[percy-l] We Still Live Within the Mediated, Alienated World of “The Moviegoer”

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Wed Jan 2 15:34:28 EST 2019


*We Still Live Within the Mediated, Alienated World of “The Moviegoer”*

By Paul Elie

The New Yorker / 2 January 2019

Walker Percy’s novel, from 1961, may be the first work of what we call
contemporary American fiction.Photograph from AP

That it isn’t really about movies is the first surprise. Binx Bolling, the
novel’s main character, is only an occasional moviegoer, both by the
standards of postwar America (when Martin Scorsese would see a movie a day)
and those of the present, when many of us spend most of our time looking at
one screen or another.

“The Moviegoer” isn’t really about movies, and yet the title remains
unexpectedly apt, just as it was when the novel, published in 1961, became
a surprise winner of the National Book Award and made a sudden Southern
eminence of its author, Walker Percy, a nonpracticing physician and
self-taught philosopher in early middle age. It’s apt because it moves the
novel (and our expectations for the novel) out of the South. It intimates
that this novel, set in New Orleans, the region’s most storied city, isn’t
about history or legacy, isn’t about place at all: it’s about how we see
things—a novel of perception and sensibility, dealing with the search for
authenticity in a scripted, stylized, mediated world.

Percy’s contemporary Flannery O’Connor characterized the literature of the
American South at midcentury as set against the typical. In O’Connor’s
view, there was no typical Southern novel, and that was a good thing; for
her, the best Southern novel was atypical just as life in the South (in her
time, as she saw it) was atypical of American life as a whole. The Southern
novel she celebrated takes unusual, extreme, even grotesque, behavior as
its starting point. Such a novel is rooted, she explained, in “some
experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the
ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. . . . Yet the
characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their
social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social
patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.”

“As I Lay Dying,” and “Wise Blood,” and later “A Confederacy of Dunces” and
“The Color Purple” and “Fishboy”: these novels are fiercely atypical. But
the originality of “The Moviegoer” is more paradoxical than theirs. Unlike
the novels of the South that have something of the heightened quality that
came to be called gothic, “The Moviegoer” becomes atypical through its
scrutiny of the typical. It takes ordinary experience—“everydayness,” Binx
calls it—and makes it the subject of fitful philosophical inquiry. It
promises a typical moviegoer but delivers the inimitable Binx. It calls
literary categories to mind by leaning away from them.

“The Moviegoer” makes scant reference to the Civil War, to racial conflict,
to old houses and barrel-aged whiskey and the notion of the South as a
place where people sit around telling tall tales on front porches, whose
“tragic” history somehow binds them together. It’s a novel of New Orleans
where the protagonist winds up missing Mardi Gras for a stockbrokers’
convention in Chicago.

It’s a Catholic novel (the main action takes place in the days before Ash
Wednesday), and yet one whose protagonist considers himself not much of a
Catholic at all, but a skeptic whose “unbelief was invincible from the
beginning”—who tells us, “I have only to hear the word God and a curtain
comes down in my head.”

It’s a distinctly American novel, but one that stands apart from the main
line from Hawthorne to Twain to James and Wharton and then to Fitzgerald,
Hemingway, and Cather—the double helix of innocents at home and innocents
abroad. Its key antecedents are the European existentialists Kierkegaard,
Sartre, and Camus—the latter two of whom were also important for Ralph
Ellison, who drew inspiration from them a decade before Percy, in writing
“Invisible Man.”

It’s a novel of the search—“the pilgrim’s search outside himself, rather
than the guru’s search within,” Percy liked to say—but without the usual
signposting. There’s no journey to a strange culture, no savvy guide, no
sloughing off of one self and the taking on of another; no raft and river,
no feasting or fasting, no new world at the end of the journey. There’s
just the “everydayness” of Binx’s life in New Orleans and the slight
diversion of an overnight train ride.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, but one whose protagonist is nearly twice the
age of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Binx is about to turn thirty, an age
by which American men of midcentury were expected to have settled into
their adult lives. He is a college graduate, a veteran, a stocks-and-bonds
broker—and yet his self is “left over,” as Percy put it in an essay.
Nearing thirty, Binx is gripped by “the possibility of the search” as if
for the first time. The novel was a surprise even to its author. As he
wrote it, Percy, like Binx, was forced out of himself and compelled to
court, as O’Connor wrote, “mystery and the unexpected” as never before.

