Sliver is one of Ira Levin’s lesser-known and perhaps lesser novels, but there are plenty of reasons why I keep coming back to it when I want a quick and easy re-read. It’s amazing to think that this tense thriller was written before the explosion of reality TV and modern day anxieties about video surveillance and privacy.
Sliver was first published in 1991, more than twenty years after Rosemary’s Baby, with enough time passing for Levin to poke fun at the modern gothic genre he himself made popular. Having revisited Rosemary’s Baby – the book and the film – just recently, it’s striking how much common ground the two novels share, even if Sliver is ultimately a very different story. At their most basic, both books are about female characters who move into an apartment in a New York City building with history of deaths and grisly accidents, and discover that people who tried to warn them against the move were unfortunately correct.
Sliver however reveals its shocking secret right away: every single apartment in the elegant high-rise building at Thirteen Hundred Madison is rigged out with cameras hidden in the Art Deco light fittings, including the bathrooms. In the opening chapter, the unnamed voyeuristic owner of the building is watching a new prospective tenant being shown around apartment 20B. She is Kay Norris, a senior editor at a prestigious publishing house: thirty-nine, divorced, owner of a calico cat named Felice. While she’s undeniably attractive, there’s something else about Kay that catches the owner’s eye, a strong resemblance to another woman deeply important to him.
Unaware that she’s become an object of obsession and an unwitting star in someone’s private reality TV show, Kay settles in and makes herself at home. She also meets some of the building’s other tenants, each a candidate for the mysterious owner; this particular mystery however is revealed fairly early on, both to Kate and the reader. From then on, the suspense is about Kay finding out the truth about the building’s many “accidents”, and just how far someone will go in order to protect his creepy hobby.
Like any novel with technology at its heart, Sliver inevitably feels dated, but its insights about the hypnotic allure of mundane, banal details of everyday life still resonate:
“The real thing, the soap that God watches. A sliver of it anyway. No actresses, no actors, no directors. No writers or editors. And every bit of it true, not somebody’s version of the truth.”
As always with Ira Levin’s books, I love the taut plotting and the deceiving simplicity of his precise, unadorned prose, with little moments and small gestures that take on a greater significance and are so rewarding on a re-read. Kay is also a likeable heroine who, like many of Levin’s heroines, is smart enough to make connections but still not immune to poor decisions and blind spots.
It’s fair to say though that Sliver isn’t quite up there with Levin’s other classics, and while very entertaining it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as Rosemary’s Baby or Stepford Wives. The stakes here don’t feel as high, the personal betrayal doesn’t cut as deep, the sense of atmosphere and dread isn’t as powerful, and some might find the climax too silly and implausible for words. I’m probably a bit more forgiving towards the ending and overall it doesn’t detract from the book too much, but it’s hard not to feel that Levin mostly contrived it as a clumsy nod to a famous Greek myth.
P.S. The silliness of the ending, in which Kay’s cat saves her life in a most dramatic fashion, was somewhat mitigated for me by an article I read a while ago, about the extraordinary cats who did defend their owners with tooth and claw. I’m pretty sure though that if I was attacked in my apartment, my own cat would either hide under the bed or watch on with mild interest.
P.P.S. Apparently the 1993 film adaptation is rubbish – a shame because Sharon Stone seems like a perfect casting for Kay and no stranger to erotic thrillers.