Wednesday, June 29, 2005

MSS, Book the Third: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer

This is more like it: a first person novel about a smart, self-reflective character in the midst of existential crisis. Our narrator, Binx Bolling, damaged by childhood and war, is more self-loathing than self-pitying. Think Catch-22, A Confederacy of Dunces, High Fidelity, Notes from Underground. While not as funny as these other books, The Moviegoer is more convincing in its characterization and dramatic action, and the novel's meandering, episodic structure gives Bolling plenty of opportunity for observation and thought, some of which is relevant to my little project here.
The "history of place" thread appears in at least a couple of ways, one, Bolling's decision to live in a soul-less suburb of New Orleans, partly to match his washed-out, depressive, and despairing mood, partly the reader gathers to escape an oppressive sense of familial history and responsibility. The other obvious way in which history enters into the novel is in the Chicago episode, which deserves to be treated at length--and I'm sure has been in academic papers and books without end. (Not here! This is a weblog.) Bolling's piece about the feeling he gets stepping down from the train in Chicago is really great; the part that strikes me is his wish to have a sort of train-station orientation for new-comers:
( [I]f only somebody could tell me who built the damn station. . . Every place of arrival should have a booth set up and manned by an ordinary person whose task it is to greet strangers and give them a little trophy of space-time stuff--tell them his difficulties in high school and put a pinch of soil in their pockets--in order to insure that the stranger shall not become an Anyone).
I find that, by contrast, this gives me a good sense of what Bolling has at home in New Orleans that he has nowhere else. It reminds me, of course, of some of the same ideas in Tony Earley's Here We Are in Paradise, the sense of attachment characters have to place, the sense of history, personal and otherwise. Based on the evidence so far, this does seem to be a southern tendency, though it is of course not exclusive to southern writers. I'm reminded of, say, American Pastoral by Phillip Roth.
Finally, the common wisdom tells us that southern writers are obsessed with family. Considering the place of family in Faulkner's books, I'm willing to bet this is largely true. In The Moviegoer Percy contrasts the two sides of Bolling's family--the laconic, proletarian (perhaps I'm wrong on this second adjective) Smiths and the garrulous, principled, and elitist Bollings.
I should spend more time on this entry, but I'm two books behind in my postings, so I will leave it at that.

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