Being Thereby Jerzy Kosinski
“A tantalizing knuckleball of a book delivered with perfectly timed satirical hops and metaphysical flutters.” –Time
“A tantalizing knuckleball of a book delivered with perfectly timed satirical hops and metaphysical flutters.” –Time
Being There is a modern classic, 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, 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.
“A tantalizing knuckleball of a book delivered with perfectly timed satirical hops and metaphysical flutters.” –Time
“Being There is one of those rare books which echoes in the mind long after you have finished it. . . . A seminal work.” –John Barkham, New York Post
“One of our most significant writers . . . Kosinski, writing with gorgeous precision, uses his sanity and imagination to create Chance, a fabulous creature of our age.” –Geoffrey Wolff, Newsweek
“Finely wrought . . . insidious with its afterburn . . . [Kosinski] is a masterful artist.” –William Kennedy, Look
It was Sunday. Chance was in the garden. He moved slowly, dragging the green hose from one path to the next, carefully watching the flow of the water. Very gently he let the stream touch every plant, every flower, every branch of the garden. Plants were like people; they needed care to live, to survive their diseases, and to die peacefully.
Yet plants were different from people. No plant is able to think about itself or able to know itself; there is no mirror in which the plant can recognize its face; no plant can do anything intentionally: it cannot help growing, and its growth has no meaning, since a plant cannot reason or dream.
It was safe and secure in the garden, which was separated from the street by a high, red brick wall covered with ivy, and not even the sounds of the passing cars disturbed the peace. Chance ignored the streets. Though he had never stepped outside the house and its garden, he was not curious about life on the other side of the wall.
The front part of the house where the Old Man lived might just as well have been another part of the wall or the street. He could not tell if anything in it was alive or not. In the rear of the ground floor facing the garden, the maid lived. Across the hall Chance had his room and his bathroom and his corridor leading to the garden.
What was particularly nice about the garden was that, at any moment, standing in the narrow paths or amidst the bushes and trees, Chance could start to wander, never knowing whether he was going forward or backward, unsure whether he was ahead of or behind his previous steps. All that mattered was moving in his own time, like the growing plants.
Once in a while Chance would turn off the water and sit on the grass and think. The wind, mindless of direction, intermittently swayed the bushes and trees. The city’s dust settled evenly, darkening the flowers, which waited patiently to be rinsed by the rain and dried by the sunshine. And yet, with all its life, even at the peak of its bloom, the garden was its own graveyard. Under every tree and bush lay rotten trunks and disintegrated and decomposing roots. It was hard to know which was more important: the garden’s surface or the graveyard from which it grew and into which it was constantly lapsing. For example, there were some hedges at the wall which grew in complete disregard of the other plants; they grew faster, dwarfing the smaller flowers, and spreading onto the territory of weaker bushes.
Chance went inside and turned on the TV. The set created its own light, its own color, its own time. It did not follow the law of gravity that forever bent all plants downward. Everything on TV was tangled and mixed and yet smoothed out: night and day, big and small, tough and brittle, soft and rough, hot and cold, far and near. In this colored world of television, gardening was the white cane of a blind man.
By changing the channel he could change himself. He could go through phases, as garden plants went through phases, but he could change as rapidly as he wished by twisting the dial backward and forward. In some cases he could spread out into the screen without stopping, just as on TV people spread out into the screen. By turning the dial, Chance could bring others inside his eyelids. Thus he came to believe that it was he, Chance, and no one else, who made himself be.
The figure on the TV screen looked like his own reflection in a mirror. Though Chance could not read or write, he resembled the man on TV more than he differed from him. For example, their voices were alike.
He sank into the screen. Like sunlight and fresh air and mild rain, the world from outside the garden entered Chance, and Chance, like a TV image, floated into the world, buoyed up by a force he did not see and could not name.
He suddenly heard the creak of a window opening above his head and the voice of the fat maid calling. Reluctantly he got up, carefully turned off the TV, and stepped outside. The fat maid was leaning out of the upstairs window flapping her arms. He did not like her. She had come some time after black Louise had gotten sick and returned to Jamaica. She was fat. She was from abroad and spoke with a strange accent. She admitted that she did not understand the talk on the TV, which she watched in her room. As a rule he listened to her rapid speech only when she was bringing him food and telling him what the Old Man had eaten and what she thought he had said. Now she wanted him to come up quickly.
Chance began walking the three flights upstairs. He did not trust the elevator since the time black Louise had been trapped in it for hours. He walked down the long corridor until he reached the front of the house.
