September 2010

Christopher Merkel

Past Perfect

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The quarterlife crisis is having a moment. And as such, I'm going to need a moment myself to figure some things out and pin down just what I'm trying to get at here. (You'll have to excuse me. I'm going through some stuff.) But if that book and that blog and the countless articles in both the mainstream and indie press are to be believed, this generation of late twenty-somethings is on an all time high of anxiety and disillusionment. Of course, generational angst is no groundbreaking subject for literary fiction -- especially not in the American tradition. The great American novel might even be typified by each generation's attempts at narrating its unique malaise. But again, of course, stories on the subject won't ever fail to capture our attention fully rapt, at least inasmuch as it's something like our own particular someone or somewhere to which we're being treated on the page. Sometimes, though, there comes along a book that doesn't just establish itself as a classic of its age, perfectly adumbrating the grasping spirit of its own place and time, but that manages also to be prescient of the trials of generations to come. Walker Percy's The Moviegoer is just such a book.

Explanation by analogy may be inherently weaker than writing in more certain terms, but The Moviegoer, first published in 1961, demands comparison to other works of the American canon by its very premise. Binx Bolling, the New Orleans stockbroker protagonist of Percy's novel, introduces himself and his "search" for something beyond his everyday by the cultural references that have come to define him:

Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives... What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Bolling is, of course, a moviegoer, and the magic of the silver screen is consistently more captivating to him than his dalliances with his secretaries or the high society concerns of his family in the Garden District. He's not unhappy with making money or making his way, but his search requires that he identify a special philosophical underpinning of his own to keep him going. He hasn't anything exactly in mind, but it's not God, and probably the search is just the seeking. It's anything maybe, just to avoid living "as an Anyone living Anywhere." Classic existential angst, ten a penny; and in any case the jacket copy of The Moviegoer can get you that far.

What then, beyond the force of its National Book Award, keeps The Moviegoer in the annals of the must reads? What makes Percy stand out as more than just an easy successor to an established tradition? Bolling isn't unlike Holden Caulfield, with his trenchant eye for identifying insincerity and self-deceit -- although Bolling's indiminishable Southernness keeps the voice of his observations much more genteel. (Nowhere would Holden Caulfield be caught dead decrying phoniness by remarking that "a rumble has commenced in my descending bowel, heralding a tremendous defecation.") It's also not difficult to draw comparisons between Bolling's relationship with his "fragile" cousin Kate and the relationship shared by Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, though in The Moviegoer Percy trades the south of France for the oyster bars of the French Quarter and a night train to Chicago.

But The Moviegoer is more than just Southern charm (which, granted, it has, to a considerable degree). It's more than just another call-out of the hollow promises of making it in America or the silly pretensions of America's would-be aristocracy. The Moviegoer, after nearly five decades of who knows how many write-ups, deserves another review because The Moviegoer is now, more than ever.

Binx Bolling is on the eve of his thirtieth birthday and doing his best to dodge the social demands of another Mardi Gras. He's exhaustedly familiar with every brand of Carnival tourist and the expected antics of the parade krewes and their familial and institutional allegiances. He enjoys his drives along the Gulf with his string of dates, but the string is entertaining as a continuum and not for any of its discreet points. Nothing in particular is wrong with Bolling's life except, somehow, for everything. Or, rather, everything that Bolling does he does to stave off his detestation of the weightlessness of the nothing in particular. He's established in a life but wants nothing much to do with the things that helped create or maintain it. And so the winding amorphousness of his search. Bolling is in the midst of a quarterlife crisis. His angst may be classic, but its experience is well ahead of its time.

Maybe it's just the charm of understanding the chaos of the present through the repetition of such a well known piece of culture, but that's exactly the pattern of Bolling's search. The angst of today's discontented youth is the confused exhaustion of being so aware of a culture of cultural self-awareness. That said, there may not be anything more to get from The Moviegoer than "getting it," but Walker Percy seems to get that too. Bolling meets a man on a bus who he recognizes as a kindred seeker and identifies him immediately as another moviegoer, even though the man doesn't appear to share Bolling's passion for moviegoing.

On a side note, if we're to give Percy credit for his forward understanding of the human American condition, he should also be required to stand criticism for the aspects of his novel that fall victim to the limited perspectives of his generation. No amount of Southern charm can gloss the not-so-latent racism, sexism, and homophobia that surface throughout Bolling's story. They're none of them surprising for the setting of The Moviegoer, but still it's good to know that time has meant progress on some fronts.

And yet, the relevance of what's unchanged is undeniable. Binx Bolling is acutely aware of repetitions. Different moments played out against the same smells of a season and the same sights of a neighborhood. "The re-enactment of a past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time." Reading The Moviegoer in the age of the quarterlife crisis is to experience a successful repetition. Bolling, a Korean War veteran, remembers an occasion on which he noticed a Nivea ad that he'd seen in the exact same incarnation twenty years earlier. The effect was to erase history, and war and its deaths and wanderings. "Nothing of consequence could have happened because Nivea Creme was exactly the same."

Binx Bolling, the successful stockbroker, couldn't have anticipated the financial crises of the years that intervened between his story and the present, the most significant of which was in large part a catalyst for the disillusionment of the present day youth who share his search. But it's the stuff of great books that let us read and repeat and look back to notice that maybe it was just time -- and time again -- and that maybe nothing of consequence had really happened at all. And theaters, and oyster bars, and night trains aren't such bad places at all to be made that reminder.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Vintage
ISBN: 0375701966
241 Pages