Ira Levin Levin, Ira (Vol. 6) - Essay

Levin, Ira (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Levin, Ira 1929–

Levin is an American novelist and playwright best known for Rosemary's Baby, the story of an elaborately evil witches' coven and the birth of Satan's child, and for his play No Time for Sergeants. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

As an exercise in sheer terror and tight craftsmanship ["Rosemary's Baby"] is superb. There is, however, one qualification which deserves to be made. Working against the enjoyment of this novel is the feeling that Rosemary deserves none of the hopeless treatment she receives. The novel creates a good deal of sympathy for Rosemary and her maternal instincts; for this reason the nightmare ending tends to be repulsive. But then again, perhaps "Rosemary's Baby" is intended to produce an amusing tongue-in-cheek response from its readers. If so, Rosemary needs to be more vaguely drawn. (p. 27)

Peter Corodimas, in Best Sellers (copyright 1967, by The University of Scranton), April 15, 1967.

Ira Levin has urbanized the ghost story. Instead of a creepy mansion on a windy hill, he has given us [in "Rosemary's Baby"] a haunted apartment house on upper Seventh Avenue….

Mr. Levin's suspense is beautifully intertwined with everyday incidents; the delicate line between belief and disbelief is faultlessly drawn…. Up to [the denouement], we are with him entirely, admiring his skill and simultaneously searching out possible, probable and improbable explanations of how he is going to extricate his heroine. Here, unfortunately, he pulls a switcheroo which sends us tumbling from sophistication to Dracula. Our thoroughly modern suspense story ends as just another Gothic tale.

Riding high on the jacket is a quote from Truman Capote comparing "Rosemary's Baby" to "The Turn of the Screw." Alas, this is precisely where it fails to measure up. James knew too much about the ambiguities of reality to make us decide whether his terror emanated from the supernatural or the torturous, unexplored depths of the human mind. Mr. Levin's literal resolution of his story leaves the rueful feeling one might get from watching what seems to be a major-league game—and discovering, in the very last inning, that it was only good minor-league after all.

Thomas J. Fleming, "The Couple Next Door," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1967, p. 39.

["This Perfect Day" is] a brave new ecological adventure in which Big Brother has evolved into UniComp, a huge subterranean store of memory banks that standardize human behavior.

For enthusiasts of the genre, "This Perfect Day" offers a good deal less sci than fi, and a good deal more derivative déjà vu than imaginative projection of a computerized future. Moreover, characters suffer an anemic uniformity and lack of humanity which are more the result of pulpy prose than chemical therapy. But Levin shows, as he did with "Rosemary's Baby," that he knows how to handle plot, twisting here and turning there, so that his story breezes along at "top speed, no friction," to use an expression au courant in the post-U world. And for a quick couple of hours it takes you away, if you need the therapy, from war, starvation, air pollution and some of the other unprogramed ills of pre-U society.

Alex Keneas, "Post-U," in Newsweek (copyright 1970 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 16, 1970, p. 108.

[The Stepford Wives] is about how one Stepford wife [Joanna] comes to perceive her own imminent murder and replacement by a forever young, forever sexy, forever house-cleaning, audio-animatronic Disney dummy modeled in her own image and likeness. She learns too late. (p. 98)

If Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist turned you on, The Stepford Wives will give you a couple of hours of stimulation. It's not as compelling, not as engrossing as the best of its genre…. The most serious shortcoming is lack of density or complexity. Levin doesn't probe his plot or explore his conceit, robot women, with the fullness of, say, Bill Blatty's ingenuity in The Exorcist. Maybe he didn't do all his homework. The mysteries of planning, construction, and execution remain mysteries.

