Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There was a reasonably popular bookclub book, at least in part because it’s short and thus most people could read it in full (and some even read it twice!). Several of us had also seen the film (screenplay also by Jerzy Kosinski). Reactions to the book at bookclub varied, from those who found it deeply profound to those (including me) who didn’t quite get it and weren’t sure what they were meant to “get” either.
A brief synopsis: Chance is a simpleton who works as a gardener for an old man (relationship unspecified) and spends his spare time watching television. His existence is completely unknown outside of the house and garden where he lives and works (no birth certificate, no record of existence anywhere), and when the Old Man dies, the lawyers who take possession of the property evict him. Through luck, Chance is taken into the house of a rich, influential couple, who assume he is someone of knowledge and power because of his calmness and the high quality of the hand-me-down clothes from the Old Man. His statements about life in the garden are assumed to be deeply meaningful allegories; his knowledge of human behaviour as shown on television meshes with the expectations of those around him, and he is feted by both reporters and politicians.
Reviews on Amazon talk about the biting satire evidenced in the book; the bookclub members spent more time talking about the metaphors. Chance goes from being literally nobody, with no identification, and no real name, to somebody important simply due to luck – an exaggerated version of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. People see in him what they wish to see – the wife of the businessman invents a romantic past for him, the Soviet Ambassador thinks he speaks Russian and understands Krylov, the US President considers him as the next candidate for Vice-President – despite there being no actual basis for any of these assumptions.
I found the book rather too over the top for my taste; the film was better and more detailed. Peter Sellers made Chance believable where the book shows the holes in the fable. Other bookclub members loved the book though and enjoyed figuring out the metaphors and wondering which bits of the book were inspired by which parts of Jerzy Kosinski’s life. We spent a bit of time discussing what changes would have been required in the book were it written today, rather than in 1971. Television is a lot less coy now and Chance’s reactions to the attempted seductions might be different. All in all, I’d rather see the film again than read the book again.