Reading this book and Kosinski’s first novel The Painted Bird back to back, it’s hard to believe they are by the same author. The plain wording and simple ‘chain of random events’ plots are similar, but the angriness and horror of the first book have given way to a breezy, whimsical humour.
Really a novella, “Being There” is a thoroughly entertaining story of a simple-minded gardener named Chance who inadvertently gets caught up in the highest business and political stratum. His simplistic, garden-themed answers to pointed economic and political questions are taken by his interlocutors and by the media as insightful commentaries, and his fifteen minutes of fame begins.
Like the television he has spent his life watching, Chance has no depth. As Kosinski tells us, “television reflect[s] only people’s surfaces”, and Chance has spent his life watching its depthless reflections and tending his walled garden. His actions are guided by the superficial behaviour he’s seen on TV, and his commentary is based on his experience in the garden.
Kosinski’s simple premise, delivered through a simple gardener, makes us reflect on the nature of our own interactions. Through the book we laugh at our superficiality and are left to ponder the way modern media magnify it. An effective and entertaining commentary in 1971, it is even more relevant and thought provoking today with the proliferation and portability of screens (hinted at in the novel with the TV in the car) and the advent of social media.
There are delightful ironies, for example the phrase “Let’s talk about life!” as it’s speaker stops to light a cigarette, and playful references (the estate lawyer, Thomas Franklin and his assistant Miss Hayes are from the firm Hancock, Adams and Colby - a collection of US presidents, a father of confederation and a secretary of state). Every scene, in fact, is a wonderful combination of simplicity and surrealism that makes us both smile and reflect.
An excellent book that is well worth an afternoon’s effort. Perhaps you’ll even catch the Peter Sellers movie version later that evening on the tube.
on November 23, 2003
To keep this brief. I am a great fan of Being There and have been so for several decades. I would like to express my opinion about the significance of the last scene in the move where Chance walks on water. I believe this to be a complete surprise ending that opens up an entirely new perspective of the book. If anyone has seen the brilliant and hilarious Monty Python's "Life Of Brian" they can appreciate the concept of people perceiving realitly to suite their own desires. "Life of Brian", which came out around the same time as the novel/movie "being there", depicts the Roman empire at the time of Chirst with a demoralized frustrated population of jews desparately seeking a Messiah to end their misery. Brian of Nazareth, a regular innocent joe, is choosen to be the Messiah by a group of people that interprets everything he does as magical and holly. There are several parrallels to "Being There" where Chance, an innocent and dim-witted bystandard, is mistaken by a desperate and corrupt society to be their next "Messiah" and leader. Hence. he walks on water at the end of the movie.
on August 29, 2003
During the time period portrayed by the book, people would hide and not acknowledge their retarded offspring. The author goes to great lengths to show physical similarities between the "old man" and Chauncey "the gardener". The old man's discarded clothing fit Chauncey absolutely perfectly as if they were tailored for Chauncey. Chauncey was not listed as an employee. No one knew who Chauncey's father was. There was no records for Chauncey. People of that time period were not known for taking in retarded strangers, the retarded were either institutionalized or otherwise hidden away. Not even the old man's business parter knew about Chauncey. The only possible explaination for these facts would be that Chauncey was the old man's child. Otherwise you would have to credit the old man, a retired lawyer, of having Chauncey working in his house as a gardener for over 40 years, starting when Chauncey was a little boy, as unpaid slave labor. At the end of the book, Chauncey is himself an old man visiting his garden, just like the "old man" used to do (another parallel drawn by the author). When reading this book, please keep it in perspective of the time period that is represented.
on June 4, 2003
I first became aware of this book as the basis for the remarkable film starring Peter Sellers and Melvyn Douglas. Kosinskiï¿½s book, however, is just as remarkable in its own right.