And thus, if you have to believe with your brains, you won't believe The Stepford Wives. Levin isn't a good detail man. He has, however, the magician's touch; he casts a spell, and The Stepford Wives becomes believable through emotional transfer. (p. 98)

In the clutch, when Joanne tries to escape, Levin's movement skills create an intense fear, and, for twenty or so pages, disbelief briefly gives way to a horrible sense that dulled marriages, lost intimacy, boring sex might possibly be resolved by husbands according to the morality of private enterprise: What works is good; what's good is right. (pp. 98, 100)

Leonardo or Lewis Mumford, I forget which, once said drawing began with prehistoric man's tracing his hand or shadows on the walls of caves as an act of diversion. The Stepford Wives is this kind of diversionary work. You find its equivalent in design as a version of painting, noise-rock passing as music, welded junk as a substitute for sculpture. Function dictates form. If a novel's primary purpose is to entertain—obviously Levin's intention—then a work such as this one makes a kind of semiartistic sense. Levin handles the form with average competence. A couple of years from now The Stepford Wives will be forgotten (maybe sooner), except for television reruns of the film that Polomar promises to make. You might wish Americans would read Vladimir Nabokov instead, but the audience for The Stepford Wives won't turn to Bend Sinister for entertainment in the absence of Mr. Levin's product.

Which isn't to say that Ira Levin has achieved anything of special note. He can get people in and out of rooms reasonably well. Otherwise his skills are modest, except as a single-idea man, a one-concept man. The Stepford Wives is written with a grade school vocabulary, a high school version of syntax, and a best-selling author's understanding of what mass audiences want…. Levin loses opportunities left and right. Levin's characters do not change or grow. His scenery does not live, bloom, or die. He can rattle off product names as swiftly as the Brand Names Foundation. He knows some kinky things about sex. His forte is wild ideas. He thinks of a situation. The situation requires bizarre means. The means produce a crisis event. So goes the novel. (p. 100)

The Stepford Wives seems readily forgettable because Mr. Levin puts so little into it. Not that what's there isn't engaging; it is. But the whole thing is thin, a tissue. (p. 100)

Webster Schott, "Daughter of Rosemary's Baby," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 7, 1972, pp. 98, 100.

Did the husbands of suburban Stepford, grouped in a Men's Association, murder their wives and replace them with Disneyland automata—prettier, chestier, submissive, and compulsively neat housewives? Readers of [The Stepford Wives] will never know for sure, and if they're like me, they may not care a great deal either. Joanna, the heroine, as presented by Levin, is already pretty close to an automaton…. Possibly the wives are not killed but altered by chemical means—life imitating art, except that the art of the Disneyland Lincoln aims at utter lifelikeness. Alain Robbe-Grillet might have used Levin's plot to hold the mirror up to the mirror until life and art were inextricably fused and confused. For Levin, this is impossible, because his technique is purest Disneyland: a meticulous, sometimes dazzling reproduction of the shiniest, thinnest surface of contemporary living. I'd sooner be married to the worst witch in Rosemary's Baby than to Joanna before her change. After the change, I'd settle for the Seven Dwarfs. (p. 54)

Vivian Mercier, in World (copyright © 1972 by World Magazine, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 10, 1972.

"Veronica's Room" … [is] a tired old non-thriller, from which Mr. Levin has rashly failed to brush the dust of ages. A spooky mansion, a snickering pair of caretakers, a witless, quick-to-start-screaming girl called Veronica, a boyfriend who may really be a sinister, carnally inclined psychiatrist, and a calculated jumbling of time between 1973 and 1935—oh, how irritating it is to be handed these flyblown goods and then to be told (as if Mr. Levin fancied himself a Pirandello) that we in the audience may make whatever we like of them! (p. 89)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 5, 1973.

Suspicious similarities have long been noted between the ecstasies of saints, lovers and murderers, and such ambiguity has been implicit in the "best" horror stories, from the Jacobean playwrights to "Dracula." But there is always something fishy about the horror-mongering sensibility; Dickens caricatured this side of himself with the Fat Boy, who liked "to make your flesh creep."

The idea is to transcend the fishiness so that we creepy humans can sit back and enjoy our creeping flesh. This Ira Levin fails to do in [Veronica's Room]. The primal horror situation, of course, is the terror of a young, juicy, vulnerable female—something that our feminists no doubt think they can easily explain, and maybe they can. Levin's play attempts to exploit this situation, but it is laughably mechanical and as embarrassing as a sunken-eyed, foul-breathed English professor confiding his sado-masochistic dreams in the college cafeteria. (p. 75)

Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright 1973 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted with permission), November 5, 1973.

