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Being There ()

Though it's something of a one-trick pony and now widely acknowledged to have been plagiarized from a Polish novel of the 1920's, The Career of Nikodem Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz, there are still a couple of worthwhile messages in this slender fable.  Chance the gardener has never left the grounds of the estate where he works.  He never knew his parents and hardly has any contact with his wealthy employer, the Old Man.  The only other human contact he's really ever had was with housekeepers.  So everything he knows about life and the world outside the garden he has learned by watching endless hours of television.  Then one day the Old Man dies, Chance can't prove to the lawyers that he was actually employed by the Old Man, and he's unceremoniously turned out of the house.

Almost immediately, he is struck by the chauffer-driven car of Elizabeth Eve "EE" Rand, who takes him home to be tended to by the same doctors who are caring for her much older husband.  As might be expected from one who has led a hermit-like existence, Chance has pretty limited social skills.  All he really knows to do are to talk about the garden and to try to imitate things he's seen on TV, which actually works out quite well :

    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.  Each time Chance repeated EE's words, she brightened and looked
    more confident.  In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching,
    now his shoulder, now his arm.  Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if
    she were on television.

Of course some miscommunication is inevitable and she and her husband soon think that his name is Chauncey Gardiner and, fooled by the Old Man's suits which he wears, that he too is a wealthy businessman.  Their initial dinner conversation is fairly representative of the pattern which recurs throughout the book :

    In deciding how to behave, Chance chose the TV program of  a young businessman who often
    dined with his boss and the boss's daughter.

    'You look like a healthy man, Mr. Gardiner,' said Rand.  'That's your good luck.  But doesn't this
    accident prevent you from attending to your business?'

    'As I have already told Mrs. Rand,' Chance began slowly, 'my house has been closed up, and I do
    not have any urgent business.'  He cut and ate his food carefully.  'I was just expecting something to
    happen when I had the accident.'

    Mr. Rand removed his glasses, and polished them with his handkerchief.  Then he settled the glasses
    back on and stared at Chance with expectation.  Chance realized that his answer was not
    satisfactory.  He looked up and saw EE's gaze.

    'It's not easy, sir,' he said, 'to obtain a suitable place, a garden, in which one can work without
    interference and grow with the seasons.  There can't be too many opportunities left any more.  On
    TV ...' he faltered.  It dawned on him.  'I've never seen a garden.  I've seen forests and jungles and
    sometimes a tree or two.  But a garden in which I can work and watch the things I've planted in it
    grow...'  He felt sad.

    Mr. Rand leaned across the table to him.  'Very well put, Mr. Gardiner--I hope you don't mind if I
    call you Chauncey?  A gardener!  Isn't that the perfect description of what a real businessman is?  A
    person who makes a flinty soil productive with the labor of his own hands, who waters it with the
    sweat of his own brow, and who creates a place of value for his family and for the community.
    Yes, Chauncey, what an excellent metaphor!  A productive businessman is indeed a laborer in his
    own vineyard!'

So it goes with Chauncey mouthing complete inanities and successive hearers, including : Mr. Rand's friend, The President of the United States; a television audience; and the Soviet ambassador; all adding their own gloss to what he's said, hearing what they wish to hear.  Likewise, in scenes with a gay man at a party and with EE in his own bedroom, Chance responds to sexual overtures by saying that he just likes "to watch," and these willing partners enjoy completely satisfying experiences without his actual participation.  Ultimately the society that Chance emerges into is one where he succeeds simply by being there, other people are so self-absorbed that he is merely incidental to what's going on even if it's a conversation or sex.  There is no true interaction between people; he might as well still be watching television.

That angle works for me.  It is a powerful critique of the culture.  But he doesn't really go anywhere with it and the scenes of him saying one thing and people hearing another get a mite repetitious.  Nor does he do much with the biblical allegory that he's set up.  You've got the parentless Chance being expelled from the Old Man's garden, and the prospective mate named Eve, but then what?  The film at least ends with him walking on water, become the new messiah, but the book just tails off.  Likewise, I'm with him on modern man being raised on television and ending up an idiot, but is that it, end of story?

We're left with a mildly funny novella, that makes a couple of telling points, but leaves the reader hanging.  It has the feel of a sketch or an unfinished novel.  One hates to be too uncharitable but maybe Kosinski needed to plagiarize more than just the premise of the book, some further plot developments and a conclusion would have helped.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Jerzy Kosinski (3 books reviewed)
Eastern European Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "jerzy kosinski"
    -PROFILE :  In Novels and Life, a Maverick and an Eccentric (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
    -Literary Research Guide: Jerzy Kosinski (1933 - 1991)
    -Jerzy Kosinski (1933-91)(American Literature on the Web)
    -Jerzy Kosinski Home Page
    -Jerzy Kosinski Virtual Ave
    -Kosinski Web Page
    -Jerzy Kosinski Chronology
    -LINKS :  Resources for Jerzy Kosinski (Engaged Learning Project)
    -ARCHIVES : "jerzy kosinski" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Historical Analysis of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird
    -ESSAY : Jerzy Kosinski's Peculiar Literary Fascination With Transsexual Women  (Dallas Denny,
    -ESSAY : The Dialectics of Getting There:  Kosinski's Being There and the Existential Anti-Hero (Scott C. Holstad, Department of English, California State University)
    -ESSAY : Jerzy Kosinski :  Writing by Chance and Necessity (William Gallo)
    -REVIEW : Jun 1, 1967 Neal Ascherson: Chronicles of the Holocaust, NY Review of Books
       Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner and Preface by Simone de Beauvoir
       The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
       They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe
       Resistance Against Tyranny edited by Eugene Heimler
       The Murderers Among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs by Simon Wiesenthal
    -REVIEW : February 27, 1969 D.A.N. Jones: Lean Creatures, NY Review of Books
       Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
       Up by Ronald Sukenick
       Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
       Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room by Janet Frame
    -REVIEW : Jul 1, 1971 V.S. Pritchett: Clowns, NY Review of Books
       Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
       Being There by Jerzy Kosinski
    -REVIEW : of  By  PINBALL. By Jerzy Kosinski (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of PINBALL By Jerzy Kosinski (Benjamin DeMott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Hermit of 69th Street By Jerzy Kosinski  (WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE HERMIT OF 69th STREET The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky. By Jerzy Kosinski (John Calvin Batchelor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of JERZY KOSINSKI A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Louis Begley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (D. G. Myers, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan (Steven E. Alford)
    -REVIEW : of  Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan (LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of  Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Edward Neuert, Salon)

    -INFO : Being There (1979) (imdb)
    -BUY IT : Being There (1979) VHS (
    -REVIEW : of Being There  (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -ESSAY : on Being There (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Being There (1979) (Pedro Sena)

    -AWARDS : National Book Award Winners