I was first made aware of this novel in some of the online chat surrounding the lack of well-known works of SF by female writers. It was suggested that it is a fine companion to Robert Silverberg’s (excellent, in my opinion) Dying Inside. In Silverberg’s novel, the main character, a telepath, finds that his powers, far from making him a god amongst men, leave him suffering the same problems as the ungifted and, indeed, are often a hindrance to him feeling fulfilled.
Similarly, Nicholas Dal, the writer of the journal of the title is not actually telepathic, but rather a telempath. This power gives him the unwanted ability to feel what those around him are feeling and makes his life incredibly difficult as he struggles to form and maintain relationships. His power makes him too sensitive to the inner feelings of those around him. The problems that this ability brings are highlighted through his damaged relationship with his mother. His father also gifted, shared his Miranda his wife, with the young Nicholas, leading him to struggle with sexual relationships with women.
It had been suggested by a psychiatrist that the young Dal had an Oedipal complex, but he and we know that the problem runs deeper than this. His confused feelings here aren’t as a result of any great desire for his mother, rather that his relationship with her was tainted by his father’s love for her and the intensity of the feelings that he had.
This is a particularly intense demonstration of the problems faced by Nicholas, due to his family curse. This leads Nicholas to drink vodka to excess. Nicholas is the son of a Russian emigre family, but the drinking of vodka isn’t in any odd hat tip to the country of his forbears, rather it just allows him to blot out any unwanted thoughts that may be broadcasting his way.
Much like Silverberg’s novel, though it is made pretty clear that the ability to feel what other people are feeling is not desirable, it doesn’t take this conceit and make Dal’s life an unrelenting grind. Though one would imagine to him that it may feel like that! At some points, Kennedy shows the real highs that he is able to reach through his ability. This is never more obvious than at the point where he meets Jack. She is a fellow student on the course that Nicholas is attending.
In the best possible circumstances, falling in love with anyone is a dangerous thing for Nicholas. Not least with the baggage that he brings to the relationship himself. But Jack (not, as he’d thought, Jacqueline, but Susanna) has problems of her own; it transpires that her mother is terminally ill and that her father’s inability to deal with it properly is leading to the break up of her family. Despite the emotional difficulties that Jack brings to her relationship with Nicholas which she can’t know quite how badly they’ll affect him, her time spent with him provides some of the most affecting an intense passages of the book.
This is because his empathic abilities allow him to give himself to her completely and in the way that she desires. This doesn’t, of course, suddenly make his life perfect. He still has to contend with the problems wrought by his dubious gift and though he does quickly gain Jack’s heart it doesn’t always seem that he is properly opening up to her.
Dal’s problems don’t stop here. The title of the novel The Journal of Nicholas the American points to a further problem that he has. Though he is indeed an American. He was born there and speaks fluent English – naturally – he still seems an outsider to many. This is without them realising that the barriers that he erects, the obvious drinking and his more personal decision to have a vasectomy and end the line, because the tendency of his family to speak Russian at home and (as Jack wrests from him) his thinking in Russian means that he speaks a heavily accented English and he is identified by his countrymen as being the other.
‘I stopped at the liquor store and the clek with the rocky, athletic face was working behind the counter. How I hate him! He sees me too clearly. I used to think that he had the Dal sensitivity, but I could never feel it. I have stopped searching for others like me, anywa, but he just seemed to see right through me. He’s ugly inside, so smug and sure that I am an alcoholic. He smells foreignness on me, and once asked where I was from. When I told him I was born in St Luke’s Hospital in Denver, he just said ‘huh,’ and never spoke to me personally again.’
This separation is, of course, what he desires, but it is still an intensely lonely way for him to live.
Always preying on his mind is the fear that his ability may come to the notice of scientists and that they will wish to study his ability that someone may use him and profit from him – he is warned by family that he may be treated as a freak for the amusement and entertainment of others. The possibility that he may be being tracked down leads him to have a secretive existence and to run away from this problem, rather than confront it.
Much of the novel is pretty grim, almost unrelentingly so, in fact. Partly this could be seen as being a product of Kennedy’s decision to use the device of a journal to tell Nicholas Dal’s story. However, despite some of it being uncomfortable to read, I think that this choice has worked for Kennedy. Indeed, the fact that some of it is uncomfortable is a testament to her ability as a writer.
Some may complain that all this heartache, deception and introversion leads to a thoroughly selfish and self-pitying character who makes choices for stupid reasons. Well, he is. But then, really, who isn’t sometimes? Though Kennedy is exploring a fictional ability, we are all able through less SFnal or supernatural means, able to empathise with other people and this can often be painful. Everybody has been, at some point in their lives, stupid or selfish even with the best of motivation.
As both an excellent piece of SF (though with a light touch) and a good examination of human relationships, I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for something new to read. This novel deserves a wider audience than it seems that it has had. Wonderful stuff.