Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Three o'clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke.  A young man am I, twenty-nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient.  At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.

My mother made up a cot in my corner of the porch.  It is a good place, with the swamp all around and the piles stirring with every lap of water.

But, good as it is, my old place is used up (places get used up by rotary and repetitive use) and when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it--but disaster.  Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.

A significant part of my excitement over my first trip to New Orleans, about a month ago, was that it gave me a great reason to re-read one of my favorite books, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.  Its protagonist, Binx Bolling, talks about what he calls the "phenomenon of certification," in which a place becomes more real and specific to you because you have seen it in a movie.  Maybe it wasn't quite in the same way, but The Moviegoer certified New Orleans for me.  I enjoyed walking around the Marigny, a little trapezoidal neighborhood of colored clapboard houses near the French Quarter, but I enjoyed it twice as much because it provided a visual context for the scenes in the novel set there.  The novel and the place enriched each other.

Once, we drove out to a Payless (my friends' shoes were destroyed in a sudden downpour) on a road called Elysian Fields, in the northern part of the city.  It might have been any other southern town, what Binx calls an Anywhere.  But in the novel, Binx himself lives on Elysian Fields, farther to the north, in a suburb called Gentilly on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.  And though we didn't get that far, just looking up the street was enough to defeat that Anywhere sense, because the novel pulled it out of the infinity of places and made it into a here and now:

Every place of arrival should have a booth set up and manned by an ordinary person whose task it is to greet strangers and give them a little trophy of local space-time stuff--tell them of his difficulties in high school and put a pinch of soil in their pockets--in order to insure that the stranger shall not become an Anyone...

It seems strange that Binx, who frets about "everydayness" and the thought of his life receding into the undifferentiated morass of "Anywhere" and "Anyone," should live in the suburbs.  Stranger still that he dreams of leaving his job as a stockbroker and opening up a gas station.  Binx tells us that he has decided to undertake "the search":

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 easily overlooked.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.  This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island.  And what does such a castaway do?  Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn't miss a trick.

As I pointed out in my 2008 review, Percy cannily never says a "search for" something, because to name the object of the search would be to complete it.  But it has to do with that threat of "everydayness," and coming into harmony with where and when one is.  "There is a danger," he tells us, "of slipping clean out of space and time.  It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville."  But the search has no practical element; Binx goes on living his very ordinary life just as, presumably, he has been doing for many years prior to the novel's beginning. 

The search, it seems, is undertaken merely by the awareness of it.  Perhaps it is his awareness of being on the search that leads Binx to fall in love with his cousin (by marriage), Kate.  The section of the novel where Binx and Kate travel by train to Chicago for a stockbroker's conference (or something) and they fall in love are romantic and strange.  Kate has a mental illness, which reads like but is not named as bipolar disorder, and has frequent breakdowns.  She elicits a promise of marriage from Binx, saying she wants him to tell her what to do for the rest of her life:

She takes the bottle.  "Will you tell me what to do?"


"You can do it because you are not religious.  God is not religious.  You are the unmoved mover.  You don't need God or anyone else--no credit to you, unless it is a credit to be the most self-centered person alive.  I don't know whether I love you, but I believe in you and I will do what you tell me.  Now if I marry you, will you tell me: Kate, this morning do such and such, and if we have to go to a party, will you tell me: Kate, stand right there and have three drinks and talk to so and so?  Will you?"

In a lesser novel, this would read as a kind of sexist wish fulfillment, the male fantasy of being protector and provider.  But Kate is not a stand-in for all women--she is not an Anyone--and her anxieties resonate with Binx's philosophical meandering.  What is for Binx a nagging question is for Kate a continual crisis: how to respond to the immensity of space and time.  The innumerable possibilities of life paralyze Kate, just as they create a kind of malaise in Binx.  He says that only disaster can break the grip of everydayness; Kate lives inside that disaster perpetually.  Each discovers on the train that they can find an escape from these forces by relying on each other, and it's not exactly romantic comedy stuff, but somehow it's more urgent, and more satisfying.

The Moviegoer is a great book.  It would probably be forgotten today if not for its upset victory at the 1962 National Book Awards, beating both Catch-22 and Franny and Zooey. I love both of those books, but The Moviegoer was the right call.  Its depth is remarkable, and I feel as if I could re-read it another twenty times and not fully appreciate it.