"The sensory shutdown is not always a willed event, naturally. It happens to us whether we like it or not. If we don't climb into the box ourselves, we'll get shoved in anyway. That's what I mean about entropy inevitably nailing us all in the long run. No matter how vital, how vigorous, how world-devouring we are, the inputs dwindle as time goes by. Sight, hearing, touch, smell-everything goes, as good old Will S. said, and we end up sans teeth, sans eyes, sans tastes, sans everything. Or, as the most clever man also put it, from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale."
David Selig was born with telepathic abilities. As he ages he finds that as his hair goes, as his other senses dim in intensity, so goes his telepathic ability.
He has always hated being different, but when faced with the possibility of losing this ability, that has always made him feel abnormal, he panics. To me David is an early form of GOOGLE. He doesn't have to know anything, because he can simply extract the information he needs from the collected knowledge of other people (the internet). When he takes a test to become a stock broker he finds the answers in the minds of the people around him. He is a lonely man and yet never alone. His entertainment is the thoughts of the people around him. "I find my own company wearisome when I descend into self-pity. To divert myself I try to touch the minds of the passers-by and learn what I can learn. Playing my old game, my only game. Selig the voyeur, the soul-vampire, ripping off the intimacies of innocent strangers to cheer his chilly heart."
David makes a living writing term papers for college students. He uses his ability to probe their minds for the proper vernacular in which the paper must be written to lend authenticity to the plagiarized finished product. He goes to a lot of work for $2.50 a page especially when he has a goldmine waiting to be exploited in his head. David, if he could get passed his own obsession with self-pity, and exploit his ability for financial gain at least one part of his life would be easier. He makes friends with a fellow telepathic named Nyquist who is much more at peace with his abilities and uses his ability to steal stock tips from brokers that can be sold to shady investors. "The trouble with you, Selig, is that you're a deeply religious man who doesn't happen to believe in God." Nyquist was always saying things like that, and Selig never could be sure whether he meant them or was just playing verbal games. No matter how deeply Selig penetrated the other man's soul, he never could be sure of anything. Nyquist was too wily, too elusive."
It is easy for David to get laid, not only is the sexual revolution of the 1960s in full swing, but he knows what he needs to know to say the right things."I scored a cheap pickup in a manner I've always despised: I scanned the various single girls in the big restaurant, of whom there were numerous, looking for one who was lonely, thwarted, vulnerable, sexually permissive, and in generally urgent need of ego reinforcement. It's no trick getting laid if you have a sure way of knowing who is available, but there's not much sport in the chase."
The trick is maintaining relationships. His sister hates him. His ex-girlfriends despise him. His best friend Nyquist steals the one girl he feels he could love for the rest of his life, little knowing he was driving her insane.
There are a plethora of literary allusions through out the book. "November is the cruelest month, breeding onions out of a dead mind. I'm living an Eliot poem. I'm turning into words on a page." Robert Silverberg
Silverberg has been a lifetime voracious reader and it shows.
He mentions poets:
Dante Alighieri, Charles Baudelaire, Robert Browning, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Homer, Rudyard Kipling, Comte de Lautréamont, Stéphane Mallarmé, Pindar, Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, Lord Tennyson, Thomas Traherne, Paul Verlaine, W. B. Yeats.
He mentions painters:
Hieronymus Bosch, Simone de Beauvoir, Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Koestler, Laozi, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Marx, Michel de Montaigne, Bertrand Russell, Henry David Thoreau, Arnold Toynbee
He mentions scientists:
Alfred Adler, William Bates, Edgar Cayce, Sigmund Freud, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Carl Jung, Timothy Leary, Wilhelm Reich, Joseph Banks Rhine, Immanuel Velikovsky, Norbert Wiener, Karl Zener
A book that had me speculating about what I would do with such an ability, time traveling me back to the days when I read comic books and dreamed about having abnormal abilities. David fought against his ability clear up until the first signs appeared that he may lose it, and then he fought like crazy to keep it. Some will find this book dated. It was published in 1972, but I found it to be a time capsule, a historical document of not only a place, but also where we were politically and socially. A quick read, and yet, profound with bottomless depth.
If anyone has recommendations as to other Robert Silverberg's I should read. Please share. The First Edition I was fortunate to find.