Ira Levin is a professional writer with an ear attuned to the elusive tempo of the times. He is the author of No Time for Sergeants, an unforgettably funny satire of contemporary military life, and, more recently, of the futuristic novel This Perfect Day. Between the two he delved into a theme which fetters present and past in a supernatural bond. Knowing that this is the age of Aquarius, as the musical Hair makes clear, Levin sought to reflect the resurgence of interest in the occult by writing a popular, yet well-in-formed, book on the most bizarre of its facets. The result was the immensely successful novel of New York City Satanism, Rosemary's Baby, with its unnerving revelation that the "black arts" of the Middle Ages are alive and well, if secreted in such "caves" of modern cities as the Victorian apartments of the Bramford.

The novel is in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," which features the incarnation of an evil deity through the agency of a woman in depraved coalition with a sinister plot to reinstate the old gods; it also has a kinship to Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" wherein an unsuspecting woman becomes the seedbed for a Panic offspring. Rosemary's Baby contains elements similar to those in these classic short stories. But Levin's novel is the most horrific of the three works because of its proximity to contemporary reality and its rude reminder that evil is not a thing of the past. In fact, Rosemary's Baby points to the continuity of antique traditions; it does so through a plot which allies modern Satanists to ancient venerators of evil deities. (p. 211)

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there reference to the Satan which is the bulwark of the Christian personification of evil. The Jews simply did not have any such being.

But Christianity did cause to evolve the creature which the Satanists in Rosemary's Baby worship and serve. Christianity gave form and substance to a distinct demonic personality through misreadings and verbatim interpretations of Biblical passages, apocryphal texts, and those works labeled pseudepigraphal. Among the [last] is the Book of Enoch. This is an apocalyptic treatise written by many hands between 200 and 100 B.C. but disguised as an older prophetic work to assure its acceptance. The Book of Enoch encompasses an extensive angelology and demonology founded largely on Assyro-Babylonian sources but also showing Greek influences. It was this work that propagated the "Fall of the Angels" myth. (p. 212)

[It] was the Book of Enoch which most influenced Matthew, Luke and, in particular, the apocalyptic view of John. It was in the writings of these evangelists that the satanic personality was given its first outlines, and the defining lines emerged from Enoch's word-picture of the ruler of a counter-kingdom of evil who led the angels astray and who tempted Eve in Eden. These interpretations of age-old myths became imbedded in Christianity and formed the core of its personification of a Prince of Darkness, enemy of God and man, tempter, accuser, instrument of eternal damnation, who would strive mightily to establish his kingdom on earth.

The Gospels, Epistles and other writings of the early Church vitalized Satan and made Hell real. But it was only later that detailed ideas of demonology were formulated. Origen, Augustine and Aquinas were to contribute much to the process…. But it was Peter Lombard in the 12th Century who most forcefully and effectively equated the Devil and Lucifer in his Book of Sentences. Thereafter the Church and Satan were inseparable. Rosemary's Baby rightly interprets the deep antagonism engendered through centuries of uneasy dependence. (p. 213)

The Satanists in Rosemary's Baby continue the work of their ancestors. They do so in an age of religious uncertainty, a period of shifting values and redefined dogma, a time of ecumenical realignment. Furthermore, they know that the currently expounded premise of God's death has stirred theology and philosophy to abandon their cloistered lethargy and to reexamine their once untouchable foundations. In the view of these Satanists it is a propitious time for the Devil's disciples to preach their anti-gospel and to prepare for the coming of their master, Anti-Christ. (p. 215)

"Baby Night," as Guy [Rosemary's husband] calls the period selected for the conception of their first child, is made to coincide with the Pope's visit to the city. Thus, it is [a] slap at Catholicism by two who dismiss its rules and design their own pattern of living through planned parenthood. Rosemary, who has been anxious to have Guy's child, is ecstatic over his decision. What she does not know, however, is that the date was not chosen by her husband but by the Castevets in order to fulfill a 300-year-old prophecy that the birth of Satan's son would occur on Midsummer Night, the eve ushering the 25th of June, one of the major pagan feasts.

