Thursday, September 19, 2013
Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THIS PERFECT DAY by Ira Levin
It's hard to believe but Ira Levin - arguably one of the finest suspense authors of the 20th Century - wrote only seven novels over the space of forty-five years. And they aren't long, hefty tomes either - in fact, one of them's so short it should really be classed as a novella. But even so that still averages out at about one book every six years or so, which isn't something too many authors can get away with. However, each book was a major best-seller, and the guy was a playwright and songwriter in his spare time, so I guess he had an excuse for not producing more. And seven out of forty-five is stlll a better ratio than Thomas Harris, who, assuming he hasn't retired, has managed to eke out a grand total of five novels over a similar time frame.
But let's put aside quantity for a moment and focus on the quality. Just take a glance at these titles: A KISS BEFORE DYING, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Not bad, eh? And each one's a perfect example of storytelling at its finest, with intricate plots that have been painstakingly worked out to the nth degree. In fact, that first one - a blistering account of a young psychopath who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants - I still count amongst the greatest thriller novels ever written.
And the other three aren't exactly chopped liver either, with each one having imprinted itself onto the public's consciousness in one form or another. The modern Manhattan setting of ROSEMARY'S BABY, for instance, enabled Levin to bring horror fiction screaming into the 20th Century and ended up being so successful that it paved the way for a certain Stephen King to make his own mark on the genre ten years later. Thanks to THE STEPFORD WIVES ('one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of the vocabulary' - original jacket copy), 'Stepford' quickly entered the American lexicon as a catch-all term for conformism and submission. And the wonderfully titled THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, with its biological engineering-based plot device, doesn't seem quite so farfetched today as it did back in the seventies.
And all four were also turned into movies - some more than once (A KISS BEFORE DYING, THE STEPFORD WIVES), some superbly (ROSEMARY'S BABY, A KISS BEFORE DYING), some badly (both remakes), and one indifferently (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL - which is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, and any movie where the combined ages of the three lead actors surpasses 200 gets my immediate respect). But with the exception of the two remakes all were financially successful, so perhaps it's easy to see why Levin didn't feel compelled to write a book a year like the rest of us poor scribblers.
So what about the other three? - I hear you ask. Well, there's SLIVER from 1991, written a full fifteen years after BOYS FROM BRAZIL. And it's not too bad - the pages certainly fly by without too much trouble - but it's not that great either (although the less said about the movie version the better). Then there's SON OF ROSEMARY from 1997, the critically slated and frankly unnecessary sequel to his most popular novel. I actually have a soft spot for it myself, and believe there's more to that infamous ending than you see at first glance, but even I have to admit Levin was well past his peak with this one. His heyday was really back in the sixties and seventies, back when he really could do no wrong.
And right smack-dab in the middle of this peak period - 1970, to be precise - came the book I'm here to tell you about: THIS PERFECT DAY. It's certainly the least well-known of Levin's novels, and that's possibly because it doesn't fit neatly into the 'suspense' or 'thriller' categories that made his name. Instead, THIS PERFECT DAY is Levin's attempt at a serious futuristic dystopian novel - to go alongside such works as Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
The story's set in a future where uniformity is the norm, and the world is governed by a single supercomputer know as UniComp, which controls and regulates every single aspect of the citizens' lives - including what job they'll be doing, where they live, when they eat, what they eat, who they marry, whether they can reproduce or not, and so on. And everybody dies at age 62. There's only one language, and thanks to eugenics all the previous ethnic groups have now been merged into one race, known as 'the Family', so everybody pretty much looks the same too. There are only four names for men (Karl, Li, Bob & Jesus), and four for women (Anna, Mary, Peace & Yin). And once a month everyone is given an injection of drugs - or a 'treatment' - to ensure any negative feelings of rebellion or individualism are kept locked up in the subconscious where they belong. No need to think, people - leave it all to UniComp.
The lead character is a chap named Li RM35M4419, whom we meet first at the age of six. But his grandfather, who's old enough to still retain a certain amount of cynicism and individuality, gives him the illegal nickname of Chip (as in 'a chip off the old block') and tries to pass these same qualities onto the boy at every opportunity. 'Try wanting something, Chip,' he suggests at one point, 'Try a day or two before your next treatment. That's when it's easiest; to want things, to worry about things...' As Chip grows up he tries, but all too often the drugs win out and it's not long before he's back to square one again.
For much of the book we follow Chip's growth as he matures into adulthood. He works in genetic science in some capacity and as the years pass he goes through a variety of girlfriends, each one no different from the last. And while on the surface he's a 'good Family member' like the rest of the walking dead, he does occasionally commit minor subversive acts that suggest there's something in there that the drugs can't totally subdue. These odd character 'faults' soon bring him to the attention of a secret group of likeminded nonconformists who meet in an old museum to smoke and have sex, and show him a way to avoid his regular treatments without alerting UniComp, so that he can start feeling stronger emotions again.
Upon finally 'waking up' to his true potential, Chip becomes attracted to another one in the group, Lilac, and starts seriously questioning the way this 'perfect' society functions. Finding old maps in the museum, they discover that there might be a few small islands dotted around that are entirely free of UniComp's influence...
