Sunday, July 19, 2009

Readings 2K9: Dying Inside

Dying Inside
by Robert Silverberg

After reading this book, my girlfriend compared it to The Catcher in the Rye, which she’d had to read in high school; she hadn’t enjoyed that book, either. I found the comparison interesting, because after reading the book I compared it to Malamud and Philip Roth, writers I’d had to read in high school and whose work I hadn’t enjoyed. The point being: this isn’t really a bad book, but it has the earnestness and self-conscious literariness of English class. It aspires to be the sort of book that attains bourgeois respectability.

Another way to put it: this book is the story of a middle-aged telepath in contemporary New York City slowly losing his gift ... and that tells you everything you need to know about the novel. Tone, plot, character, there’s nothing surprising in the book at all. Each individual scene is well-written, but put together you start to notice that you see too easily where it’s all going. Each individual character sounds good when you first meet them, but never really add up to more than a collection of stereotypes: the Black nationalist, the bitchy sister, the One Woman He Truly Loved, and so on. It’s ironic, since the book wants to insist on the value of every individual experience — but presents only well-written stock characters. Even the way the theme of The Depth of Every Individual is brought out is unsurprising (the main character, in a flashback to his adolescence, goes deep into the thoughts of a taciturn farmer, a Man Of The Earth, and finds that Still Waters Run Deep).

The style is solid, the construction — weaving flashbacks into the slow progress of the present-day sequences — effective. But the book never becomes anything more than a stylistic exercise, a series of tropes hit in practised order, all the right notes in all the right order. It’s the sort of book, I think, that attracts a lot of praise when it’s first published, and which slowly loses its luster as the years pass — a pat conclusion, maybe, given the plot of the book, but it’s the only assessment I can give. If you’re looking for literary sf, you could do worse — but you could also do much better.

No comments: