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Being There by Jerzy Kosiński

Being There (1971)

by Jerzy Kosiński

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,560277,013 (3.76)74
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If you listen to audio books you will enjoy this classic performance by Dustin Hoffman. Perhaps you are familiar with the film based on the novel; if you are unfamiliar with the short novel itself, here's your chance to experience a truly insightful and compelling work of literature through the voice of an outstanding actor.

And from what author Jersy Koskinski writes in the first few pages, a reasonable take on the back-story goes like this: main character Chance’s mother died in childbirth, probably giving birth in the lawyer-father’s house so as to leave no record or documentation (as opposed to hospital record-keeping) since the old lawyer aimed to avoid anything official about his being the father. And then over the next several years, probably the result of some type of brain-damage, observing the baby develop (or not develop), the little boy is labeled simple-minded.

And, thus, when the simple-minded little boy grows into a simple-minded big boy, we read how the lawyer-father decrees: “Chance must limit his life to his quarters and to the garden; he must not enter other parts of the household or walk into the street. . . . Chance would do exactly what he was told or else he would be sent to a special home for the insane where, the Old Man said, he would be locked in a cell and forgotten.”

There you have it – what French philosopher Michel Foucault calls a normalizing judgment: don’t deviate from what we decide is normal or we label you as mad and lock you away. Nothing like an ominous threat to keep your simple-minded son within the walls of your property, spending his life tending the garden and watching TV in his room.

But what happens years later, when the simple-minded boy becomes a handsome, well-mannered, simple-minded man in his 30s and is ordered to leave the house and garden when his lawyer-father dies and doesn’t leave a word about his son in his estate plan? Thus we have the starting point for Jersy Kosinski’s novel, a novel that proves page-by-page to be a caustic satire on modern society and individual identity.

No sooner does Chance leave the old man’s house then he is hit by a limousine owned by one Benjamin Rand, a wealthy business tycoon with political connections reaching up to the president. Since the novel is written in objective third-person, we are given a clear view of how everybody around Chance aka Chauncey Gardner is duped by his honest, straight-forward manner and his speaking about his gardening and watching TV as he answers questions on such topics as the economy and international politics and life and death. Such is the power of projecting what one wants to see and hear onto a person who is a perfect tabula rasa, a blank slate.

By way of example: Chance at dinner talking to Benjamin Rand about his recent expulsion from house and garden and dealing with his current life. Rand takes Chance’s comments about Chance’s gardening as a metaphor for business production and he takes Chance’s statement “. . . all that’s left is the room upstairs” (the room on the 2nd floor Rand provided Chance to recover from the auto accident) as Chance speaking about his own death.

In a way, what follows in the novel is a repetition of this misinterpretation of Chance’s simple, concrete words combined with a misreading of Chance’s simple-minded emotional neutrality. And with each misinterpretation and each misreading, Chance’s importance within the political and economic sphere along with perceiving him as a profound, insightful, extraordinarily well-educated American is raised several notches.

Now a man of such importance and potential political power requires the American and Soviet governments to run a thorough background check. But what all those high-powered government fact-checkers find for Mr. Chauncey Gardner is zero -- no family, no address, no driver’s license, no service record, no educational, industrial, political affiliations, nothing.

Well, my goodness. We as readers can see what it is like for a person to escapes the categories and structures created by society, a society where there is a place for everyone and everyone in their place, where everyone is automatically assigned specific numbers and definitions and labels and the various powerful institutions within society can exert minute control of each individual’s activity.

Observing the process of categories and structures and how the powers within society disciplines and punishes people who are deemed fit for discipline and punishment, Michel Foucault said, “Visibility is a trap.” Again, Mr. Kosinski’s novel explores what it means for an individual to escape the trap, to be invisible to all society’s numbers and cross-checks. The power people see how Mr. Chauncey Gardner has nothing in his background to work against him and conclude he is supremely qualified for an influential position within the corporate community or high political office. Did I mention the author’s caustic satire about society and politics?

On the subject of identity, knowledge and language, Michel Foucault writes ““Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” Like many 20th century French philosophers, such Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Michael Foucault is concerned with self-expression and exercising freedom and how governments and social institutions restrict expression and freedom.

Who are you? Where did you come from? What did you do ten years ago or twenty years ago? Well, we can consult the files and papers and documents to answer these questions and judge you accordingly. – What?! Any sensitive, thinking person rebels against our very human identity being reduced to numbers and documents. Jersy Kosinski expressed his rebellion in Being There. ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
A decent fable that should be read over the course of a day or two. The characters are points-of-view more than living, breathing people and the novel stops rather than ends. It should not have been a page longer than it is, and even as it is it could lose 20 pp or so. (The Russians become stale pretty quickly.) ( )
  Stubb | Aug 28, 2018 |
A Krylovian fable indeed. ( )
  Jon_Hansen | May 19, 2018 |
The Forrest Gump of big business and politics. ( )
  FoxTribeMama | Aug 25, 2017 |
Still a good story, but decidedly dated. ( )
  Kitty.Cunningham | Jul 19, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jerzy Kosińskiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Marsh, JamesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Timmers, OscarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For KATHERINA v. F. who taught me
that love is more
than the longing
to be together
First words
It was Sunday.
'In a garden,' he said, 'growth has its seasons. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802136346, Paperback)

A modern classic now available from Grove Press, Being There is one of the most popular and significant works from a writer of international stature. It is the story of Chauncey Gardiner - Chance, an enigmatic but distinguished man who emerges from nowhere to become an heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon, a presidential policy adviser, and a media icon. Truly "a man without qualities," Chance's straightforward responses to popular concerns are heralded as visionary. But though everyone is quoting him, no one is sure what he's really saying. And filling in the blanks in his background proves impossible. Being There is a brilliantly satiric look at the unreality of American media culture that is, if anything, more trenchant now than ever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:12 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The story of Chauncey Gardiner--Chance--an enigmatic but distinguished man who emerges from nowhere to become an heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon, a presidential policy advisor, and a media icon.

» see all 4 descriptions

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