locally, I ordered a copy from Amazon.
The cover is a three-quarters profile view of a man’s face, vaugely semitic-looking with thick sideburns, staring somewhat away from the viewer. A quote by Jonathan Lethem on the cover proclaims how this book is “an ultimate allegory of the artist’s quandary”, a phrase partially contradicted by the author’s preface: he insists the book is not autobiographical, that the plot is not indicative of his fading confidence as an author. He also mentions that he wrote the novel in nine weeks, the last time he ever took so short a time to write a book.
David Selig’s easy access to others’ minds has left him disillusioned with humanity. The thoughts of others frequently reveal them to him as banal, or cruel, or bigoted; but this seems not to trouble him so much as the fading of his own powers, and also the terrifying possibility of being discovered for the telepathic voyeur that he is. A certain amount of guilt seems to keep him from accomplishing anything with his gift: In his early forties, he makes his living by ghost-writing term papers for university students. He reads their souls at the initial, shadowed interview so he can counterfeit their styles, and takes care to write well enough that he can guarantee either a good grade or a refund.
Much of the novel is told in flashback, displaying Selig’s past for us. The gift for language that Mr. Silverberg possesses allows him to slyly change the viewpoint and tenses, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, to indicate detachment, blurring of identity, and even the time in David’s life. It’s unclear to whom the story is being told, or even if it is; a small amount of it is in the form of unsent letters. Reading, I felt a bit like a character in the book who had yet to come on stage.
There are many wonderful, memorable characters in Dying Inside: Judith, the sister who is one of the very few who know about her brother Duv’s abilities; Toni, a past lover who gave him his first (and only) LSD trip in 1968; Nyquist, the only other telepath that David ever met, and to whom David no longer speaks; there are more.
David has an obvious gift, aside from reading minds. The papers he writes to pay his rent and keep food on his table in his small Manhattan apartment are well-written, conveying obtuse analyses of classic literature in a surprisingly readable yet literate manner. As an editor, I make it my job to help writers tell stories they care about in the best way they can, and I found David’s gift to be tragically wasted; the people who pay him couldn’t care less about the work he does (other than getting a good grade), and the professors who read his work will never know his name.
Despite reading almost all of this book on the train — which normally down my reading — I found it easy to get lost in. Being so aware of language and structure while staying absorbed in a story is a rare thing. I found myself stopping occasionally, thinking over this word or that chapter, then slipping immediately back into the text with no trouble or pause. Dying Inside is a masterpiece, an opus. I’ve only read six or seven of the author’s books, and while I hope I’m wrong (maybe there’s an underrated treasure I have yet to discover), I suspect I’ve now read the best of them.
Edit: For those interested in a more comprehensive summary, this review at the Little Red Reviewer has that and more: Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg