Percy, Walker (1960). The Moviegoer; New York: Knopf
This American existentialist story is set after the Korean war, in the 1950’s. As with many post-war novels (The Sheltering Sky, The Stranger, etc.) it asks what meaning can a person find in ordinary life after the horrors of war. War negates meaning, especially for those who fight it. Today, as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan to a depressed, jobless economy, the question is as sharp as ever.
Binx Bolling, Korean war veteran, belongs to a wealthy, aristocratic New Orleans family, but he tries to keep his distance. He lives alone in a suburb, works as a stockbroker, goes to movies, and avoids the social whirlwind of Carnival week. To fend off loneliness he has affairs with his secretaries, but his main concern is his “Search,” for the meaning of things. The first phase of his search, he reports, was “vertical,” in which he turned to science to discover the essence of the universe (and therefore, presumably, what everything means). That search was unsuccessful, as described in my favorite passage from the novel:
“The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable, whereupon I went out and saw a movie called It Happened One Night which was itself very good. A memorable night. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”
So Binx began his “horizontal search,” trying to make sense of just his own experience, whatever happened when he walked outside his door. Does Binx find meaning, or does he just give up and settle for the living death of ordinary everydayness like everyone else? The ending is ambiguous.
Essentially nothing happens in his life or in the story. Binx has lunches and dinners, sells some property, takes a train ride, goes to a sales convention, acting like most people, who he calls the “non-suicidal dead,” walking like zombies through life. The difference is that on the inside, Binx is searching for meaning. He notices things, for example, that “…all the friendly and likeable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”
There is southern charm in the novel, especially in social relations, which are well-revealed in encounters between Binx and his aristocratic aunt who finds sufficient meaning in simply being richer than most people (which she naturally interprets as being of superior quality). Binx isn’t convinced. He tries to care for his bipolar cousin, Kate, who struggles to find meaning within her psychiatric condition, an interesting juxtaposition to Binx’s search. Are they both crazy? Is it crazy to search for meaning in a world that has none?
I paused at a dismissive review of the novel online. The reviewer said “The characters are boring, narcissistic, and dull,” and therefore he hated the book. It’s a valid description of the characters, but of course that is the point of the novel. Most people numb themselves with food, drugs, and mass media, hoping to never see ripples in the pond of everyday existence. When loss, sickness, and death come around, most people cry, grit their teeth, and chalk it up to “God’s mysterious ways.” It is thus possible to live with canned meaning and never undertake the personal search that Binx and Kate do. Nearly everyone I know accepts pre-fab cultural or religious meaning. Is there any blame in that?