Beneath the dark comedy of Neighbors, there is an undercurrent of tragic irony, particularly since the novel ends with Keese's fatal heart attack (his neighbors have literally persecuted him to death). As a middle-aged and prosperous suburban householder, Keese has tried to insulate himself against the more unpleasant realities of American life. Yet this mild mannered conformist is an archetypal victim who must confront the same indignities that others face. In this respect, Keese resembles the Everyman figures of some celebrated European literary works, like Ivan Ilych in Leo Tolstoy's novelette, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," or Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's The Trial(1925; see separate entry). Like those predecessors, Keese finds himself the target of implacable fates in the persons of Harry, Ramona, and the Greavys, who seem determined to make Keese pay for his lifelong attempt to avoid anguish and suffering.
At times, however, Berger's irony is double-edged, for Keese, the victim, sometimes becomes the aggressor in his response to Harry and Ramona. But Keese's acts of aggression seem to produce more guilt for Keese than harm to his tormentors, who appear impervious, like the specters of nightmare. In the final scene, at any rate, Keese's anguish is handled compassionately, when Harry and Ramona return to be companions in the ambulance after his heart attack. (No doubt their appearance is an hallucination brought on by his illness, but that only heightens the aesthetic effect of their presence.)
It is clear that one major theme of the novel is the need for Keese to recognize the emptiness of his highly conventional middle-class life, which he has constructed as a defense against the moral nihilism of outsiders and the threat of mortality. In presenting this theme, Berger has skillfully adapted the vision of Kafka's novels and the absurdist drama to an American setting. As Harry and Ramona destroy Keese's carefully maintained sense of order, they make him aware of the existential anguish of living, confronted by irrational events and happenings that no human being can control.
Both Harry and Ramona, and the chaos they bring in their wake appear to be the embodiment of a capricious fate or a series of random accidents no reasonable divinity might permit. With his defense of civility and common sense demolished by their persistent intrusions into his life and their readiness to tell any lie convenient to the moment, Keese is forced to confront the emptiness of his own existence. With common sense assumptions about human behavior destroyed on the final day of his life, Keese must face the challenge of the daunting fact of daily living and its irrational mystery. In this regard, the novel follows in the tradition of...
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