Rosemary's willful break with Catholicism makes her an outstanding subject for demonic motherhood in the eyes of the Castevets. (p. 217)

Rosemary's reference to the Pope's Mass may [mislead the reader] to the conclusion that Castevet's ritual was a Black Mass. It was not. A Black Mass was instituted to blaspheme against God through the inversion of the ceremonies in the Catholic Mass and, especially, through the desecration of the Sacred Species. Castevet's ritual lacks the most important element in a Black Mass: a duly ordained Catholic priest. Without the priest, whether defrocked or not, the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ cannot occur. As a consequence, the Satanist cannot achieve the desecration of the Host and Wine, his real goal in the celebration of the Black Mass. Castevet may dress as the Pope's counterpart but he is not empowered to officiate at a Catholic Mass and, therefore, cannot perform a similar function in its Satanic counterpart. Rosemary's words should not be taken in a literal sense here because her ability to correlate facts has been impaired by the drugs she has been given.

The birth of Satan's son is the consummation hoped for by the Devil's devotees for centuries. Through it they expect to overcome the influence of the birth of God's son, Christ. In Rosemary's Baby the hope becomes a fact in a world where God is dead. In His death there is an implicit need for a new procreative divinity and Satan has cast himself in the vacated role. But the long-awaited Satanic birth is marred by the attitude of the mother. Rosemary not only changes the name ordained for the child (Adrian Steven) to Andrew John (names of Christ's disciples) but, now more Catholic than at the start of the novel because of her ordeal, she accepts her lot with the decision to push aside the passivity planned for her by the coven and to counter the paternal heredity of her baby. She will save the son of Satan.

The Satanic rape of Catholicism, personified in the rape of Rosemary Reilly, has been turned into the proverbial blessing in disguise. Through her unparalleled experience Rosemary has come back to her faith, not full circle to the obeisance against which she had rebelled but to a sober realization that as the power of evil is very real so, too, is the power of good. She knows intuitively that God in His strange way has allowed her to be used by demonic forces in order to test her mettle so that He could employ her to thwart the evil scheme. Like Job, Rosemary Reilly recognizes God's justice and might. She accepts her grotesque motherhood as a divinely instituted mission. Like Mary, mother of Jesus, she will crush the head of the serpent. The Satanic rape of Catholicism has had a salutary end. (pp. 219-20)

Robert Lima, "The Satanic Rape of Catholicism in 'Rosemary's Baby'," in Studies in American Fiction (copyright © 1974 Northeastern University), Autumn, 1974, pp. 211-20.

[The story-line of This Perfect Day] isn't a plot, it is the précis of an entire genre, and Levin has spun it out at staggering length in a novel about as original and profound as a print of September Morn. Nothing is to be gained by comparing this book to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World or Vonnegut's Player Piano, although it begs for it; I have seen more challenging and original stories on Star Trek. It is typical of the novel that its characters are marginally more interesting when they're drugged by the computer than they are when they've stopped being drugged by the computer. Levin's message appears to be that people are better off when they are allowed to make up their own minds about things. Big deal.

The true purpose of a book of this sort is neither to enlighten nor to entertain. It is to fill up spare time that might otherwise be spent in staring at the wall. Levin's literary style is neither good nor bad, neither delights nor enrages; it is simply hypnotic, like the low steady humming of a machine. Reading it is an obsessive act akin to playing solitaire, and about as productive. Occasionally the plot takes a "twist," principally, it seems, to jar the reader back to wakefulness for the space of a few pages and convince him that something is actually happening. There is a particularly big "twist" toward the end of the book. It is totally unprepared-for, utterly unnecessary, and useful only in that it strings matters out a little bit longer and makes possible a ripsnorting Hollywood fight scene, which ends with the villain standing over the prostrate hero, gun in hand….

L. J. Davis, "Things Were More Fun on Mongo," in Book World (© The Washington Post), February 15, 1975, p. 5.