Other than one pretty major misstep two-thirds of the way in, Levin's THIS PERFECT DAY is an enthralling novel that succeeds on just about every level. It's accessible and exciting enough to work as popular genre fiction, but it also stands up remarkably well against its more 'literary' counterparts mentioned above. It also helps that Levin's really more concerned with ideas than anything else. And in contrast to the other major dystopian novels, he does a much better job at predicting a possible future based on our own world history. We already live in a society where the computer takes up a large part of our daily existence, whether it be in the form of a laptop or a smart phone, so how many more steps until they start making decisions for us too? And the insistence on 'socially acceptable behaviour' that lays at the heart of the novel is only a few steps beyond the 'politically-correct' world we live in now.
Levin also does a great job of pacing the book, and lays his plans out in clear language on the contents page. Part one is titled, 'Growing Up.' Part two is 'Coming Alive.' Part three is 'Getting Away,' and the final part is 'Fighting Back.' Like a good magician showing his open palms at the beginning of a trick, Levin shows us what he's got planned: this is what's going to happen, then this, then that. But none of it takes place in the manner the reader expects - Levin's too great a storyteller to do the obvious. Anytime the reader expects Chip to go one way, events conspire to force him in another direction.
The author also utilizes his patented technique of itemising the particulars of everyday life to denote the passing of time - very important in a novel covering a thirty year period - thus adding that extra element of realism to an otherwise fantastic story. He used the same method with ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES - just one of the many ways Levin sucks you into the narrative and makes you believe it. And, of course, there's the arch dialogue, which is often clever without being showy. Such as when Chip's grandfather, Papa Jan - perhaps the most likeable character in the story - takes a very young Chip for a walk in the park near the start of the book:
He was always saying things vigorously and with enthusiasm and yet giving Chip the feeling that he didn't mean them at all, that he meant in fact their exact opposites. On that subject of names, for instance:
'Marvelous! Wonderful!' he said. 'Four names for boys, four names for girls. What could be more friction-free, more everyone-the-same? Everybody would name boys after Christ, Marx, Wood, or Wei anyway, wouldn't they?'
'Yes,' Chip said.
'Of course!' Papa Jan said. 'And if Uni gives out four names for boys it has to give out four names for girls too, right? Listen, in my day - are you listening? - in my day there were over twenty different names for boys alone. And in my father's time there were even more, maybe forty or fifty! Isn't that ridiculous? All those different names when members themselves are exactly the same and interchangeable? Isn't that the silliest thing you ever heard of?'
And Chip nodded, confused, feeling that Papa Jan meant the opposite, that somehow it wasn't silly and ridiculous to have forty or fifty different names for boys alone.
And at other times the dialogue is intentionally hilarious in its banality, as when a drug-free and clear-thinking Chip needs to gain access to a closed-off section of the airport and has to dumb down in order to pass himself off as a normal brain-dead worker:
He (Chip) false-touched a scanner and went into a room where coveralls, ordinary ones, hung on hooks, and two members were taking off orange ones. 'Hello,' he said.
'Hello,' they both said.
He went to a closet door and slid it open; a floor polisher and bottles of green liquid were inside.
'Where are the cuvs?' he asked.
'In there,' one of the members said, nodding at another closet.
He went to it and opened it. Orange coveralls were on shelves, orange toeguards, pairs of heavy orange gloves.
'Where did you come from?' the member asked.
'RUS50937.' he said, taking a pair of coveralls and a pair of toeguards. 'We kept the cuvs in there.'
'They're supposed to be in there,' the member said, closing white overalls.
'I've been in Rus,' the other member, a woman, said, 'I had two assignments there; first four years and then three years.'
He took his time putting on the toeguards, finishing as the two members chuted their orange coveralls and went out.
Great stuff indeed. Because it's during these sections that you can picture a whole society of male and female Homer Simpsons talking meaningless crap to one another for all eternity, and that, folks, is a very scary concept.
Ah, but all is not perfect in THIS PERFECT DAY - after all, didn't I mention a major misstep a few paragraphs ago? I'll try to keep the details as vague as I can so as not to spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way in, there's a scene where Chip and a previous girlfriend have a major blowup and he ends up raping her. Naturally, the woman is pretty traumatised by the incident, not to mention very angry. And Chip immediately feels guilty and gets teary-eyed, as well he should. But the problem arises the next morning when this woman, who's previously been portrayed as an intelligent person with strong character and a healthy amount of common sense, decides the rape wasn't as bad as all that really, and that maybe Chip deserves a second chance.
What? Seriously, Ira? Is that what happens after a woman's raped? Because I kind of doubt it myself. I have to say it's a real puzzler of a scene - especially coming from Levin, who's always specialized in creating believable and strong female characters. Is this really the same guy who gave us the tough, resourceful Ellen from A KISS BEFORE DYING (in the early 'fifties, no less!), or Joanna from THE STEPFORD WIVES, or even Kay from SLIVER? Because on this evidence it seems hard to believe.
Thinking about it, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was part of the reason why this book was out of print for so many years after its initial publication. Maybe Levin reread the thing, got to that morning-after scene and thought, 'Shit, what the hell was I thinking?' and decided to simply let the book go quietly out of print instead. Who knows - it's certainly possible. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.
Anyway, assuming one can get past that serious blunder, anybody reading this book will find much to enjoy. They'll witness a master suspense writer spreading his wings a little and showing the 'big boys' what he can do. And there's a definite conclusion to the story too - a good one with plenty of suspense - which you don't often get in these kinds of novels. But Levin doesn't wrap everything up neatly with a ribbon either. The reader's still left with enough loose ends to be left thinking about the book for awhile afterwards, which is really all anybody can ask for in a novel.