Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

If there is a book that has had a stronger effect on me over the long term, that is that it introduced me to ideas that eventually led to a complete shift of world-view, I can’t think of one. That paradigm shift was not in the direction that Percy intended; his project, as far as I can divine it from having read all his books, most of them multiple times, is to use existentialism and semiotics in the context of often ironic stories to convince people to convert to Catholicism. That’s not entirely fair, he was a novelist first and it’s only in his last novel that the ideas completely overwhelmed the story (though, starting with Lancelot they started tending in that direction). His world in which it’s hard to figure out how to live as a person on a Tuesday afternoon now that everything has been explained satisfactorily by philosophy and science was my real introduction to existentialism (though I had read excerpts here and there previously), and eventually one of the stepping stones out of the Christian faith. 

"Everydayness is the enemy" was my aspirational and poorly adhered to mantra for years. Much of the novel deals with Binx Bolling’s, the narrator, search. The search is what everyone would do were they not "sunk in the everydayness of their own life." The theme that crisis or disaster situations can snap people out of that everydayness is one Percy returned to over and over again in his work. “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." By the ending of the book, Percy has hinted at solutions but ultimately claims the right to uncertainty, at least in what he’s willing to say: “As for my search,  I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority to, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than the edifying. For another thing, it is not even open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself-- if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification." That quote gives a good feel for both the humor and the philosophical aims of the novel.

Binx, at the novel’s outset, is about to turn thirty. He spends his time making money in his uncle’s financial advisory company and dallying with his secretaries.This is where the existentialist themes get complicated. People’s actuality doesn’t always match their self perception. Some of Binx’s older family members “coincide with themselves,” but not his father, and not Binx. The way Percy addresses race in the book reads a little uncomfortably in the context of current discourse, but I think he is making a good faith effort to understand the way black and white people interact in the time he lives and in light of the history there. It seems logical to extend the uncertainty of self to people of radically different identity, but that conversation was not happening in those terms then. But he does try. I’m less comfortable with the way he writes his women characters. There’s a fratty aspect to the first quarter or so of the book that I was never entirely at home with. It’s like he brought the  Sartre and Camus to an American context, but not De Beauvoir. De Beauvoir is rightly remembered as a feminist, but her subject/object divide was conceived in existentialist terms and her work should be considered alongside theirs. There are several women in the book who do receive their due (Binx’s Aunt and Kate Cutrer (a distant cousin and love interest) in particular, and to a lesser extent his mother), but there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right with his interactions with his secretaries. I think the strengths of the novel overcome this, but if someone brought a strong feminist critique of this aspect of the book, that would be entirely fair. 

 The Moviegoer is smart about place, and how people find their ways in it. The idea that one could be a “somebody somewhere” versus an “anybody anywhere” took me a few reads to wrap my mind around. But one of the greatest strengths of the novel is the way it critiques an America already becoming a consumer wasteland. There are passages that rival the best of Vonnegut on the subject. Binx’s search is rooted in the history and context of New Orleans as a place. It matters very much where one is “catheterizing a pig” and who one is while doing so, in a particularly grotesque example. Percy is smart (writing in 1959!) about how a place is “certified” by its depiction in film or the presence of celebrity. An early sighting of William Holden gives Binx the opportunity to talk about how people’s experience was already being mediated to an unhealthy degree through its depiction in nascent pop culture. If Percy could only see Facebook.

The prose is excellent, often hilarious. Despite the nearly cynical humor, though, it often evokes a sense of wonder. Even having read it twelve times now, I’m sure I don’t get every bit of the philosophy in it. But the book is deeply ingrained in my mind, hopefully in good ways. My favorite theme in all literature is uncertainty, and this novel, along with the films of the Coen Brothers, may have been the initial source of that. When I conceived of this blog as recording my personal canon, this was one of the books that was already solidly in. I would no longer claim it to be without defect, but I love it warts and all. 


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 22/35

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