The last time he had seen this part of the house some of the trees in the garden, now tall and lofty, had been quite small and insignificant. There was no TV then. Catching sight of his reflection in the large hall mirror, Chance saw the image of himself as a small boy and then the image of the Old Man sitting in a huge chair. His hair was gray, his hands wrinkled and shriveled. The Old Man breathed heavily and had to pause frequently between words.
Chance walked through the rooms, which seemed empty; the heavily curtained windows barely admitted the daylight. Slowly he looked at the large pieces of furniture shrouded in old linen covers, and at the veiled mirrors. The words that the Old Man had spoken to him the first time had wormed their way into his memory like firm roots. Chance was an orphan, and it was the Old Man himself who had sheltered him in the house ever since Chance was a child. Chance’s mother had died when he was born. No one, not even the Old Man, would tell him who his father was. While some could learn to read and write, Chance would never be able to manage this. Nor would he ever be able to understand much of what others were saying to him or around him. Chance was to work in the garden, where he would care for plants and grasses and trees which grew there peacefully. He would be as one of them: quiet, openhearted in the sunshine and heavy when it rained. His name was Chance because he had been born by chance. He had no family. Although his mother had been very pretty, her mind had been as damaged as his: the soft soil of his brain, the ground from which all his thoughts shot up, had been ruined forever. Therefore, he could not look for a place in the life led by people outside the house or the garden gate. Chance must limit his life to his quarters and to the garden; he must not enter other parts of the household or walk out into the street. His food would always be brought to his room by Louise, who would be the only person to see Chance and talk to him. No one else was allowed to enter Chance’s room. Only the Old Man himself might walk and sit in the garden. 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.
Chance did what he was told. So did black Louise.
As Chance gripped the handle of the heavy door, he heard the screeching voice of the maid. He entered and saw a room twice the height of all the others. Its walls were lined with built-in shelves, filled with books. On the large table flat leather folders were spread around.
The maid was shouting into the phone. She turned and, seeing him, pointed to the bed. Chance approached. The Old Man was propped against the stiff pillows and seemed poised intently, as if he were listening to a trickling whisper in the gutter. His shoulders sloped down at sharp angles, and his head, like a heavy fruit on a twig, hung down to one side. Chance stared into the Old Man’s face. It was white, the upper jaw overlapped the lower lip of his mouth, and only one eye remained open, like the eye of a dead bird that sometimes lay in the garden. The maid put down the receiver, saying that she had just called the doctor, and he would come right away.
Chance gazed once more at the Old Man, mumbled good-bye, and walked out. He entered his room and turned on the TV.
Later in the day, watching TV, Chance heard the sounds of a struggle coming from the upper floors of the house. He left his room and, hidden behind the large sculpture in the front hall, watched the men carry out the Old Man’s body. With the Old Man gone, someone would have to decide what was going to happen to the house, to the new maid, and to himself. On TV, after people died, all kinds of changes took place–changes brought about by relatives, bank officials, lawyers, and businessmen.
But the day passed and no one came. Chance ate a simple dinner, watched a TV show and went to sleep.
He rose early as always, found the breakfast that had been left at his door by the maid, ate it, and went into the garden.
He checked the soil under the plants, inspected the flowers, snipped away dead leaves, and pruned the bushes. Everything was in order. It had rained during the night, and many fresh buds had emerged. He sat down and dozed in the sun.
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. Only then could they stay in one’s mind before being erased by new images. The same was true of him. By looking at him, others could make him be clear, could open him up and unfold him; not to be seen was to blur and to fade out. Perhaps he was missing a lot by simply watching others on TV and not being watched by them. He was glad that now, after the Old Man had died, he was going to be seen by people he had never been seen by before.
When he heard the phone ring in his room, he rushed inside. A man’s voice asked him to come to the study.
Chance quickly changed from working clothes into one of his best suits, carefully trimmed and combed his hair, put on a pair of large sunglasses, which he wore when working in the garden, and went upstairs. In the narrow, dim book-lined room, a man and a woman were looking at him. Both sat behind the large desk, where various papers were spread out before them. Chance remained in the center of the room, not knowing what to do. The man got up and took a few steps toward him, his hand outstretched.
“I am Thomas Franklin, of Hancock, Adams and Colby. We are the lawyers handling this estate. And this,” he said, turning to the woman, “is my assistant, Miss Hayes.” Chance shook the man’s hand and looked at the woman. She smiled.
“The maid told me that a man has been living in the house, and works as the gardener.” Franklin inclined his head toward Chance. “However, we have no record of a man–any man–either being employed by the deceased or residing in his house during any of the last forty years. May I ask you how many days you have been here?”
