Ira Levin and Jeff Vandermeer – #20booksofsummer23 nos 3 & 4

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Decades ago, I first encountered Ira Levin when I read The Boys from Brazil, published in 1976, which was also the first time I’d ever heard of Nazi Josef Mengele – and what a chilling experience that was – and then to see Gregory Peck playing against type in the film *shudders*… I digress, but that remained the only Levin I’d read, although I’ve owned copies of his most famous novels The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby for years (yes, I bought that Book People three-pack which also contained A Kiss Before Dying!).

I watched the original 1975 movie of The Stepford Wives many moons ago too, alternately cheering for the feminist ideals of Joanna and Bobbie, who with their husbands are incomers to the New England community of Stepford, and then booing the men for their misogyny as the secrets of the Stepford homemakers are revealed. Now, reminded that I owned the 1972 book, by Madame Bibi reading this during her Novella a Day in May challenge, I pulled my copy off the shelf.

At the beginning, as Joanna moves in and makes friends with Bobbie who moved in the month before, both women and their husbands too are fully signed up to the feminist cause, being keen to bring the message to the women of the town. Both women are very real, their kitchens are messy, their houses aren’t quite spotless, they dress how they like – it doesn’t matter to them or their partners. Joanna tries to make coversation with her next door neighbour Carol over the fence.

‘When you’ve got the kids down, why don’t you come over and have a cup of coffee with me?’
‘Thanks, I’d like to,’ Carol said, ‘but I have to wax the family-room floor.’
‘Night is the only time to do it, until school starts.’
‘Well can’t it wait? It’s only three more days.’
Carol shook her head. ‘No, I’ve put it off too long as it is,’ she said. ‘It’s all over scuff-marks. And besides, Ted will be going to the Men’s Association later on.’
‘Does he go every night?’
‘Just about.’
Dear God! ‘And you stay home and do housework?’
‘There’s always something or other that has to be done.’ Carol said. ‘You know how it is. I have to finish the kitchen now. Goodnight.’

Joanna is perplexed by this seeming need in the other wives to be the perfect homemaker. She’s happy, however, to let her husband Walter join the Men’s Association to network and make more friends – and to lobby for women to be allowed to join in the future. But when her and Bobbie’s friend Charmaine transforms from being a hard-drinking, tennis partner into a housefrau who has let their maid go, they start to get creeped out, and Joanna begins to help Bobbie look for a house in a different town… and I shall say no more.

At just 139 pages, Levin manages to cram in so much plot, yet manages the suspense so well, it’s definitely a pageturner! The mounting horror is well managed, as this group of men, who are so scared of their increasingly feminist wives, revert to the patriarchy to stamp it out. Ooh, just look at me – usually a rather lackluster feminist – getting all righteous! That’s the scary message for today I took away from it, reinforced by Chuck Palanuik’s introduction in which he posits we are all in Stepford now! I can totally understand why, when the film came out, it was so controversial, but I would tend to err on the side that book and film are supportive of feminism in their wake-up call. It’s a great read though.

Source: Own copy from the TBR. Corsair paperback, 139 pp + intro. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

I desperately wanted to love this book, given that I had adored the post-catastrophe world it is set in, first encountered in Borne, and then again in novella The Strange Bird. By about page 80 of this novel though, I was ready to give up: it was so disjointed yet repetitive, there seemed to be little or no story, just a sequence of meanderings. But I persevered, and found the second half which mostly has a different focus, captured my interest more.

The setting is in the future after some kind of devastating event, involving the ‘Company’ – a mysterious biotech organisation – that has had its creations, plant/animal/human/AI in any combination set free on the world. Into this world come three figures, Grayson, Moss and Chen.

‘Nothing else meant very much anymore, except the love between them. For glory was wasteful, Grayson believed, and Chen cared nothing for beauty that declared itself, for beauty had no morality, and Moss had already given herself over to a cause beyond or above the human.

‘While we’re only human,’ Grayson might joke, but it was because only Grayson, of the three, could make that claim.

Grayson, a former astronaut has a blinded eye that can see iterations of the future. She loves Moss, a sentient – well – moss, who can shape-shift, habitually having a human form for her friends. On their way back to the city, to save it from the Company they meet Chen, an escaped creation of the Company, who was horrifed at what they were doing. Chen also has human form, but when stressed dissolves into a pile of salamanders.