In outline, Percy’s early life was more atypical than that of any character
he created. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916, the eldest of
three sons in a prosperous family of planters, lawyers, and politicians.
When Percy was thirteen, his father committed suicide (as his father had
done before him). Two years later, his mother died in a car accident that
was thought by some to have been an act of self-harm. Percy and his
brothers, LeRoy and Phinizy, had gone to Greenville, Mississippi, to live
with his father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, and there Walker Percy
fell under the spell of this Southern man of the manor, whom he and his
brothers called Uncle Will. Educated at Sewanee and Harvard Law School, a
veteran of the Great War, a bachelor, religiously inclined, Uncle Will ran
the plantation, presided over the civic life of Greenville, wrote poetry,
exulted in orchestral music and opera, and served, Percy recalled, as
“something of a spokesman for the South.” And he raised the three orphaned
Percys in the spirit of the questions he liked to pose: “What do you love?
What do you live by?”

In part to get out of the great man’s shadow, Percy went north and east: to
the University of North Carolina (where he was a steady moviegoer) and then
to Columbia University’s medical school, in upper Manhattan. Drawn to the
study of the causes of disease more than to the care of patients, he
followed a course in medical pathology. As the Second World War began, he
interned at Bellevue Hospital, notorious as the place where the city’s
destitute were tended to—and there he contracted tuberculosis. At
sanatoriums in Connecticut and upstate New York, he followed the regimen of
rest and fresh air that was the nearest thing to a cure for the disease. As
his TB went into remission, he began to imagine that he could pursue a
career as a writer rather than as a medical doctor. “I was in bed so much,
alone so much, that I had nothing to do but read and think,” he recalled.
“I began to question everything I had once believed.” Reading Thomas Mann,
Sartre, and Kierkegaard, Percy came to see the novelist as a diagnostician
and the novel—the philosophical novel—as a tool with which to probe the
pathology of the modern world.

Religion became another instrument. Out of the sanatorium, prompted by
conversations with a Catholic fellow-convalescent and recently made aware
(through William Alexander Percy’s late-in-life autobiography, “Lanterns on
the Levee”) of Uncle Will’s strong attraction to Catholicism, Percy himself
was drawn to the church. He had fallen in love with a nurse he knew in New
Orleans, Mary Bernice Townsend, and they were married in a Baptist church;
and then he and Bunt, as she was called, converted to Catholicism and
settled in Louisiana, first in New Orleans and then in the burgeoning
suburb of Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain. Why the turn to religion?
The reason, Percy later said, was that he saw Catholicism as true, and its
truths as standards by which to measure and assess the problems he saw with
life in the twentieth century.

Ten years passed. Percy and Bunt adopted a baby girl, and Bunt gave birth
to another girl. Percy, living on inheritances, worked at being a writer.
He wrote two novels, each a Southern bildungsroman: “one a bad imitation of
Thomas Mann,” he later said, “the other a worse imitation of Thomas
Wolfe—which is very bad indeed.” Inspired by the postwar philosophers
Gabriel Marcel (a French Catholic) and Susanne K. Langer, he began to write
philosophical essays, using them to puzzle out quandaries of everyday
life—such as those of the businessman-commuter in the essay he called “The
Man on the Train.” The essays, strong and strange, were published in
quarterlies of literature and philosophy, and few people read them.

The Percys’ younger daughter, Ann, was deaf, and they placed her in a day
school for students with hearing impairments in New Orleans. Percy bought a
small house nearby, in the Uptown district, where he spent time during the
school day. There, away from his library, his immediate family, his
history, his personal story of death and loss, disease and rejuvenation, he
came up with the character of John Bickerson Bolling and a loose narrative
he called “Confessions of a Movie-Goer.”

A literary agent sent the manuscript to a junior editor in New York,
Stanley Kauffmann, who was also the movie critic for The New Republic.
Kauffmann abbreviated the title and edited the text thoroughly—sharpening
the quick cuts, juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and sudden shifts of topic
and tonal register that give Binx’s narration, and the novel, its
distinctive style.