The hero of the book is Chance, a mentally retarded adult who works as the gardener at the home of a wealthy retired New York lawyer. During the whole of his adult life, Chance has never left the house and garden; his only contact with the outside world is through television, which he watches obsessively. His life changes, however, when his employer dies, the house is sold and he is forced to leave. Chance is slightly injured when he is hit by a car belonging to Elizabeth Eve (ï¿½EEï¿½), the wife of Benjamin Rand, a rich and influential Wall Street financier and a friend of the President. EE, mishearing ï¿½Chance the gardenerï¿½ as ï¿½Chauncey Gardinerï¿½ and mistakenly believing Chance to be a successful businessman, invites him to stay with her and her husband at their home. A series of misunderstandings leads all concerned to believe that Chance is not only a businessman but also an economic prophet. He is invited to speak on national television where he talks about the only thing he understands, gardening. A series of platitudes about the changing of the seasons in the garden is taken to be an extended metaphor forecasting an upturn in the economy, and his supposed optimism strikes a chord with the viewing public. The book ends with the elderly, terminally ill, Rand about to name Chance as his heir and successor, and the President about to nominate him as his vice-presidential running-mate.
The book is short, a novella rather than a novel, of around 100 pages. The style is direct, simple and like a fable. It has been interpreted as a satire on the role of television in the modern age or on the American political system. Those elements are certainly present and were emphasised more in the film than in the book. (In Britain the film was widely taken to be a direct attack on the Reagan administration, even though it was actually made during the Carter years but not released here until after the presidential election). The significance of the book, however, is a deeper one.
In the film, Peter Sellers portrayed Chance as a lonely, pitiable character in late middle age, young only by comparison with his aged employer and the ageing Rand. It is an affecting performance, but subtly different from the Chance of Kosinskiï¿½s book. Kosinskiï¿½s Chance is relatively young, good-looking and emotionally detached from his surroundings. This detachment allows others to treat him as what in German would be called a Wunschbild, that is to say a picture of oneï¿½s wishes, a blank canvas onto which one can paint oneï¿½s own desires. Each of the other characters sees in the supposed Chauncey Gardiner whatever he or she wishes to see. Rand, who has no children with EE and who is estranged from the children of his first marriage, sees him as a potential successor to his business empire and almost as an adopted son. EE, sexually frustrated in a marriage to a much older man, sees him as a lover and a possible second husband after Randï¿½s death. The President sees him as the ideal candidate for Vice-President, a position he has been struggling to fill. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN sees him as a liberal, Russophile capitalist who will use his influence to further east-west relations. The American TV audience see him as the man who will lead them out of recession and into prosperity.
The book certainly is, in part, a commentary on the television age. It certainly is, in part, a political satire. (We can all think of politicians who have the ability to be all things to all men). Most importantly, however, it is a brilliant fable on the human capacity for self-delusion and for seeing others not for what they are but for what we would wish them to be.
on January 18, 2003
I have long been a fan of the movie "Being There," so out of curiousity I picked up this book. First thing I noticed was that it was only about 130 pages, minus a few blanks between chapters, with not many words per page. From there I was somewhat disappointed at the character development which somehow was better pulled off in the movie. I think Peter Sellers is "to blame" for this because he added so many nuances to the main character through his economy of gestures and complete involvement in the project. I also much preferred the Eve movie character to EE of the book because the screenplay and her acting fleshed out her vulnerability much more. An example of this being her telling Chauncey that she is a "shy person," before trying to be intimate with him. I was also disappointed to find out that there was no Street Gang episode nor was there Louise's reaction to Chauncey's being on television. These two scenes, aside from the "I like to watch" scene, were some of the funniest in the picture. Last, but certainly not least, was the somewhat mysterious walking on water scene at the end of the movie which ended the picture on such a sublime note where in the book it is just politicians babbling over the next VP, before going back to the nature metaphors.
Seems like the author, since he also cowrote the screenplay, did better on his second take with this idea and by combining it with the talents of Shirley Maclane, Melvyn Douglass, Hal Ashby, and Peter Sellers made it into a comedy classic.
BTW the only other picture I can say that was better than the book it was based on was "Lost Horizon," but that movie is in its own category altogether.
on September 7, 2002
Jerzy Kosinski, the author of "Being There," had a long career as a distinguished author. After coming to the United States from his native Poland, Kosinski embarked on a writing career spanning nearly three decades. During this period he wrote nine novels and two collections of essays. The awards he collected over these years are too numerous to list here, but he did win an award for turning "Being There" into a screenplay. In the movie Peter Sellers played the role of Chauncey Gardiner (that's Sellers on the cover of the book, by the way). Jerzy Kosinski died in 1991.