The text jumps between iterations – I gave up trying to keep track of which one we were in (they are numbered in the margins), sometimes they’ll have to run the gauntlet of the Blue Fox before besting the Duck, other times, just the foxes, or the duck, in each iteration, Moss will loose something of herself, Chen is more likely to dissolve and need Moss to rebuild him. The iterations last from several pages to just paragraphs, or even single lines. Sometimes they carry on, oftimes they don’t. See what I mean about disjointed.

Beyond the 100 page mark, we meet the behemoth, a leviathan who swims underneath the land. Another creation of the Company. Very confusing paragraphs of thoughts. Then we get to the second half of the novel, where we meet Sarah, a homeless woman who lives under a bridge and is dying. She has the journal of ‘Charlie X’ one of the scientists from the Company. A fox stares out at her from one of the pages:

The fox gleams, winks at you as you recover. Almost cheery in the moonlight that drifts strange, like snow, down through the trees. Bright white streaks.

The creature puts you in mind of a comforting children’s fable. There are always clever talking foxes. Helpful foxes. Smiling with their teeth. Bedtime stories your mother told you. Of fantastical animals transformed by your mother’s gin-tinged breath. How the pages seemed to curl up like something dying at her touch, and the stories curled up, too, the fox becoming something else. The moral never the normal one.

This section feels as if it is earlier, even though the margin tells me its ‘v.6.1.’. Meanwhile the narrative continues in a fabular style – a sort of Just So Stories for the Company’s creations. It ends:

‘Once upon a time, in an age of too many monsters, a blue fox appeared across the drifting sands…’

Then we hit weirdness again. Four and a half pages of repeated phrases in v.3.1. before returning to the fables and a final chapter following Grayson to the sea.

This was a novel of great ideas and experimental form. Although there was some good bits – the foxes, the later fables, the bits about Charlie X, the relationship between the three travellers, it didn’t pull together as a whole. I was quite bored by those first hundred pages, which didn’t get very far, in their continual shifting between versions, and not in any linear way. For me, the novel suffered from the weight of all those big ideas which weren’t then developed to their full potential. I’m glad I read the whole thing in the end – and will continue to read and enjoy Vandermeer’s work, but I won’t be re-reading this one!

Source: Own copy from the TBR 4th Estate hardback, 2019, 324 pages. BUY in pbk at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

11 thoughts on “Ira Levin and Jeff Vandermeer – #20booksofsummer23 nos 3 & 4

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I was wondering whether I should reread The Stepford Wives while I was reading its counterpart The Husbands earlier this month. Good to hear that you feel it stands up to scrutiny even several decades later.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It holds up well – there was a chilling comment from one of the children who liked his new mom better! That’s the next generation for you… I have no desire to see the 2004 film remake though.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I’ve seen Stepford Wives but not read the book which went on my list when I read Madame Bibi’s review. Wouldn’t it be great to think it was entirely outdated and irrelevant?

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Ooh, I didn’t realise The Stepford Wives was so short – how did I miss that? I have wanted to read it for a while. I wonder what I’ve been getting it mixed up with!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    An interesting pairing Annabel. I can’t remember if I’ve actually read Stepford, but I know the message – scary stuff, and nowadays I can’t help think that some women are really not helping the cause with their focus on their appearance and the like… As for the Vandermeer, I’m sorry it was a disappointment. Always a shame when it’s one from a favourite author.

  5. AnnaBookBel says:

    Stepford hadn’t dated anywhere near as much as I’d feared. Loved it, and thanks for reminding me it was on my shelves. Vandermeer is such an ideas man, in the new weird / horror / SF / world that I’ll give anything he writes a try. I’m glad I didn’t give up on this one though, although when the behemoth/leviathan appeared I nearly did again!

  6. Jessica Harper says:

    I love Ira Levin. My friend extols the virtues of his dystopian thriller This Perfect Day, which I own in a lovely musty old edition, but I’ve never got round to reading it. Deathtrap obviously also great fun as a film/play/script.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Hiya, thanks for the recommendations. I must read the other two I already have on the shelves by him first though (Rosemary’s Baby and A Kiss Before Dying).

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