385 of 405 people found the following review helpful
A Book That Should Be Read . . . And Then Read Again,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Moviegoer (Paperback)
Walker Percy was forty-six years old when his first published novel, "The Moviegoer", was awarded the National Book Award in 1962. It was, in some sense, the public beginning of the second half of Percy's life for, as Percy himself wrote in 1972: "Life is much stranger than art-and often more geometrical. My life breaks exactly in half: 1st half=growing up Southern and medical; 2nd half=imposing art on 1st half." But what, exactly, did Percy mean when he said this? In some sense, "The Moviegoer" is the beginning of an answer.
Percy was born in 1915 and lived his early life in Birmingham, Alabama. His grandfather committed suicide when Walker was an infant and his father, too, committed suicide in 1929. Following his father's suicide, his mother moved Walker and his two brothers to Mississippi. Percy's family was one of the oldest families in the South and he and his brothers soon found a father figure in the form of his cousin, William Alexander Percy, known affectionately as Uncle Will. Three years after his father's suicide, Percy's life was again marked by tragedy when his mother's car went off a bridge, killing her and leaving Walker and his brothers in the charge of his Uncle Will.
Percy went to medical school at Columbia University, where he contracted tuberculosis during his internship. In and out of sanitariums for several years, he finally returned to the South in his early 30s, getting married in 1946 and settling in the New Orleans area, where he lived the remainder of his life. It was at this time that Percy received an inheritance from his Uncle Will that allowed him to devote himself completely to his long-standing interest in literature and philosophy.
I relate the biographical details because, as you read "The Moviegoer", it seems (not surprisingly) heavily marked by Percy's life experience, the author's biography being one point of reference for the novel.
"The Moviegoer" is a peculiarly American and belated expression of the existential novel that had been so brilliantly articulated in France by Albert Camus. Like "The Stranger", Percy's novel focuses on meaning-in this case, the obsession of Binx Bolling, the novel's narrator, on what he calls the "search". As Bolling says at one point, "the search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." And exactly what does this mean? "To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." An enigmatic definition, but one which makes the reader who spends time with "The Moviegoer", who reads the book carefully and reflectively, to think more deeply about his or her own life.
"The Moviegoer" is not a novel dominated by plot. At a superficial level, the novel relates, in a wry and matter-of-fact way, a few days in the seemingly unremarkable life of Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker whose main activities are going to the movies and carrying on with each of his successive secretaries. "Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o'clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own."
What "The Moviegoer" suggests is resonant of Thoreau's contention that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. But it is a desperation that arises not from the ordinariness of everyday lives, but, rather, from the failure to transform that ordinariness through contemplation and self-reflection, through an appreciation for the mundane. Thus, in the book's epigraph, Percy quotes Kierkegaard: "the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." As Percy has suggested in another of his books, "Lost in the Cosmos" (a work of non-fiction subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book"), we inhabit a society of alienated and despairing "non-suicides" who Percy wanted to transform, through his writing, into "ex-suicides". In Binx Bolling's words: "For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of the sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death . . . At times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say."
"The Moviegoer" is a thoughtful and a thought-provoking book that should be read and then re-read, slowly and carefully, for every paragraph is laden with insight into the character of its narrator, the character of its author and, ultimately, the character of ourselves.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 19, 2009 7:40:31 AM PDT
Wonderful review. Thank you for your insights.
Posted on May 23, 2009 12:54:34 PM PDT
M. Hansen says:
One of the best reviews for anything I've ever read online, including those of "professionals". It's quite funny because so many write idiotic comments online and then make their username public, but this brilliant one is simply signed, "a customer". I'd love to read more of your reviews, great job.
Posted on Jul 6, 2010 5:58:09 PM PDT
Yes, a wonderful review.
I just finished my first reading of the book and I look forward to delving into it more. The writing is gorgeous and gasp surprising so often.
I started out thinking it was an existential book referencing Camus, but I think it is the anti Camus. I'll see if I still feel this way as I reread it.
Posted on Aug 24, 2010 11:14:03 AM PDT
You said a mouthful without saying much. There is an emphatic Cartesian element in here which you and everybody has missed, myself included. In other words, it is an extremely complex novel-- one which I least enjoyed of all his novels.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 24, 2010 2:17:43 PM PDT
I would like an elaboration, please, of this Cartesian element as you see it.
What I liked a lot is that it can be read as a simple novel with a lovely kind of sermonizing about it or it can be deconstructed as a multi layered, metaphorical and symbol laden book. I, so far, am reading the first.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 15, 2011 5:03:35 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 15, 2011 5:07:10 PM PDT
I apologize for my less than charitable commentary above. It was both unbecoming and undeserved. My only excuse is that I was lashing out for my lack of understanding of what I believe to be a very complex novel.
For the Cartesian element, which is aptly personified in Binx Boling as the derangement of the modern mind, see the essay "Walker Percy and The Christian Scandal," by Marion Montgomery, First Things magazine, April 1993.
Posted on Sep 23, 2011 10:59:02 AM PDT
Daniel Poynter says:
Thank you for such a thoughtful and well written review.
Posted on Jul 15, 2012 7:42:32 AM PDT
What a terrific summation of this beautiful and insightful work.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 27, 2012 12:56:34 AM PST
Red State Guy says:
For the record, in the early days of Amazon, anonymous reviews were permitted, and often the norm. Hence, the standard "A Customer" review name (which was published in 2001). Now, reviews without a unique username are not possible.
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