Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)

"What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is often overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."

Winner of the National Book Award in 1961, Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer" revels in the space between the routine and alienation of the post-War era. I wasn't expecting it, but Binx Bolling, a successful stock broker living comfortably in the suburbs of New Orleans, reminded me of Ed Norton's character Jack in Fight Club.

Binx has been content to float along in life and subsist on material enjoyment, often noting his appreciation for his secretaries' backsides. He calls this life of routine the 'malaise.' And on the eve of his 30th birthday, Binx recalls a fleeting moment experienced during the Korean War. Wounded and lying on the ground, he recalls watching a beetle and experiencing a moment of clarity. When I think of this moment, I can easily imagine one of the many masterful scenes from a Terrence Malick film (like The Thin Red Line).

What made that moment so captivating for Binx was its profound immediacy. Binx notes the immediate again when he talks with his cousin Kate about a traumatic accident in which she was involved: “Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real? I remember at the time of the wreck — people were so kind and helpful and solid. Everyone pretended that our lives until that moment had been every bit as real as the moment itself and that the future must be real too, when the truth was that our reality had been purchased only by Lyell’s death. In another hour or so we had all faded out again and gone our dim ways.”

Kate, who is suicidal and unstable, seems to share Binx's fear of the ordinary. But unlike Binx, Kate can only deal with these moments of alienation with destruction and the manufacture of drama. Binx is more reserved, but is perhaps more afflicted -- and Kate can tell: "You're like me, but worse. Much worse."

And for Binx, the unreality of his modern life is only amplified by the movie screen. At one point during a movie, he realizes that the movie was shot locally and describes a phenomenon called certification: "Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More thank likely He will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”

Percy's writing is unique and mesmerizing -- and is quite philosophically informed. Many critics have traced the existentialist influences of Kierkegaard and Sartre, but not having read too much of either, I'll take their word for it.

I'm sure you can guess that the storyline (if there is one at all) develops rather slowly. But the writing is just epic. Each sentence feels uncrowded, pure, reflective, and not weighed down by the responsibility of spoonfeeding the reader plot developments. Nor is Percy concerned with showing you how smart he is or run circles around you with how witty he can be. To me, Percy's style and tone match up perfectly with Binx and Kate.

It is a seamless work.


Anonymous said...

just finished it. you are spot on. thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

It made me think of Fight Club too! In the first chapter alone I was reminded of the quote "The things you own end up owning you.". It also reminded me of the Great Gatsby