If you have seen the film version of this book, you already know what the story is about. Chauncey is a gardener for a wealthy old invalid referred to cryptically as the "Old Man." Poor old Chauncey doesn't have much going on upstairs; he cannot read or write, and his days are spent watching television and working in the garden. The Old Man adopted Chauncey when he was a small child, and maintains an iron grip over his life. Chauncey has never seen the outside world, never interacted with people beyond the gates of the house, or left any trace of himself in the outside world. He's a sort of modern day Robinson Crusoe, isolated on his own private island in the middle of our bustling world.
When the Old Man finally succumbs to his illnesses, Chauncey is left to his own devices in a world he has only seen on television. After a slight accident that occurs a few minutes after he leaves his cocoon, Chauncey finds himself quickly moving up in the world. He is "adopted" by Benjamin and EE Rand, a wealthy family. When Chauncey spouts a few vague aphorisms about gardening, the Rands misunderstand him and begin to believe that Chauncey is a brilliant, wealthy industrialist with intelligent insights into the business world. Chauncey's star continues to climb as every person who meets him, from the president to the Soviet ambassador, thinks he's a charming, insightful man. Chauncey appears on television, his quotes begin to pop up in newspapers, and his name is on the lips of everybody who is anybody. The world is going crazy for Chauncey Gardiner, while Chauncey remains blissfully ignorant of his newfound status. A large part of Chauncey's success comes from his good looks and wearing suits he took from the Old Man. If the image makes the man, Chauncey can't help but succeed.
The back cover of this edition declares that Kosinski's book is a scathing indictment of the media culture, and there is much to back up that assertion in the book. Chauncey's fascination with television is the only way he can relate to those he meets in the larger world. When meeting people, Chauncey remembers how people act on television, and then he mimics their behavior. Since Chauncey is essentially a blank slate (no one can discover anything about him because he has no background), he resembles one of the images he loves to watch on television. Like a television character, Chauncey has no substance. He lives in the present, with no past and no future. It is up to others to fill in the details of Chauncey's existence, and this is exactly what happens when everyone around him projects their own needs and wants on to Chauncey.
A particularly annoying incident in the book concerns a sexual encounter Chauncey has with a partygoer. There is no need for this encounter to take place, and it considerably cheapens the value of the book. Why Kosinski felt this sexual encounter needed to be included is a mystery. Whatever the reason, the addition of this situation dampens the simplicity and innocence of the story.
Overall, reading "Being There" is still a treat. The movie is highly recommended as well. Peter Sellers longed to play Chauncey for years, and does an excellent job with the role. If memory serves correctly, this was Peter Sellers's last film role. If you have already seen the film, be sure and read the book as well.
on June 23, 2002
"Being There" is a cute little book, a modern day fable. Chance (later christened "Chauncey Gardiner", a misunderstood form of "Chance, the gardener") has lived for forty-some years in an abbreviated world. There, he tended the garden of the Old Man, ate his food, and watched television. When the Old Man dies at the beginning, Chance is thrust into the world outside with no tangible proof of his existence: no birth certificate, tax statements, library cards, etc.
Dressed in the Old Man's elegant suits, Chance becomes drawn into the 1960's world of WASP-y social privilege: businessmen, journalists, the President. His simple statements about his garden or the seasons are understood as eloquent, moving metaphors for The Economy or Statesmanship. Repeated in the mouths of politicians and reporters, Chance's words take on a wholly different sort of meaning from that which he originally intended. Thus, the book's premise: that a man can be thrust into the spotlight by the compellingness of his image.