Chance was surprised that in so many papers spread on the desk his name was nowhere mentioned; it occurred to him that perhaps the garden was not mentioned there either. He hesitated. “I have lived in this house for as long as I can remember, ever since I was little, a long time before the Old Man broke his hip and began staying in bed most of the time. I was here before there were big bushes and before there were automatic sprinklers in the garden. Before television.”
“You what?” Franklin asked. “You lived here–in this house–since you were a child? May I ask you what your name is?”
Chance was uneasy. He knew that a man’s name had an important connection with his life. That was why people on TV always had two names–their own, outside of TV, and the one they adopted each time they performed. ‘my name is Chance,” he said.
‘mr. Chance?” the lawyer asked.
“Let’s look through our records,” Mr. Franklin said. He picked up some of the papers heaped in front of him. “I have a complete record here of all those who were at any time employed by the deceased and by his estate. Although he was supposed to have a will, we were unable to find it. Indeed, the deceased left very few personal documents behind. However, we do have a list of all his employees,” he emphasized, looking down at a document he held in his hand.
“Please sit down, Mr. Chance,” said the woman. Chance pulled a chair toward the desk and sat down.
Mr. Franklin rested his head in his hand, “I am very puzzled, Mr. Chance,” he said, without lifting his eyes from the paper he was studying, “but your name does not appear anywhere in our records. No one by the name of Chance has ever been connected with the deceased. Are you certain, Mr. Chance–truly certain–that you have indeed been employed in this house?”
Chance answered very deliberately: “I have always been the gardener here. I have worked in the garden in back of the house all my life. As long as I can remember. I was a little boy when I began. The trees were small, and there were practically no hedges. Look at the garden now.”
Mr. Franklin quickly interrupted. “But there is not a single indication that a gardener has been living in this house and working here. We, that is–Miss Hayes and I–have been put in charge of the deceased’s estate by our firm. We are in possession of all the inventories. I can assure you,” he said, “that there is no account of your being employed. It is clear that at no time during the last forty years was a man employed in this house. Are you a professional gardener?”
“I am a gardener,” said Chance. “No one knows the garden better than I. From the time I was a child, I am the only one who has ever worked here. There was someone else before me–a tall black man; he stayed only long enough to tell me what to do and show me how to do it; from that time, I have been on my own. I planted some of the trees,” he said, his whole body pointing in the direction of the garden, “and the flowers, and I cleaned the paths and watered the plants. The Old Man himself used to come down to sit in the garden and read and rest there. But then he stopped.”
Mr. Franklin walked from the window to the desk. “I would like to believe you, Mr. Chance,” he said, “but, you see, if what you say is true, as you claim it to be, then–for some reason difficult to fathom–your presence in this house, your employment, hasn’t been recorded in any of the existing documents. True,” he murmured to his assistant, “there were very few people employed here; he retired from our firm at the age of seventy-two, more than twenty-five years ago, when his broken hip immobilized him. And yet,” he said, “in spite of his advanced age, the deceased was always in control of his affairs, and those who were employed by him have always been properly listed with our firm–paid, insured, et cetera. We have a record, after Miss Louise left, of the employment of one “imported” maid, and that’s all.”
“I know old Louise; she can tell you that I have lived and worked here. She was here ever since I can remember, ever since I was little. She brought my food to my room every day, and once in a while she would sit with me in the garden.”
“Louise died, Mr. Chance,” interrupted Franklin.
‘she left for Jamaica,” said Chance.
“Yes, but she fell ill and died recently,” Miss Hayes explained.
“I did not know that she had died,” said Chance quietly.
“Nevertheless,” Mr. Franklin persisted, “anyone ever employed by the deceased has always been properly paid, and our firm has been in charge of all such matters; hence our complete record of the estate’s affairs.”
“I did not know any of the other people working in the house. I always stayed in my room and worked in the garden.”
“I’d like to believe you. However, as far as your former existence in this house is concerned, there just isn’t any trace of you. The new maid has no idea of how long you have been here. Our firm has been in possession of all the pertinent deeds, checks, insurance claims, for the last fifty years.” He smiled. “At the time the deceased was a partner in the firm, some of us were not even born, or were very, very young.” Miss Hayes laughed. Chance did not understand why she laughed.
Mr. Franklin returned to the documents. ‘during your employment and your residence here, Mr. Chance, can you recall signing any papers?”
“Then in what manner were you paid?”
“I have never been given any money. I was given my meals, very good meals, and as much to eat as I wanted; I have my room with a bathroom and a window that looks out on the garden, and a new door was put in leading out into the garden. I was given a radio and then a television, a big color television set with remote control changer. It also has an alarm in it to wake me up in the morning.”
