Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Professional Book Review: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is a book that I have been aware of for years, ever since learning that Terrence Malick at one time wanted to adapt the book to film. Percy was a Catholic (why do Catholics get all the good modern fiction writers?), and I have to agree with my friend the Christian Curmudgeon: I really hope Percy is one of those Catholics I will meet in Heaven someday.

Having spent the last week reading it, I feel in many respects reproved by the book and simultaneously broken open by it. This is a book I wish I had written. In a lot of ways it represents a conglomeration of my own fears on the modern malaise which I see in myself and in others. Putting it all into words is difficult because in so doing, none of the book or its ideas are done proper justice; nevertheless, I shall try.

The book is, at its core, written in the first person as a letter to a friend recounting approximately a week in the life of one man. This narrative becomes an exploration of mankind's complete disconnectedness with his world, with other people, at least with regard to anything beyond surface-level existence. There is a numbness to mankind which is exemplified in the person of Percy's protagonist, Binx Bolling. Binx goes through life living externally (see my previous review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes - there is in my mind a correlation between the externalized, soulless behavior of the apes and the shallow interior life of Binx). He thinks alot but never draws the connection between the ontological reality of the things he sees and the objects that appear before his eyes. He's not a genius, but he likes to look around and observe. He enjoys making money, going to movies by himself, and spending lots of time with women. He is an atheist and doesn't understand the idea of God:
My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God. The proofs of God’s existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn’t make the slightest difference. If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. In fact, I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head. My father’s family think that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it. I don’t know what either of them are talking about.
Clearly, Binx is aware of his problem, and he sees it all around him - a humanity too numb and disconnected to really care about anything.
They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian’s life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human...
It is difficult to express just how clearly and tangibly I also see what Binx is talking about. This malaise almost seems to be a problem unique to our own time, where all of life is seen through screens and images. I have often driven down the highway with my sunglasses on and had it occur to me, "This is just like Steve McQueen or Tom Cruise." We interpret our lives through images and even the imagining of images. Even our thoughts come in snippets - which is why I quit Facebook. I was tired of constantly thinking up my next sentence to share on the social network.

At one point he discusses the fact that it is only pain and death which seem to shake us from our sleep. He is walking with Kate one night and has the following conversation:
Now in the shadow of the camphor tree she stops suddenly, takes my arm in both hands. “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.”
Binx is interested in things - even controversial subjects like politics, but he is unwilling to insert himself into the subject or to take a stand on anything.
Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other.
Bolling himself settles for the little pleasures in life that he can find, and seems content to merely reckon himself a spectator. In one of my favorite sections, we see this sentiment expressed and also get a flavor for Percy's beautiful prose style:
Yet loves revives as we spin homewards along the coast through the early evening. Joy and sadness come by turns, I know now. Beauty and bravery make you sad, Sharon’s beauty and my aunt’s bravery, and victory breaks your heart. But life goes on and on we go, spinning along the coast in a violet light, past Howard Johnson’s and the motels and the children’s carnival. We pull into a bay and have a drink under the stars. It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.
Binx lives to eat, drink, and be merry. However, he can talk about religions of all kinds with everyone. By all accounts he appears to be a deep thinker. He is not a shallow person, but he is stuck thinking in superficial categories and looking at people almost as if they are not there.

The last chapter of the book may be my favorite chapter of any book ever. It begins with Binx's aunt excoriating him because she has realized how untrustworthy, dishonorable, and disconnected from life he really is. I offer an extended quote from her because its such a beautiful cultural analysis:
Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated and are congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity. Oh, we are sincere. I do not deny it. I don’t know anybody nowadays who is not sincere. Didi Lovell is the most sincere person I know: every time she crawls in bed with somebody else, she does so with the utmost sincerity. We are the most sincere Laodiceans who ever got flushed down the sinkhole of history. No, my young friend, I am not ashamed to use the word class. They say out there we think we’re better. You’re damn right we’re better. And don’t think they don’t know it—
Percy repeatedly quashes modern sentimentality. More than once, this subject comes up. What is it that Binx notices about the Presbyterians? They're nice. They're always so nice; they're such nice people. That's what he remembers about them. One gets the sense that Percy does not really think this is what one should be remembered for. As I mentioned before, Binx is aware of these existential problems, but feels in a sense helplessness - despair - at his situation. In his dreamier moments, he thinks of a possibility of what might rescue humanity - maybe shake them loose so that they can really find themselves.
Is it possible that—For a long time I have secretly hoped for the end of the world and believed with Kate and my aunt and Sam Yerger and many other people that only after the end could the few who survive creep out of their holes and discover themselves to be themselves and live as merrily as children among the viny ruins. Is it possible that—it is not too late?
He doesn't really learn his lesson of course, or discover a path out of his predicament.
“What do you plan to do?” I shrug. There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.
It becomes increasingly clear that Binx is still a victim of a dark despair from which he only believes that violence will release humanity. [Warning: Some profanity in the next paragraph]
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde When I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
In the last paragraph of the book, Binx sits in a church parking lot waiting for his fiancee Kate to emerge from religious services. As he's waiting he sees a man getting out of his car and heading into the church.
I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say.
I've never connected so much with a book before. Honestly, I am cut from the same cloth as Binx Bolling. I feel the shallowness all around me - I swim in it and breathe it in and out all day long. I am just as lost in the numb haze as Binx Bolling.

We come to that overarching metaphysical question which weighs upon Binx's readers - is there escape? Is it possible that the bomb has dropped? Is it possible that we can be shaken out of our malaise and into the real human existence we were always meant for? At first I was tempted to answer that no, the bomb hasn't fallen and this malaise is just an affliction of our sinfulness. The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that the bomb did drop two thousand years ago and all of us simply need to crawl out of our holes by the grace of God and start seeing ourselves as ourselves and "living merrily as children."

Favorite One-Liners from The Moviegoer:

"My aunt likes to say she is an Episcopalian by emotion, a Greek by nature and a Buddhist by choice."

"This Midwestern sky is the nakedest loneliest sky in America. To escape it, people live inside and underground."

"As for hobbies, people with stimulating hobbies suffer from the most noxious of despairs since they are tranquillized in their despair."

[You can get an old used copy of the book delivered to your door from Amazon for $4.00 total, or delivered to your Kindle for $4.99]

1 comment:

  1. I have not read the book but I seem to recall there is a connection between the book and the 1973 Howard Johnson's massacre by Mark Essex in New Orleans. Anything to this?


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