Chance is a mirror, as it were, in which others see only those meanings which they give to him. Moreover, he is a sympathetic figure, explicitly described as within himself, confident, and so a touching hero in today's multimedia age. With all the talk of cameras, looking and penetration, Kosinski's novel could probably delight a film theorist (television is the medium through which Chance learned of the world, and through which he filters his experiences when in the world). For the rest of us, this two-hour read is clever, amusing, and doesn't overstay its welcome.
on February 17, 2002
Every few years I take in a dose of Kosinski, and his time rolled around again, and I chose "Being There." That the novel is disturbing should not be surprising giving Kosinski's body of work. What is surprising about this slender book is the way in which it is disturbing. There is no chilling, psychologically twisted character here. There is, equally, no brutality, of a sexual nature or otherwise. In fact, Chance, the main character, is indeed an innocent -- he has spent his entire life tending to a garden and otherwise confined to one room. He has only interacted with two other people in his entire life -- The Old Man, who took him in when he was just a child, and a maid in the house they live in. And those interactions were minimal at best. Everything that Chance knows about life he has learned by watching television. It is not Chance who is the disturbing factor of this book (however, the confinements under which he lived his life is certainly disturbing); as the story unfolds, we quickly realize that it is the society around Chance which is disturbed -- the society each and every one of us live in. And to the extent that the parable is true, it is a chilling view of ourselves that we see. Unfortunately, the book doesn't hold up the longer it goes on, and, in the end, it becomes a parody of itself more than a satire of society at large.
When the "old man" who took Chance in takes ill and dies, Chance is unceremoniously thrown out of the only home he's ever known. Wearing one of the old man's tailored suits, he leaves the house and is almost immediately struck by a limousine belonging to a rich society type, Elizabeth Eve Rand ("EE"). She takes him home to be evaluated by the doctors who are caring for her much older sick husband, and he ends up becoming their permanent house guest. As Chance, who is dubbed Chancey Gardner by EE, interacts with the household and its visitors, he relies heavily on the only thing he knows of human interactions -- what he's observed of them on tv. Whenever it is necessary to socialize, he recalls a similar situation he's seen on tv, and mimics. The only topic he ever talks about is gardening, as it is the only thing he knows. So, when he tells the President of the United States, who is visiting Mr. Rand, of the annual birth, death and rebirth of a garden, his statement is taken as a metaphor on the state of the economy, and suddenly a business man and financial advisor is born. Chauncey is hounded by the media, becoming a guest on news programs and interacting with chancellors and ambassadors at social functions. He continues his "metaphor" whenever he speaks, and he is deemed a brilliant by his observers. He has become a full blown celebrity.
That this simpleton becomes a celebrated business advisor, via the machinations of the media, is certainly a strong statement by Kosinksi. And while the novel is disturbing in this regard -- and there's no escaping that it is -- I ultimately found it a bit repetitive, a bit shallow in its own development as a story. It's a wonderful premise and, probably, an important book. However, it begins to fall flat the longer it goes on, not finding any new ground to cover once its point is made. Still, a book that deserves a reading.
on December 25, 2001
A brilliant and terse novel about the precarious nature of power and influence, and about the folly of mass communication in a plastic culture. The main character is named "Chance," and that says it all: He's a semiretarded gardener who is fortunately graced with terrific grooming habits, a good set of fine clothes, and a careful pattern of speech. He ends up--totally obliviously--as an advisor to the President of the United States and possibly the next candidate! This book is not only intelligent--it's funny. If only it weren't so darn plausible.
The movie made from this book (also called "Being There") is as good as the book! It stars Peter Sellers, who is phenomenal.
FYI Jerzy Kosinski, the author, also wrote "The Painted Bird," a haunting and violent chronicle of the author's own experience as an accidentally abandoned child during World War Two. It is also noteworthy for its fatalistic emphasis on chance and randomness, on the ultimate meaninglessness and precariousness of personal attachments and identity.
on June 2, 2001
Chance, the mentally handicapped hero of this story, has spent all his life working in the garden. Having never been on the other side of the wall surrounding the house he is living in, he has learned everything he knows about the world and its people from TV. Suddenly launched into the real world, dominated by money and power, Chance accidentally becomes a media superstar. Due to his metaphorical speeches about nature, wrongly interpreted as political statements by everybody, he becomes very popular. His road to success leads him straight to the top. Will Chance's emergence find its end in being the next President of the United States of America?
“Being There“ is a well written satire criticizing American society and the media in particular. Although this novel is fiction, Kosinski included some personal experience he gained. “Being There“ partly is an imaginative projection of his life. Connecting both, satirical and thrilling elements, Kosinski created a story which is worth to be read. The image of modern society mirrored by this novel will still survive in your mind when putting the book down.