We Are All Chance—and Not

Being ThereI just read Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There. Its studied deepness is strangely compelling.

The book is very short: 140 pages with loads of white space. I’m a slow reader, but I think it took me less time to read it than it had taken to watch the filmed version.

The film is very true to the novella. At least it is in terms of plot. The film hits the satire harder than the book. And the book is, of course, much more clear because the reader is inside Chance’s head.

The only important plot difference is that the ending in the book makes much more sense. The movie ends like this:

In a conversation with karl, I had said that I liked vague endings (which is true) and I gave Being There as an example (it isn’t). The ending of the film now strikes me as tacked on as though the producers were trying to tie down the ending: see, he’s Jesus. Or some other hero who will save us all. Chance is anything but.

The book ends much more satisfyingly. Chance is at a high toned party:

He crossed the hall. Chilled air streamed in through an open window. Chance pushed the heavy glass door open and stepped out into the garden. Taut branches laden with fresh shoots, slender stems with tiny sprouting buds shot upward. The garden lay calm, still sunk in repose. Wisps of clouds floated by and left the moon polished. Now and then, boughs rustled and gently shook off their drops of water. A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace filled his chest.

It wasn’t until I read this paragraph that I understood what the title Being There meant—maybe because I’m slow. Chance is the only one in the novella who is operating always in the present tense. Most of the book is spent with him problem solving: doing what must be done to keep the meals, lodging, and TV going. Unlike in the movie, he has no interest in being a gardener; that was just what he used to do for a living. Now, people are asking him questions about any number of complex issues and he answers as best he can with the only knowledge he has: gardening and TV watching.

There is one scene that is in the movie, but isn’t particularly important. A publisher asks Chance to write a book. Chance tells him that he can’t write. He goes further and tells him that he can’t even read. The publisher, like everyone else in the film, hears metaphor in everything Chance says. That’s good satire, but it has much greater meaning in the book. Chance specifically does not admit to being illiterate to his benefactors, the Rands, because he remembers that illiterate people on TV are looked down upon. He has no problem offering this information to the publisher because the publisher has no effect on securing his living.

Another problem with the film is the role of Dr. Robert Allenby. He is a very minor character in the book. In the film, he is the only person who figures out that Chance is just a gardener. In the book, no one figures it out. In fact, no one can figure it out. Chance is like a cube that sneaks into flatland. Everyone is too busy making sense of a chaotic world; they can’t even see this chaotic world now, if they ever could.

When I first watched the film as a kid, I wondered if Chance would really go on to be president. And I wondered about the fact that he has no documentation and what this would do to his chances. No such thoughts occur when reading the book. It is clear very early on that unless he is kicked out of the Rand house, he will continue to eat his meals and watch TV. And that’s it. He did go on TV once, but that seems to be because he wanted to see what happened to his body and if he would split into two people: the normal person and the TV person. After that, many people want him on TV but he says no to them all.

There are other aspects of the novella, of course. There is our lionization of TV celebrities. There is our tendency to talk around each other. There is our admiration of the unknown. But mostly, the book works because it distills our shared desires. At heart, we are all Chance, but in practice, we are everybody else.