Published in 1961, lightly publicized, little noticed, “The Moviegoer”
found its way to A. J. Liebling, The New Yorker writer, who had written a
biography of the Louisiana governor Earl Long and was steeped in the
culture and flavor of New Orleans. Liebling shared the novel with his wife,
the novelist Jean Stafford, who was a judge for the National Book Awards
that year, and the novel, not formally nominated, was put up for
consideration. It was a strong year for American fiction: J. D. Salinger’s
“Franny and Zooey,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” William Maxwell’s “The
Château,” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street” were
all nominated. The award went to “The Moviegoer.” Percy, accepting the
prize in New York, framed the novel in terms he had explored in his essays
(and which he would develop for the rest of his career): the sickness of
modern Western society, the loss of the sense of the self, the role of the
writer as diagnostician. Concluding, he made his most vital point
indirectly: “In short, the book attempts a modest restatement of the
Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment,
more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative
individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”

Percy was a late starter as a novelist, and Binx Bolling is late coming of
age, but Percy’s novel of Binx’s coming of age was ahead of its time. With
its slack and offhand protagonist, its present-tense narration, its
effortless mix of informal speech, images from popular culture, and frank
ruminations on the meaning of life, “The Moviegoer” is, in my estimation,
the first work of what we call contemporary American fiction, the earliest
novel to render a set of circumstances and an outlook that still feel
recognizably ours.

Faulkner once characterized his approach to writing as “oratory out of
solitude.” Of this approach Percy made a new thing altogether. The solitude
of “The Moviegoer” isn’t the solitude of a rebel or an independent, but
that of a person who is alone in a crowd—in a movie theatre or on a
sidewalk in the French Quarter. The oratory in the book isn’t that of the
Bible or of Stoic philosophy or of a Russian novel but of a voice-over—the
present-tense monologue of the person who does not tell a story so much as
self-consciously offer a running commentary on life as it passes before his

The present tense of the narration has acted as a preservative in the
novel. The manners and everyday details, so closely observed, are
noticeably those of another time. Businessmen (no longer called that) no
longer wear hats to the office, and their come-ons to their female
subordinates are understood as coercive and manipulative, not perks of the
job; the “silent reproaches” Binx discerns from his secretaries are said
aloud. African-Americans are no longer confined to the back of the bus or
prized patronizingly for their “devotion” to white people who employ them;
Jewish people are no longer reflexively regarded as figures of displacement
and exile. Cinemas are no longer called movie houses, and their managers no
longer stand under the marquee offering passersby a “sample look” on a slow
night. The trim certainties of the “Baltimore Catechism” (the stuff of the
novel’s epilogue) are now unknown to even the devoutest Catholic child.

And yet for all that, “The Moviegoer” seems to describe the way we live
now, for its affectless protagonist observes a society whose every aspect
seems mediated, contrived, statistically anticipated, manipulated in
advance, so that direct experience of life can seem as elusive as the
experience of God.

Don DeLillo, a novelist of a generation younger than Walker Percy, spoke of
the qualities of the novels that emboldened him to write fiction, and
fiction of a particular kind. “There’s a drive and a daring that go beyond
technical invention,” he said. “I think it’s right to call it a life-drive
even though these books deal at times very directly with death. No
optimism, no pessimism. No homesickness for lost values or for the way
fiction used to be written. These books open out onto some larger mystery.”

Southern, Catholic, ironic, oblique: “The Moviegoer” doesn’t add up, quite.
What is it about? What has come of Binx’s search? What has prompted him to
settle down with Kate and embrace everydayness with quasi-religious
devotion? “It is impossible to say,” Binx remarks in the last line of the
novel proper. It is impossible to say. And yet “The Moviegoer,” like its
central character, has an inner coherence. Its take on everydayness has the
quality of wonder that is the novel’s true subject. It opens out onto some
larger mystery, one that we, no less than he, are still trying to solve.

* * *

*Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, is the author of “The
Life You Save May Be Your Own”—a group portrait of Walker Percy, Flannery
O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day—and “Reinventing Bach.”*

* * *
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