Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Ira Levin

Ira Levin was a clever writer. That is his outstanding characteristic. His best book, ROSEMARY'S BABY, is one of the most clever popular thrillers ever written, just a masterpiece of the plotting art, and that's why, I think, a lot of popular writers, especially those who came up in the Sixties admire it so. It is the pleasure similar to the kind of pleasure a pizza man must feel when he chances on somebody else making a really good pie. He knows how hard it is, it's the smile of recognition of another craftsman succeeding at a difficult and demanding trade.

Levin is sometimes praised as being somebody who could capture the zeitgeist, but I think his success in this area is overrated. ROSEMARY'S BABY certainly did, and it's one of the reasons that's his classic, it has a depth the others lack. But the others really do lack it, is the point. Many would cite THE STEPFORD WIVES but we'll get to that, I'm not an admirer. Oddly enough SLIVER really did, but that book will never get any props from anybody.

I'm skipping over A KISS BEFORE DYING, mainly because I irritatingly can't find it here in Philadelphia, although I do remember a time when the damn thing was everywhere, in that Matt Dillon/Sean Young remake tie-in addition. My quick take on it was that it was a decent Hitchockian thriller typical of it's time, with the great plot twist buried neatly about three quarters of the way through it, in a way a forerunner of the kind of games Levin would play later. So check it out, if you're interested.

(I'm going to these books out of order because honestly I just feel like it. Anyway, to reveal my punch line early, the only book of Levin's you really need to read is ROSEMARY'S BABY, that's the book that's going to last. The others? Not so much.)

SLIVER, like I mentioned above, does not and probably never will get any respect from anybody, and reading through it is a tired experience, the feeling of an old pro being shanghaied to do something he really doesn't much like for dismal reasons – our pizza pie man forced to work at Domino's, say. He might still make a pretty good Domino's pie, given the limitations in front of him, or at least a distinctive Domino's pie, but would it be as good as he was capable of?

Actually my analogy comes crashing down right about then as in fact one of the problems with SLIVER is that it's trying to be a sordid NYC sex thriller and it's remarkably bad at it. Read a lot of Levin and you'll see exactly what I mean – he was rather, ah, “gentlemanly” about the fairer sex. He's not the guy to be writing how his 38 year old divorce heroine is masturbating in the tub, sorry, that takes a certain kind of something that he, to his credit or not, just didn't have.
What SLIVER did do is oddly something that's not much talked about – Levin absolutely nailed the coming age of voyeurism. His bad guy spies on the members of his apartment building with great enthusiasm, a webcam watcher before there were such things. Levin was also clever in forecasting the seductive appeal of this kind of thing, at least to some people, and even offers a plausible reason why (basically the thrill of learning secrets). It doesn't capture the notion that many people would be equally pleased to star in productions for other people to look at (ie, the flip side of voyeurism) but nobody ever seems to have gotten that, so I can't blame Levin, really.
Not a good book, something of a tired performance from Levin, actually, making me wonder if he was short of cash or something. Made into a movie I've never seen with Sharon Stone, supposedly quite hot. The sex scenes, I mean, not Stone particularly, although she was at her hottest around then.

THIS PERFECT DAY – Actually, when I started out with Levin, this was the book I was most curious about, as I vaguely remember looking at it a bit when I was kid and being freaked out (I know, by a book? I was a strange kid). It's a sf book, and seems like a strange entry in the Levin oeuvre, as there was nothing before it that presaged he was interested in such things. But maybe for authors of that period classic sf was so much in the air that you just did one, once you got established, just because you could. I mean, Lawrence Sanders did a SF novel too – no one remembers it but still.

It's an oddly earnest book, without (for the most part) the kind of lightness that usually characterizes Levin when he was on. It really wants to tell you something. It really really really does.

What it wants to tell you, unfortunately, is a lot of digested Ayn Rand crap (her influence on popular culture is unmistakable, unfortunately). Levin paints a pretty much by the book dystopia where culture is controlled from womb to tomb and a few brave rebels want to be free. There's a lot of stuff here about the meaning of freedom, it's virtues, etc – nothing I really disagree with but it's pretty plodding and moralistic, another sign, incidentally, that someone's sipped tea with Ayn Rand. The plot progresses in a pretty basic way, although there's one priceless twist...

...so priceless I'm absolutely convinced the Matrix guys ripped it for the second movie – the one good thing in that movie, the big twist, that the rebellion was itself part of an overarching master plan, a form of containment in and of itself – essentially a combination safety valve and recruitment exercise.

Ie, freedom is prison. It really is a brilliant idea – a plot twist that epitomizes the Orwellian theme. It is, dare I say it, cleverness taken to an art form.

