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Cannonball Read III: Sliver by Ira Levin

By Robert | Books | February 18, 2011 |

By Robert | Books | February 18, 2011 |

Ira Levin is the author responsible for some of the most thrilling American novels of the twentieth century. He brought us Rosemary’s Baby, about a woman who thinks her new apartment building is conspiring against her unborn child, The Stepford Wives, about an idyllic community that seems to force perfection on its residents, and The Boys from Brazil, about a Nazi hunter who may have found a lead for his last target. Each book is brimming with succinct details that are essential to the novel. Levin is not a flowery writer. His images are only memorable because of their precision.

Sliver is one of the last novels he wrote. Set around 1990 in Manhattan, the title refers to a narrow high-rise apartment complex. These buildings were popping up all over the place, tearing down smaller private homes to account for the rapidly expanding city before safety regulations all but eliminated further development. Editor Kay Norris is lucky to have found an available apartment right by Carnegie Hall. It is not until after she moves in that she realizes the identity of the building. It is the so-called “Horror High-Rise.” People have a bad habit of dying in the complex. Everyone in the building knows it’s a coincidence, but the constant press has guaranteed the unfortunate moniker.

This is not a paranormal novel. There is no evil entity lurking in the walls or some ancient curse from the destruction of a perfectly fine town house. Sliver is a sparse novel about voyeurism. I remember all these sensational stories popping up in the late 80’s and early 90’s about sleazy landlords bugging every inch of their property with video cameras and microphones. Levin had to have seen the reports, too, because the novel twice mentions the exact cases I was thinking of when I picked up the book.

Voyeurism is the extent of this building’s actual problems. That’s not a spoiler, either. The characters say it’s preposterous to assume that a building (number 1300) could be cursed and Levin doesn’t dwell on it, either. The owner of the building is a rich young man who spends his entire day watching everything that happens in the complex. He takes a liking to Kay and tricks her into a relationship. Fortunately for him, they have actual sexual chemistry. Kay believes everything he says, even the lies.

Unfortunately, Sliver uses a literary device that ruins everything good about Levin’s writing. Everything is written in short bursts of prose. There are no long sentences. Some incomplete. Unfinished. Leaves the reader confused. He tries to reflect the building’s shape. He does. It’s annoying. Too sparse. Unending. Shifts viewpoints like channel surfing. Doesn’t work either. Likes the cat too much. Too much foreshadowing. Predictable ending. Boring.

The device is a shame. He put so much attention in reflecting actual New York City locations. You can find the Korean market where Kay bought some milk, or the grocery story she bought cat litter at. You can figure out the exact running path she walks through in Central Park or what actual building sits at the location of the Horror High-Rise. Levin even describes how exhibits are presented in certain museums and the exact specifications of the older checkered taxi cabs. Everything, down to traffic patterns, is based in reality. Too bad all of this is wasted by a writer’s experiment with only writing dialog in full detail.

There is a really strong story in the book. The characters—what we can figure out—are interesting. Writing a paranoid sexual thriller set in an apartment complex that has all the tropes of a haunted house novel with none of the ghosts is a great concept. Levin just doesn’t let any of the misdirection set in. No matter how many times he has Kay try to think like she’s in a Gothic novel (only a slight paraphrase from the actual text, sadly), it doesn’t make it suspenseful. A novel like this needed less restraint to work. Levin, who is all about restraint, goes the opposite way, slicing apart his prose so not even the barebones of structure are left. This is the cliff notes version of a good story. You get the facts and names, maybe pick up a theme or two, but are left with no appreciation for what you read.

For more of Robert’s reviews, check out his blog, Sketchy Details.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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