The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Tags:  general-fiction,

Having just read Jean Hanff Korelitz' The Plot, I found this book to be a difficult slog indeed. The Plot is genre fiction (a thriller), and as such, the author takes care to limit her cast to a manageable number of characters, to delineate those characters clearly, to define where and when scenes take place, to focus the scenes on consequential action and dialog, to build tension and steadily advance a coherent plot.

You’ll find none of that in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and it’s not because he’s a bad writer. It’s by design.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Twenty-nine-year-old John, aka Jack, aka Binx Bolling is adrift in a world he can’t connect to and doesn’t much care for. Born to a wealthy family in New Orleans, he has taken the path of least resistance and become a stock broker. The work is easy, and he can knock off at five and go to the movies, which is one of his favorite pastimes.

This is how Binx introduces himself early in the first chapter:

I manage a small branch office of my uncle’s brokerage firm. My home is the basement apartment of a raised bungalow belonging to Mrs. Schexnaydre, the widow of a fireman. I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me. My wallet is full of identity cards, library cards, credit cards… It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer, and safe driving…

You can see this guy is a joker. He flows along with the current of modern American society, circa 1961, but nothing really means anything to him. Beneath the glib surface, however, is a pit of despair. Binx is painfully aware of his nihilism. He calls it “the malaise,” and when he’s not giving in and going with the flow of what society expects of a man his age, he’s trying to engineer experiences that will pierce the malaise, that feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness.

His twenty-five-year-old cousin Kate, his only kindred spirit in the book, describes the malaise more succinctly as a tightrope over the void. She walks that tightrope, doing what’s expected of her even though it’s meaningless and unfulfilling and soul-crushing. She does it because abandoning the tightrope means falling into a bottomless pit of despair–which she occasionally does.

An earlier age would diagnose both Binx and Kate with spiritual maladies. Both have lost faith and are in despair. This is, in fact, the core theme of the book. Binx notes at one point that modern science and industry have fulfilled all our material needs, and yet everyone around him, the whole of society, is dead. Spiritually dead. There is no greater meaning to aspire to.

Until about two-thirds of the way through, I thought this book was dated, that it described the kind of mid-century alienation that Camus described in The Stranger and Hemingway described in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. When science displaced religion as the explainer of all things, it took away God, leaving a gaping hole in the human psyche. There was no longer anything beyond this life, and hence to purpose to our being. We arise from the earth, suffer, die, and melt back into the ground without purpose. Who wouldn’t despair at that?

In place of God–a distant, abstract promise that can be neither measured nor confirmed–science and industry gave us a world of things, and the point of life is to go out and get them. For Binx and Kate, seekers of meaning, this is pointless. Binx responds by being the empty shell of a man the modern world asks him to be, an automaton going through the motions of a white-collar job in exchange for the validation of the paycheck, the credit card, the library card. While others admire him, he knows he’s playing a game, and he knows it’s killing him. His lack of seriousness is his only armor against the emptiness.

Kate, with her breakdowns, has a much harder time. She’s more honest and real than Binx, at a much higher cost.

Once I passed the two-thirds mark, I stopped thinking this book was dated. It is, in fact, very current. The spiritual malaise that Binx laments in himself is no longer confined to the few, the sensitive, the deep thinkers and reflective types. It’s everywhere now. The epidemics of depression, anxiety and other mental illness point not to a weak generation of young people but to a society that has lost all touch with the emotional needs of its citizens.

Historically, society and culture have evolved to give people a sense of meaning and belonging, a sense of place and purpose. That includes an understanding of where you may have come from before you appeared in this world and where you might be going when you leave it.

Modern Western society, driven by science and industry, abdicated the responsibility of providing a sense of meaning and belonging in favor of producing material goods. Our kids, awash in iPhones, affordable cars, Instagram-perfect means and cheap clothing, are spiritually and emotionally starved. Society tries to fix the problem with more and cheaper goods.

Today’s doctors would diagnose Binx with depression and Kate with bipolar disorder. (She has quite a few violent ups and downs in the book. Binx is so tuned into her despair, he can see them all coming, and he knows exactly how to react.) Both characters also have a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Today’s doctors would prescribe them meds to control the symptoms. Very convenient and capitalistic, how science sells you the cure to the disease it inflicted on you. To science, you’re merely a collection of molecules and chemical reactions. If your mind is malfunctioning, all you need is an educated someone to intervene in the chemical processes. Reorder to flow of serotonin and dopamine and you’re good to go. They send you right back out into that empty world with a higher tolerance for its meaninglessness and the problem is solved.

This isn’t going to work for Binx and Kate, both of whom know they’re sick. They want to treat the malady, not the symptoms.

This book was published almost twenty years after Camus' The Stranger, and there are quite a few similarities. Both books portray the world though the eyes of a young man who sharply perceives everything around him but cannot assemble his perceptions into anything meaningful, and certainly not into the same structure of meaning that the society around him generally agrees upon.

The Stranger famously opens with the lines, “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

The second paragraph of The Moviegoer is very similar in subject and tone:

I remember when my older brother Scott died of pneumonia. I was eight years old. My aunt had charge of me and she took me for a walk behind the hospital. I was an interesting street. On one side were the power plant and blowers and incinerator of the hospital, all humming and blowing out a hot meaty smell. On the other side was a row of Negro houses… “I’ve got bad news for you, son,” [said Aunt Emily]… “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It’s going to be difficult for you but I know you’re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?

