Title: Being There
Author: Jerzy Kosinski
Published: 2007 (first published on 1970)
Publisher: Grove Press
Number of Pages: 140 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.
You can read the opening and closing lines of the book at firstandlastlines blog.
Being There is the story of Chance, who’s a gardener working for an old man. He doesn’t have a family, he’s never left the house his entire life, and all he does pretty much is tend the garden and watch TV. And then, after the man he works for dies, he has to move out because there are no records of him working there or living there or even existing at all. On his first day out, Chance is in a car accident and ends up living at the home of an ill, wealthy businessman. After that his life changes.
The books is described as “a satiric look at the unreality of America’s media culture,” but I think this story could have pretty much taken place anywhere. As soon as he starts communicating with the outside world, people start making assumptions about Chance. As events unfold, he goes by what he knows about gardening and what he saw on TV, without ever lying to anyone. But, of course, people see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe, and him not talking much about himself makes him even more irresistible.
As long as one didn’t look at people, they did not exist. They began to exist, as on TV, when one turned one’s eyes on them.
That’s exactly what happens to Chance. All of a sudden, he’s the right hand of the wealthy businessman, and even the president ends up quoting him in his speech. It really shows how people are fascinated by a few simple remarks just because they understood it the way they wanted to. Chance learning everything from TV and proceeding in real life according to what he “learned” from TV was a bit over the top in some parts… But when you look around and see people who want to be Carrie Bradshaw, try hard for it and believe it, it all makes sense.
P.S. I found out Kosinski stole the idea from a 1920’s Polish Novel called The Career of Nikodem Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz. Although I haven’t read this one, it doesn’t make Being There any less great for me.