There are such things as plots, aren’t there?

Posted by on December 17, 2007 in Blog tagged with

With the death of the American novelist and playwright, Ira Levin, I thought I would offer an overview of his works and pose some questions to consider when approaching his texts.


   Ira Levin (d. 12 November 2007)


Levin’s novels are rarely mentioned in contemporary Gothic criticism (that is not to suggest that they are all necessarily Gothic although they share similar concerns) which is surprising considering his main works are now part of our cultural lexicon. Who has never heard of Rosemary’s Baby (1966) or at least, is not familiar with the iconic image of a black pram perched on a craggy hill?  




Who has not joked about The Stepford Wives (1972), those creepy, robotic women with too much hair spray and a penchant for white gloves (you know who you are)?





Or, for the more irreverent among you




or The Boys from Brazil (1976), the wild tale about Josef Mengele’s successful cloning of Hitler and his plot to unleash pint-sized Führers all over the world.






Or, lesser known perhaps is A Kiss Before Dying (1954) about a sociopath wooing then systematically knocking off all the women in one family in an effort to inherit a fortune.





Note the consistent and rather vampiric imagery!


Other novels by Levin include This Perfect Day (1970), a variation on 1984 and Brave New World 


Sliver (1991) a seriously creepy story about a wealthy voyeur.




and Son of Rosemary (1997).


I suspect one of the reasons for the lack of critical attention to Levin’s work, and cold war Gothic generally, is the tendency to view post-war popular culture as allegories for communist invasion/infection. However, as Morris Dickstein suggests, this is a rather limited view because it ‘presumes an ideological bent’ that is dependent on ‘tenuous links between politics and culture that are sometimes suggestive but too often arbitrary and reductive’. As numerous cultural historians have argued (Peter Biskind, Victor Navasky among others), the ‘Red Menace’ theory stands in our way of thinking about the ‘other’ in post-war culture. Reading Rosemary’s Baby through the aperture of communism, for example, reduces the story to yet another liberal cautionary tale warning against apathy and promoting vigilance. So how else might we read Levin’s work? One thing seems clear, Levin has a healthy interest in that most gothic of themes: conspiracy (not paranoia, although some of his characters are accused of being paranoid) but actual (i.e. rational) conspiracies enacted against groups or individuals.  Equally interesting is his focus on male conspiracies against women. Whether from organized groups such as the Stepford ‘Men’s Association’, the witches’ coven in Rosemary’s Baby, or individual deceptions that men perpetrate against women for their own self-interest such as Rosemary’s husband, Guy Woodhouse, or Jonathan Corliss in A Kiss Before Dying, Levin’s novels are preoccupied with forms of male anxiety and duplicity. These themes, I think, open a space for an exploration of Gothic masculinities in Levin’s novels and prompt some interesting questions about male subjectivity in post-war America What alternative theories of self and other would be productive in approaching The Stepford Wives or Sliver for example? What might Levin’s interest in surveillance and conspiracy reveal about male identity in the post-war decades? What insights might be gained by exploring the Gothic’s concern with hypocrisy (duplicity) and authenticity in these novels?  I would argue that there are many areas still to explore in relation to Levin’s work so if you are not already familiar with his novels and are interested in post-war American culture, I recommend you add him to your list.  


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