One of the most memorable reviews of my first novel was from a college newspaper. The critic—I assume a student—spent 800 words enumerating the ways in which he enjoyed the book. Then in the final paragraph, like a helpful reviewer should, he summarized: “Cast of Shadows might not be the best novel of the year, but it is an interesting, tense thriller and an impressive first novel that has the courage to discuss a controversial subject.” I remember wondering if he applied the same standard to every novel he read: This book is still not the best novel of the year, but for some reason I loved it anyway!
Ira Levin died Monday. Levin was a bestselling writer of thrillers that no one reads much anymore because almost all of them have been made, sometimes more than once, into popular movies. In addition to the clever play Deathtrap, Levin wrote seven novels. Three of them, A Kiss Before Dying, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil, are excellent. One of them, Rosemary’s Baby, is an all-time classic, a canonical book every suspense writer needs to read for their survival and all other people should read just because. Despite that, almost every Levin obit was spread thick with reviewerly buts, the spackling compound a critic often uses to fill the gap between the imaginary books he’d like to be reading and the ones he actually enjoys. In Levin’s case, the most popular brand was the especially notorious and condescending stylist but:
The Guardian: “Ira Levin was no prose stylist, but…”
The New York Times: “Few critics singled out Levin as a stylist. But…”
I won’t claim it’s untrue. I’ll admit I probably can’t pull a sentence from one of Levin’s books and wow you with its innovation. Levin’s best novels are effortless, like perfect golf rounds in which every hole is a two-putt for par. There are many terrific writers who can drop your jaw sentence to sentence, but there are also writers so good that you never notice them at all.
In Ira Levin’s memory, pull his best book down, open it at random, and take a quote from the top of page, let’s see, 24:
The nursery was, for the time being, a den, with off-white walls and the furniture from the old apartment. The white-and-yellow wallpaper would come later, clean and fresh. Rosemary had a sample of it lying ready in Picasso’s Picassos, along with a Saks ad showing the crib and bureau.
That’s a perfectly decent paragraph. And in the context of Rosemary’s Baby it’s also perfectly chilling.
Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman who goes apartment hunting with her husband, meets her elderly neighbors, gets pregnant, decorates, has lunch with friends, and visits her obstetrician. Improbably, it’s also one of the scariest books ever written, because everyone who ever reads it knows before they even turn back the cover that the father of unsuspecting Rosemary’s child is the devil and all those kindly new neighbors are the devil’s minions. There are no twists in this book. Not a single surprise. You know exactly what’s going to happen in this story and every ordinary moment of Rosemary’s life, every one of her idle thoughts, is eight months pregnant with fear because you know you can’t do anything to stop it.
Levin also had a satirical purpose that eluded many reviewers. He could simultaneously be a champion and a biting critic of both the culture and the genre he had conquered. The book ends with Rosemary finally catching on to what the rest of us have known for 240 pages. Satan worshippers from around the globe have gathered crèche-like around her newborn. Rosemary is horrified. She thinks about killing it. He’s not a baby, he’s a monster. The eyes aren’t human. He has claws that the minions have hidden under mittens so the devil spawn won’t scratch himself.
Then the cultists start chanting “Hail Rosemary” and “Hail Adrian.” Rosemary realizes she can’t kill it. Eventually she puts her foot down. His name won’t be Adrian. His name will be Andrew.
Rosemary tickled the baby’s tummy. “You didn’t like Adrian did you?” she asked him. “I should think not. ‘Adrian Steven!’ Will you please stop looking so worried?” She poked the tip of his nose. “Do you know how to smile yet, Andy? Do you? Come on, little funny-eyes Andy, can you smile? Can you smile for Mommy?” She tapped the silver ornament and set it swinging. “Come on Andy,” she said. “One little smile. Come on, Andy-candy.”
The Japanese slipped forward with his camera, crouched, and took two three four pictures in quick succession.
I have never been able to decide if that ending is funnier than it is scary or the other way around. Either way it’s the balls.
Levin didn’t traffic much with moral in-betweens. His villains were Nazis and Satan worshippers and suburbanites intent on populating their communities with vacuous sex robots. That often earned him the derisive label of pulp writer, but Levin also had a satirical purpose that eluded many reviewers. He could simultaneously be a champion and a biting critic of both the culture and the genre he had conquered. In the climactic scene of Sliver, the book editor heroine, Kay, is hanging by her fingertips out the window of her high-rise apartment and just as her obsessive, voyeuristic, landlord-lover is about to unsubtly bash her with an overly symbolic telescope, letting her fall to her death against the hard pavement below, Kay’s cat Felice climbs up the villain’s torso and gouges his eyes out. It’s by far my least favorite of Levin’s books, but I’m pretty sure he’s making fun of something there. Probably writers like me.
Even so, lesser authors (even literary authors, especially literary authors) would have been tempted to tell us how much they were appalled by all this evil. Levin never did. His prose was unsentimental and unmanipulative. As unambiguous as his evil was, he presented it all matter-of-factly and let the reader provide the horror on her own, which made it all the more terrifying. Levin’s readers are chased under the covers by their own fears, not those of some jerk writer. I suppose critics might call that a “lack of prose style.”
I call it stylish as all hell.