In both cases, we have a character unable to connect emotionally with the news of a relative’s death. The news is simply one more item in the avalanche of disjointed facts life throws at them.

Camus' narrator, Meursault, describes the world almost entirely in terms of physical sensations. Everywhere he goes, he tells us whether he’s hot or cold, tired or hungry, whether the sun is too bright or the crowds too loud. He experiences sensations but not meaning.

Binx is similar, to a degree, in that her perceives everything–every detail of every scene–but cannot connect the details into a larger, socially meaningful whole the way everyone around him can. In fact, he can’t even differentiate between details that are important and details that are trivial. He simply sprays them all at you through a fire hose of poetic description.

This is what makes the book hard to read. In most fiction, when an author describes an encounter between two characters in a room, he tells us where and when the scene occurs, and then focuses on the action and dialog. He doesn’t waste time describing every book on the shelf and the dust bunnies in the corner and the chips that mar the edge of the dresser, and how those chips were inflicted twenty years ago by some character you’ve never heard of who is dead now anyway. Writers don’t write like that because details that have nothing to do with the plot or the scene at hand simply distract the reader.

Percy does write like that because that’s the way his narrator Binx sees the world. He sees everything, and because he can’t really make sense of the world, he can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. So he reports all of it in excruciating detail. It’s like watching a movie where everything is in the foreground. What do you focus on?

I get the point. Percy wants us to experience the world the way Binx experiences it. But seeing everything at once in too much detail becomes wearing on the reader. Reading The Moviegoer reminds me of a conversation I had with my father when I was young. He asked if I knew how to recognize the music of Wagner. I said no. He said, “Well, if the orchestra starts playing at seven o’clock, and after three hours of music it’s only seven-fifteen, you know it’s Wagner.”

I had the same feeling reading Percy. His prose is dense, often brilliant, and just as often needlessly convoluted. It’s hard for a reader to focus when he can’t get past the basic questions of “Where are we? What is happening now? Which characters are even present in this scene?”

This book is almost pure description, with virtually no narrative, and the description is often dense and abstract. Some straightforward narrative and exposition would really help keep the reader grounded and engaged, instead of puzzling over the basic question of “What the hell is happening now?”

Here’s an example, one of many from the book. And when I say many, I mean this sort of thing happens on almost every page.

Binx’s Aunt Emily, standing in the dining room, has just informed him of her step-daughter Kate’s recent suicide attempt. She says she’s not sure if Kate will want to eat with the family. End of scene.

The next scene begins with this sentence:

There comes to me in the ascent a brief annunciatory syllable in the throat stopped in the scrape of a chair as if, having signaled me and repenting of it, it had then to pass itself off as but one of the small day noises in the house.

What the hell is this about? Where is Binx? What is he ascending? In whose throat is this syllable stopped? What is signaling him, the throat or the syllable or the chair? How does a syllable or a chair repent or pass itself off as anything?

You have to read and re-read the entire page-long paragraph the follows several times, and then go back and read the prior page as well, to piece together the meaning of this sentence.

Binx has gone to find Kate, a process which we must infer involves ascending a staircase. Kate is sitting in a room no one ever sits in, a room in which Binx wouldn’t think to look for her. As he passes, she begins to say something (the brief annunciatory syllable in the throat) but is cut off by the scraping of a chair in the nearby dining room where others are sitting down to lunch. After being cut off, Kate doesn’t make a second effort to get his attention (having signaled me and repenting of it, it [Kate’s syllable] had then to pass itself off as but one of the small day noises in the house).

Any other author would simply have said, “I found Kate sitting alone in the day room.” They might also add that she was ambivalent about being found. Get the narrative out of the way so the description, where warranted, can shine.

This sort of annoyance happens on nearly every page of the book. Characters we didn’t even know were present in the scene start speaking. New characters appear on nearly every other page, with nothing but a name, leaving us to wonder who they are, where they came from, and what they look like. Multiple dialogues occur at the same time, interlaced in the narrative, so that we don’t know who is responding to whom or why the subject keeps changing.

I get it. This is the welter of Binx’s perception, the jumble of the world as he sees it. He can’t give us a structured or coherent narrative because he can’t construct one in his own mind. This is why he goes to the movies. In the movies, the stories are hold together. Feelings and events are connected in a meaningful way. The extraneous bits are filtered out, and what we end up with is a beginning, a middle, an end, and a moral, all of which Binx can succinctly summarize… When he’s talking about movies.

He can’t do this with real life. He’s too bewildered by it all. There is no core in the modern world, no central meaning holding it all together. There’s not even a thread to follow. It’s all just undifferentiated perception, but it’s also acute and profound perception conveyed in dense poetic language.

This book can really try your patience, with long passages of convoluted dullness followed by long passages of eloquent insightful brilliance. I stayed up late finishing it not because I had to know what happened, but because I didn’t want to wake up the next day knowing I had fifty more pages to slog through.

Binx was a man who needed to put his feet on the ground. Where do you find meaning in life? You make a choice. You commit to something. You invest your physical, emotional and mental energy into it and it becomes meaningful. It takes Binx a long time to get there, but he does seem to make it in the end.

And yes, the book is well worth reading and re-reading for its social and psychological insights and for its commentary on the modern world’s effects on the psyche. In fact, a second reading might be better than the first, because once you know what you’re in for, you might stop trying to read this as a traditional narrative and enjoy it more as a collection of observations worthy of deeper reflection. For now, though, I’m glad to be done with it.