“Being There”

Being There 01.jpg

Jerzy Kosinki’s third novel, published in 1970.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Chance has lived his whole life as the Old Man’s gardener; only connected to the outside world through television. When the Old Man dies, Chance is cast out on his own and, within a week, becomes one of the most influential men in America.

Being There isn’t a short book because Kosinki is deft with words; it is a short book because it lacks content. The premise is intriguing (a naive, television-raised man released into New York City) but Kosinski makes no effort to maintain interior logic. Fables and satire must still be able to stand as narratives when symbol and metaphor are removed (see Animal Farm, my friends). Kosinski gives the reader nothing to hold onto. His satire is obvious and thin, his metaphors are often incomprehensible, and his dialogue is wretched.


[1] From the start, Being There is downright difficult to understand:

In this colored world of television, gardening was the white cane of a blind man.

(p.5)

It sounds good. In fact, it sounds almost poignant, but I can’t understand the metaphor being made. Sort of like this:

When one was addressed and viewed by others, one was safe. Whatever one did would then be interpreted by the others in the same way that one interpreted what they did. They could never know more about one than one knew about them.

(p.29)

[2] The text never sounds natural. It has the plodding non-rhythm of a poor translation:

As long as one didn’t look at people, they did not exist.

(p.12)

[3] …and the dialogue is bone-stiff with exposition awkwardly shoved in:

“True,” he murmured to his assistant, “there were very few people employed here; he retired from our firm at the age of seventy-two, more than twenty-five years ago, when his broken hip immobilized him. And yet,” he said, “in spite of his advanced age, the deceased was always in control of his affairs.”

(p.15)

 

“I am Mrs. Benjamin Rand. I am called EE by my friends, from my Christian names, Elizabeth Eve.”

(p.26)

People don’t talk like this. People didn’t talk like this in 1970.

[4] The only element that half-works is Chance. Everything awkward and stilted in him fits for a man raised by television; this character would be so endearing if he had been placed in a better story. A fix for Being There may have been to tell it in first person from Chance’s point of view. The awkwardness could have then be interpreted as his perspective.

“I can go to the attic and choose any of the Old Man’s suits. They all fit me very well. Look.” Chance pointed to his suit.

(p.17)

 

He expected the injection to be painful, but he did not know how to show that he was afraid.

(p.28)

 

Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate.

(p.31)

[5] I wish Kosinski had written in his native language and then had a translator work it into English. It would have had to come out better than this:

The annual meeting of the Financial Institute opened in an atmosphere of expectation and high tension, following the disclosure that morning of the rise in national unemployment to an unprecedented level. Administration officials were reluctant to divulge what measures the President would propose to combat further stagnation of the economy. All of the public news media were on the alert.

(p.47)

[6] The moments of Depth and Meaning fall flat to me: they seem obvious and trite (when they make sense at all):

Of all the manifold things there were in the world – trees, grass, flowers, telephones, radios, elevators – only TV constantly held up a mirror to its own neither solid nor fluid face.

(p.53)

[7] Reference:

“Do you by any chance like Krylov’s fables?”

(p.75)

Ivan Krylov (1769 – 1844) is Russia’s best known fabulist and probably the most epigrammatic of all Russian authors. While many of his earlier fables were loosely based on Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s, later fables were original work, often with a satirical bent.

[8] Vocabulary:

“One doesn’t want to work things out too finely, does one? I mean – not for the videots.”

(p.79)

I think this is just a combination of “video” and “idiots.”

[9] The finest passage in the book and the only point where I felt sincerity from Kosinski:

He wanted to tell her how much he preferred to look at her, that only by watching could he memorize her and take her and possess her. He did not know how to explain to her that he could not touch better or more fully with his hands than he could with his eyes. Seeing encompassed all at once; a touch was limited to one spot at a time.

(p.94)


 

Being There has no conclusion. No character experiences change or growth (hell, Rand isn’t even good enough to die by the end).

I am baffled that this is considered a classic. If you love this book, how did it connect with or change you? Taking away the background of the author and any sentimentality toward the film version, what does the book offer? When did you first read it? Had you seen the film first?

Next week, we’ll start looking at Joseph Heller’s follow-up to Catch-22the equally risky but more difficult Something Happened.

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