“I know the kind you’re referring to,” said Mr. Franklin.
“I can go to the attic and choose any of the Old Man’s suits. They all fit me very well. Look.” Chance pointed to his suit. “I can also have his coats, and his shoes, even though they are a bit tight, and his shirts, though the collars are a bit small, and his ties and “”
“I understand,” Mr. Franklin said.
“It’s quite amazing how fashionable your clothes look,” interjected Miss Hayes suddenly.
Chance smiled at her.
“It’s astonishing how men’s fashions of today have reverted to the styles of the twenties,” she added.
“Well, well,” Mr. Franklin said, attempting light-heartedness, “are you implying that my wardrobe is out of style?” He turned to Chance: “And so you haven’t in any way been contracted for your work.”
“I don’t think I have.”
“The deceased never promised you a salary or any other form of payment?” Mr. Franklin persisted.
“No. No one promised me anything. I hardly ever saw the Old Man. He did not come into the garden since the bushes on the left side were planted, and they’re shoulder-high now. As a matter of fact, they were planted when there was no television yet, only radio. I remember listening to the radio while I was working in the garden and Louise coming downstairs and asking me to turn it down because the Old Man was asleep. He was already very old and sick.”
Mr. Franklin almost jumped out of his chair. ‘mr. Chance, I think it would simplify matters if you could produce some personal identification indicating your address. That would be a start. You know, a check-book or driver’s license or medical insurance card ” you know.”
“I don’t have any of those things,” said Chance.
“Just any card that states your name and address and your age.”
Chance was silent.
“Perhaps your birth certificate?” Miss Hayes asked kindly.
“I don’t have any papers.”
“We shall need some proof of your having lived here,” Mr. Franklin said firmly.
“But,” said Chance, “you have me. I am here. What more proof do you need?”
“Have you ever been ill–that is, have you ever had to go to the hospital or to a doctor? Please understand,” Mr. Franklin said tonelessly, “all we want is some evidence that you actually have been employed and resided here.”
“I have never been ill,” said Chance. “Never.”
Mr. Franklin noticed the admiring look Miss Hayes gave the gardener. “I know,” he said. “Tell me the name of your dentist.”
“I have never gone to a dentist or to a doctor. I have never been outside of this house, and no one has ever been allowed to visit me. Louise went out sometimes, but I did not.”
“I must be frank with you,” Mr. Franklin said wearily. “There is no record of your having been here, of any wages paid to you, of any medical insurance.” He stopped. “Have you paid any taxes?”
“No,” said Chance.
“Have you served in the army?”
“No. I have seen the army on TV.”
“Are you, by chance, related to the deceased?”
“No, I am not.”
“Assuming that what you say is true,” said Franklin flatly, ‘do you plan to make any claim against the estate of the deceased?”
Chance did not understand. “I am perfectly all right, sir,” he said cautiously. “I’m fine. The garden is a good one. The sprinklers are only a few years old.”
“Tell me,” Miss Hayes interrupted, straightening up and throwing her head back, “what are your plans now? Are you going to work for someone else?”
Chance adjusted his sunglasses. He did not know what to say. Why would he have to leave the garden? “I would like to stay here and work in this garden,” he said quietly.
Mr. Franklin shuffled the papers on the desk and drew out a page filled with fine print. “It’s a simple formality,” he said, handing the paper to Chance. “Would you be kind enough to read it now and–if you agree to it–to sign it where indicated?”
Chance picked up the paper. He held it in both hands and stared at it. He tried to calculate the time needed to read a page. On TV the time it took people to read legal papers varied. Chance knew that he should not reveal that he could not read or write. On TV programs people who did not know how to read or write were often mocked and ridiculed. He assumed a look of concentration, wrinkling his brow, scowling, now holding his chin between the thumb and the forefinger of his hand. “I can’t sign it,” he said returning the sheet to the lawyer. “I just can’t.”
“I see,” Mr. Franklin said. “You mean therefore that you refuse to withdraw your claim?”
“I can’t sign it, that’s all,” said Chance.
“As you wish,” said Mr. Franklin. He gathered his documents together. “I must inform you, Mr. Chance,” he said, “that this house will be closed tomorrow at noon. At that time, both doors and the gate to the garden will be locked. If, indeed, you do reside here, you will have to move out and take with you all your personal effects.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a small calling card. ‘my name and the address and phone number of our firm are on this card.”
Chance took the card and slipped it into the pocket of his vest. He knew that he had to leave the study now and go to his room. There was an afternoon TV program he always watched and did not want to miss. He got up, said good-bye, and left. On the staircase he threw the card away.
Copyright ” 1970 by Jerzy Kosinski. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.