The Devil Tree by Jerzy Kosiński
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Jonathan is a billionaire, a heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the world. Karen is an extremely beautiful and famous model. Can one imagine more boring characters to star in a novel? Their sex life is described in such detail that one might suspect "The Devil Tree" is Jerzy Kosinski's masturbatory fantasy.
The novel takes place in the 1970s. Jonathan comes back to the U.S. after a long stay abroad to avoid draft. There is no plot in the usual sense of the word. The novel is a sequence of episodes (vignettes) that happen at various times of Jonathan's life. However, there is an actual, classical ending, which is one of the best parts of the book.
The Seventies were indeed the times of sexual experimentation, and those people who could afford it did stretch the conventional boundaries of sexual expression. In addition to sex, Mr. Kosinski attempts to present a portrait of the U.S society in the 1970s. Critics find that the author satirizes the rich, the famous, and the powerful. I do not see the satire. Instead, I see the author's fascination with the extremely rich and extremely beautiful people.
Jonathan and Karen seem to be seeking the meaning of life. "The challenge I face now is how to actualize, how to concretize, the quiet eminence of my being," muses Jonathan. Both characters are obsessed by the notion of freedom, but since they are almost infinitely rich and beautiful and free to do absolutely anything, the notion can have no meaning for them. As Jonathan can buy a medium-sized country at his whim, he misses the happiness of an ordinary person who buys a new book or a new piece of clothing.
"The Devil Tree" has some truly atrocious passages (e.g., about certain aspects of women's physiology) as well as several well-written fragments, for instance the astute deconstruction of the American business myth. To me, the weakest aspect of the book is that it completely lacks emotion. It has some wisdom, but no heart.
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