The rest of the book doesn't go anywhere, but I do respect Levin for this.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL – The first part of this, and I mean just the opening, ranks with ROSEMARY'S BABY as some of the best writing I ever saw from Levin. The great bit in the Japanese restaurant in Brazil, which manages to humanize all of these guys (Mengele!) without distracting from the fact that their Nazis, for pete's sake – it ranks with the witches in ROSEMARY'S BABY, and points out one of Levin's great themes, that evil is just the guy or gal next door. (I actually don't believe that at all, but it's one of HIS themes.). The consistent sly joke that this is a story about old men (I suppose a Nazis surviving story in the Seventies would have to be about old men), the sense of a vivid, real world – the opening of this really is pretty good.

Unfortunately the rest of it is rather dull, because outside of this one pretty good idea it doesn't have anywhere to go, really, except to tell a story of Nazi plots to build the Fourth Reich and to be honest, guys, Levin's hearts not in it. There's a lot of stuff here about cloning and nature/nuture arguments, and there's the sly joke left at the end that our hero's sentimentality may have gotten them all killed – but it all feels rather wan and tired at this stage. Again, basically hackwork, although Levin had more substance to him than Sanders, and so obviously wasn't enthusiastically hacking away.

THE STEPFORD WIVES – THE STEPFORD WIVES is a book that feels forced, not to put too fine a point on it. It feels like a very common occurance with authors – a guy who took all the wrong lessons from the success of his previous book (which we'll get to in a second, I promise.)
Let's say you took the success of ROSEMARY'S BABY to mean “I'm interested in parables of modern times clothed in a loose genre framework”. That's not all of what BABY has to offer, an obvious point if you consider how it's lasted past it's moment (how many other Sixties parables really have?) but let's say that was the case. Then, you might say, the natural followup is the same – but more, intensified.

And that's the case here. It's interesting, for instance, that it's much shorter than ROSEMARY'S, more compact in it's telling. That immediately suggests “parable” to me. Also interesting is how the book, unlike ROSEMARY'S, doesn't really hang together as a genre story at all. I'm not talking about the impossibilities of lifelike robots and all that, that goes with the territory of these kind of stories, after all, part of the fun. I'm talking about the central fact of the story – the notion that robots replacing people is inherently scary.

Well, it really isn't – and yeah, I mean that objectively, on it's face. I mean, stop and think about this for a second. This isn't like some kind of possession story or infection story where people become different, where the horror sense is the sense that somebody is now DIFFERENT. This is a story about somebody being replaced by something else – and the obvious rejoiner is “where's the real person at”?

You see what I mean? I don't get what's “scary” about STEPFORD. The best part of the book is the very subtle way the Alan Alda type turns into Just Another Man, but that is very restrained and in the background. The main story is the “scariness” of the feminist types confronting their opposites, and...it's just not scary on it's face. It feels more like a pulp story, like something Doc Savage should be nosing around in.

And that wouldn't be a big deal, really, except that the whole premise of the parable rests on the fact that it IS scary, what's happening. “How are they changing?” and all that. Since nobody's really “changing” at all, there's no real critique here, unlike ROSEMARY'S, which used Satanism as a way to critique what Death of God folk really result in. What seems like a critique of patriarchy, or perhaps a critique of feminist demands against the patriarchy, falls apart due to that hoariest of cliches, a not very good plot. (I won't even get into how the critique isn't even specific but blurred, except to say that that isn't a sign of sophistication, rather it's opposite.)

ROSEMARY'S BABY – Which leaves us with his best book, the one he'll be remembered for. Like a lot of books I cover here this is a minor classic – I make no great claims for it, but in it's small world it reigns supreme.

I'm not going to talk overmuch about it – a lot of it's plot effect (ie, it's paranoia) is better discussed in King's DANSE MACABRE, and a lot of it's sociological effect – overrated as it is – has been discussed by just about anybody who's talked about Polanski's movie, which is, as the press says, very faithful to the source material. What I would like to mention is that it's a masterpiece of plot construction, and one of the reasons that writers, in particular, are fond of this book. Everything fits, it's like clockwork. Even small things...my favorite bit is the bit where, right at the beginning, Rosemary and her husband tour the apartment recently vacated by the now comatose former resident. There's a bit where she sees a letter saying something like: “I thought this was just a mild diversion, now I can't continue” and it trails off. The more we learn about what happens, the more this fairly offhand incident (and it's treated with superb offhand offhandablility) takes on sinister connotations.

Moorcock and friends named this one of the best horror novels, and he has good taste. Worth it.