existentialism, faith, and wanderlust

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The Moviegoer was recommended to me by a friend who mentioned that it was his favorite work of fiction. It is well-acclaimed, the winner of the National Book Award when it was published in 1961. It is the story of a man who feels trapped in the “everydayness” of life, which produces in him “the malaise.” On the heels of his 30th birthday, Binx Bolling is frantically grasping at straws looking for “The Real Right Thing.” Given my life story to date, i can certainly empathize with the character.

These are just a few of the reasons why i really want to like this book, and strictly speaking i don’t dislike it, per se. i just don’t love it. i want to, but despite multiple readings, it just has not opened up to me that way. Stylistically it is at times ingenious, and utterly heart wrenching. Percy has an incredible gift for poetic imagery, and uses it adeptly throughout the novel. Thematically it is obviously not only applicable to my life, but i feel universal. There is a piece of every man, though he may not know it, that suffers through a certain element of malaise in his life; that same piece that feels triumph or connection when “in the depths of the malaise…he manages to sin like a proper human.” (200) I suppose this is Percy’s way of explaining sin: it is a way for us to feel real and alive and connected. The trouble is, as Binx discovers, these sins never fill the void. Every time he thinks he has done so, he discovers he is still missing something, and the joy runs away. He finds only short term joy in temporary endeavors such as success at work or affairs with his secretaries. Percy is, of course, quite right in this theme: these temporal pleasures, these “memorable moments” in people’s lives are fleeting and transitory and cannot for any length of time satisfy. That is why every person whom Binx encounters, especially the ones who seem to express the most joy, seem to him to be lifeless. “This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.” (100)

Ultimately, to Binx, it is a blessing to him that he can at least identify that he is not happy. Everyone else thinks they are happy, and thus they are, technically speaking, worse off because they don’t know how bad off they truly are. He uses movies as an escape mechanism, a means to live vicariously through people that have something to live for. But even this is just a stop-gap solution, and he knows it:

The movies are on to the search [‘what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life'(13)] but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place–but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian…and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead. (13)

Philosophically the book speaks to me, and its language is powerful and well-crafted. Where i tend to get bogged down is in the particulars of the plot. There is not very much that transpires throughout the course of the novel: he goes to visit his aunt once or twice, talks to his cousin a few times, who happens to be the only other character who is aware of the existence of “the malaise,” and takes a trip to Chicago and back. Most of the time i feel that Binx’s contemplations drown out the plot of the novel, and though i am certain this is how it was meant to be, as it tends to be with people who are wallowing in despair, i am left just the tiniest bit uninterested in the details of the plot. There are a few too many characters to keep up with, many of whom are irrelevant, and there just doesn’t seem to be that moment when the plot escalates to a point of denouement. There is a conclusion, mind you, and it makes sense, i just struggle a bit with the reality of the character’s wanderlust. I have read through the novel a few times now, and though it did become a bit more clear to me the second time around, i can think of equally complicated novels stylistically and equally minimal plot structures that somehow managed to grab me and not let go. (Richard Powers’ “Plowing the Dark” springs to mind, about which i am sure i will soon write.)

Given the universality of the theme, the quality of the writing, and the genuineness and candor of the author, this book ought to do that, and for some reason it just doesn’t. i know it did for my friend, and obviously for many others, so i am willing to continue to give it a shot. If anyone has read it and can enlighten me as to why it is so good, i would love to hear from you. Until then, i cannot help but feel that the novel, due to the sad musings of the protagonist, just seems a bit too mired in despair, and all that wallowing just becomes tedious after a while. The work, as Binx himself, would benefit greatly from a little injection of hope.

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4 thoughts on “existentialism, faith, and wanderlust

  1. I tried to read this book about three times. I only finally got through it as an audiobook. It’s strange, how it didn’t “grab me” either. It’s a pretty short book to have such difficulty reading through it.

    Nevertheless, I did appreciate it when I finished it. I would probably need to re-read it to give a better review myself.

    I don’t think Percy was missing hope, I just think his message was intended to be subtle, and messy, as in real life. There is not a dramatic conversion, but rather a more gradual settling down. If the dramatic event does not happen in one’s life (and for many people it does not) then breaking free from the malaise is a lot more tricky and ill-defined. And you don’t really see the end product because you only see a tiny slice of Binx’s life in the novel.

    I think that Percy’s aim was perhaps more descriptive than prescriptive in this book, capturing the feel of a particular modern condition (which he is more explicit about in books like Lost in the Cosmos) rather than telling you the cure. I think he probably felt (like many contemporary Christian artists) that you have to kind of smuggle in the good news rather than blare it at them like a modern advertisement, or it will be rejected out of hand. I mean, who watches or takes seriously a televangelist except the already-converted?

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    • i will very likely give it one more shot some time in the future. i have a multitude of reasons why i feel as though i ought to like it, and your understanding has certainly helped illuminate it a bit. For some reason it is just a laborious read, and though i am not opposed to a challenging read, i had a feeling similar to when i was reading Gold Bug Variations. i could appreciate the effort and the theme and the structure, but pushing myself through became an effort. Thanks for reading (me, not Percy.)

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    • Hilarious! Hiding under the sidewalk was probably the greatest invention of all time. Still wish i could do that sometimes…

      Great, now the song is in my head…excellent theme music!

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