Monday, June 10, 2013
on The Moviegoer and why Walker Percy is so cool
"We did very badly and almost did not do at all. Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit (for despising is not the worst fate to overtake the flesh), but until this moment seen through and canceled, rendered null by the cold and fishy eye of malaise-- flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope-- quails and fails. The truth is I was frightened half to death by her bold (not really bold, not whorish bold but theorish bold) carrying on. I reckon I am used to my blushing Lindas from Gentilly. Kate too was scared. We shook like leaves. Kate was scared because it seemed now that even Tillie the Tolier must fail her. I never worked so hard in my life, Rory. I had no choice: the alternative was unspeakable. Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. 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 (Look at us Binx-- my vagabond friend as good as cried out to me-- we're sinning! We're succeeding! We're human after all!). "
The Moviegoer is only 241 pages, and I am on page 203, and I really really really do not want to finish reading it. I believe that everything we do, every single day, changes who we are and the way we are in the world. These slight changes build labyrinths within us that the heart and mind navigate, and when a new route is discovered, it seems like the whole of the self changes with great immediacy. For me, some books can propel this action. The Moviegoer is one of those well placed books in my personal chronology-- meaning that I am reading the right book at the exact right time in my life-- and it is constructing a strange momentum within me. The constructs of the novella are so dense that not only am I reading it as slow as possible, but I am writing and rewriting parts of the story, attempting to memorize scenes and feelings. I think this story is so ill-received because of the first person narrative of a post-war southern character that suffers from an extreme disconnect with the world, and it isn't that he doesn't want to connect, but that everything is static and unreliable, everything except money.
"Kate shakes her head slowly in the rapt way she got from her stepmother. I try to steer her away from beauty. Beauty is a whore.
"You see that building yonder? That's Southern Life & Accident. If you had invested a hundred dollars in 1942, you'd now be worth twenty five thousand. Your father bought a good deal of the original stock" Money is a better god than beauty.
"You don't know what I mean," she cries in the same soft rapture.
I know what she means all right. But I know something she doesn't know. Money is a good counterpoise to beauty. Beauty, the quest of beauty alone, is whoredom. Ten years ago I pursued beauty and gave no thought to money. I listened to the lovely tunes of Mahler and felt a sickness in my very soul. Now I pursue money and on the whole feel better."
Binx is successful but estranged, and his time in the Korean war, the enormous wound on his shoulder, is all but ignored. Everyone around him is consumed with the problems of a poor little suicidal rich girl, who is never described with great beauty, but she receives proposals nonstop. Binx is exacting. All of his old gods are crumbling or dead and he is not religious within the Catholic constraints of his wealthy New Orleans family. Therefore, because of this disconnect, there is not too much dialogue. When characters are talking, Binx is tuning out to their words and he pays attention to their tone and body language. He even says that he can tell if suicidal Kate is okay by the tone of her voice, not the dark words she chooses to say. The words mean nothing. The disconnect and miss communication of the world around him is the centerpiece of Binx's thoughts while he is on the search.
And because the world and the people around Binx are so static and fragmentary and do not resolutely stand for anything or mean anything, he turns to film. The parts of The Moviegoer when Binx is in a theatre are some of the most vivid and connected scenes. Better than this, when Binx takes his younger, handicapped brother to the drive-in, and the brother is laying on the hood of the car, his back on the windshield, he keeps turning around with that conspiratorial look in his eye, like the two are sharing this first time experience of this first time viewing of this amazing film and they are there and in it and connected to it together.
And that's how I feel about this book. I want to read the conversation and write about the conversation and talk about the conversation before I move on because it feels like I could miss something or forget something or pass over some lock and key that could completely develop the labyrinth within me.
Furthermore, this book was published in 1961 and has a pretty scandalous history for winning the National Book Award, which everyone believes was fixed because The Moviegoer beat out Catch 22 and Franny and Zooey. It took forever to figure out who nominated Percy, then a no name writer, because the editor that took on the book for publication was fired from Knopf for taking on the book, and The Moviegoer was not well known and hadn't even sold through its first printing. And that is so bad ass. That victory is what a writer's dreams are made of.