Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Desultory Thoughts on The Moviegoer

Linking up with Housewife Spice, the best name in the biz, for What We are Reading Wednesday!

I read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy knowing nothing more about it than that it came highly recommended by People Who Know Good Things, and I had heard the phrase, "fundamentally Catholic," bantered about. But I had also heard it referred to as "overrated existentialist ramblings," so you know I just couldn't wait to dig in.

Virtually plotless and almost devoid of action, Percy's introspective novel is the narrative experience of a post-war New Orleans stockbroker, Jack Bolling, on the eve of his 30th birthday. Falling into a series of meaningless relationships, business pursuits and junkets, Bolling has spent the preceding years grasping at anything that will quell the inner malaise he fears is swallowing him and the rest of the world whole. He awakens one morning to discover that "a search," indefinable in nature, has been aroused within him. He interprets this as a sign of life, an escape from "everydayness." Jack describes, "To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." A curt existentialist rejection that the search is for "the meaning of life" or for Religion brings the reader into Bolling's mindset that the action of the search itself is an anti-death and rejection of complacency. The Moviegoer chronicles the few days after Jack has discovered this yearning, studying life around him in search of clues.  

Honestly, even I don't want to read my own analysis of Bolling and the tragic figure Kate as they wade toward each other through the mucky mid-century waters of Death by Apathy, but I will tell you what I love. 

I love Percy's easy, descriptive, matter of fact tone, his courteous refusal to leave the reader behind in psychological babble or odd symbolism with indeterminate conclusions.  Instead Jack walks right along with his listener, relaying his thoughts, memories, mysteries and conclusions as easily as a recipe for pecan pie. We know when and why Jack perceives what he perceives, why he feels he is onto something, a "clue" in his search. Most importantly, why he grimly cannot grasp that essential key placed just beyond his tepid soul's reach.

I love the similarities I see in my own narcissistic wanderings, my own continual battle against Deadness. Jack calls himself "the moviegoer" because, as he says, he is "always happy in a movie;" in fact, the theater he frequents proclaims, "Where Happiness Costs So Little." Which is mainly the way I feel about reading. He finds within films, as I do in books, not just an escape from the "sinking into everydayness," but a full on display of characters on a quest, and in earnest, which is a comfort. Unfortunately, he finds, as I do, that quite often the hero comes to the wrong, happy conclusion. The film ends with an ever after that is nothing more than discovering that he no doubt "settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks' time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead."

I love the tragic, mentally unstable and lovely Kate, Jack's Aunt's step-daughter whose charm and fortune have made her a favorite, her own psychological incapacity for happiness keeping her at arm's length with sanity. While as much unlike the alluring Kate as another lady can be, I identify with her nervous passion and despondency, and I believe she is the only individual, real or fictionalized, that shares my tendency for tearing my thumbs to shreds as a pastime. A true analysis of my mental state can be quickly surmised by a visual survey of how much abuse my thumbs have endured. Jack's repeated descriptions of Kate's poor thumbs as she loses her grip on life almost scared me into stopping the habit (almost.)  And I have come to the same conclusion about life that poor Kate comes to, a turning point, of sorts. "If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people-you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would." 

I would, too, Kate. But instead, we will no doubt spend the wee hours of the night contemplating right choices, right actions and scraping our thumbs.

I love Bolling's excavation of the trappings of others' souls: as Jack navigates his own quest, everyone around him is subject to his contemplation and dissection. The subject of this passage was a lonely bus passenger, and quite frankly the closest description of myself I have ever heard, (well, if I were a guy and lived his life, you know what I mean...)

"To put him out of his misery, I go over and ask him how he likes his book... I have identified him through his shyness...merely a romantic. Now he closes his book and stares hard at it as if he would, by dint of staring alone, tear from it its soul in a word. 'It's-very good,' he says at last and blushes. The poor fellow. He has just begun to suffer from it, this miserable trick the romantic plays upon himself: of setting just beyond his reach the very thing he prizes just as such a meeting, the chance meeting with a chance friend on a chance bus, a friend he can talk to, unburden himself of some of his terrible longings. Now having encountered such a one, me, the rare bus friend, of course he strikes himself dumb...He is a moviegoer, though he doesn't go to movies."

Arriving at the kind of non-conclusion the reader expects, I don't mind telling you that the story ends with a sense of hope, a sense that the search, although inconclusive, is worth pursuing, that Jack isn't after-all destined to live out simply the horrid happy ending of the actors in the movies. There is more to it than that. So maybe, if you're into plotless, internal sojourns relayed with candor, you'll probably enjoy it. 

If you ask me, I'll tell you, "It's-very good."


  1. 1. You could write book reviews for a living! (Well, or just write a book...that too.)
    2. Now I want some pecan pie.

  2. Wow, you are quite a writer! I'm not sure I'll read "The Moviegoer" (although I'm very intrigued now), but I think YOU should write a book.

    Also, I thought I was alone in my tendency to tear my thumbs to shreds! I pick at the skin on mine until it's raw at times. It's a habit that embarrasses me, but I can't seem to stop. Thanks for writing about that--I don't feel quite so strange now! (Although Kate sounds pretty strange...)

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully written review.

    1. Oh no! That is not a distinction I would love to share with anyone! Oh well, at least we know we aren't alone!

    2. Fellow thumb shredder here. It's a real thing. Dermatophagia.

    3. Okay, this evidence shows it must be a cool girl thing.

  3. I think that reading your review counts as reading the book. Since it's so smart, insightful, and beautifully written, I will shamelessly pass off what I've gleaned from it as my own understanding. "Percy's 'Moviegoer'? Oh yes, that work is a prime example of the author's courteous refusal to leave the reader behind in psychological babble or odd symbolism with indeterminate conclusions. Masterful."

    Now I just need to find the perfect moment where I can say that, then immediately remove myself from the conversation before the other person asks a followup question.

    1. Cari, you are so funny. It makes me anxious to read your Pope Awesome book.

    2. Ha! I'm going to memorize this line too. Maybe someday I will be smart enough to write something like this on my own. Until then, Imma plagiarize Rebekah.

  4. Wow wow wow. I read this for my bookclub and we had a good discussion and made some sense out of it and what it all meant and then I completely forgot what that meaning was. I agree that the ending was hopeful. The rest still makes me feel like a philistine. :-)

  5. This makes me want to re-read The Moviegoer now! What a fantastic description of the book, I think that Percy somehow writes in the style of a modernist but with the soul of a person with faith. I always have a hard time putting my finger on it, but I like it!

  6. The Moviegoer has been on my to-read list for quite a're convincing me to move it to the top!


I heart comments!