Supermaud (who embodies the South) mentioned
Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on her site the other day. I sent her an appreciative e-mail in response, and inside of five minutes we’d upped the ante to the point of mutually acknowledging that we both rank The Moviegoer among the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Maud says it’s “one of my all-time favorites, and possibly THE favorite.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I wouldn’t want to live off the difference.
Percy, as it happens, was a Catholic convert, and though The Moviegoer doesn’t bang you over the head with that fact, it is very much a spiritual statement, a novel about the problem of “everydayness,” a phenomenon with which anyone searching for truths beyond the realm of the immediately visible must contend:
The movies are onto the search, 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, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.
What do you seek–God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached–and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics–which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker….
Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?
On my honor, I do not know the answer.
Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a Catholic, but I find Percy’s way of situating the problem of “everydayness” in the context of modern American life to be deeply sympathetic. I also admire the lightness of touch with which he does so–for The Moviegoer, unlikely as it may sound, is a kind of comic novel about spiritual alienation. But, of course, there are many roads to seriousness, and the best of them take us down the path of comedy.
A couple of years ago, I was writing about Ghost World, one of my favorite films, and in trying to suggest its special quality, I found myself comparing it to, of all things, The Moviegoer:
American Beauty offered easy answers to loaded questions (that’s why it won so many Oscars–Hollywood only gives prizes to movies that tell us what it wants to hear), whereas Ghost World is a movie without any answers at all. That is the source of its pathos. Like every teenager, Enid longs to be shown how to live, but the ghostly adults who drift in and out of her unhappy life offer her no counsel. Instead, she has been set adrift on the sea of relativity, looking for a safe harbor on a coast without maps.
Walker Percy once pointed out that a visit to the neighborhood theater is for many Americans “maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone (a cowboy, a detective, a crook) is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for–or asking if anything is worth fighting for.” Out of that insight grew The Moviegoer, a novel about a man who goes to the movies in order to narcotize himself against the shallowness of American life, unaware that by doing so he has embarked on a search for meaning that will ultimately end in his embrace of Catholicism. As improbable as it may sound, Ghost World reminded me quite strongly of Percy’s great novel. To be sure, Enid lacks the spiritual consciousness that helped Binx Bolling find his way out of the slough of despond, but she is just as surely going forth on a similar quest, and the fact that she is doing so without benefit of moral guidance makes her plight all the more moving.
In case you’ve forgotten where we started, this chain of not-so-random reflections was triggered by a fugitive posting on the blog of a colleague who has become a friend. This is part of what fascinates me about blogging–the way in which it facilitates intellectual cross-pollination.
While we’re on the subject, let me tell you another, similarly illuminating story. I got an e-mail last month from Cindy Cheung, a very funny actress whom I’d praised last year in a Wall Street Journal drama review (the operative words were “wildly loony”). Cindy learned about this blog from my review, in due course becoming a regular reader. She wrote to tell me that if I thought she was funny, I should read Waylaid, a novel by her husband, Ed Lin. This kind of e-mail almost always makes me run for the nearest exit, but it struck me that she might possibly be onto something, so I accepted her offer to send me a copy.
Not to prolong the suspense needlessly, Waylaid turned out to be a gem, a tough little coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old Asian-American boy whose home is a rundown hotel in deepest New Jersey owned and operated by his immigrant parents. He knows too much and found it out too soon, and his stories of life among the Jersey hookers are funny in the saddest possible way.
Waylaid reminded me at times of Lolita, another seriously funny novel that casts a cold eye on the grubby surface of American life. Remember Nabokov’s wry descriptions of the motels visited by Humbert Humbert and his nymphet?
“We wish you to feel at home while here. All equipment was carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here. Use hot water sparingly. We reserve the right to eject without notice any objectionable person. Do not throw waste material of any kind in the toilet bowl. Thank you. Call again. The Management. P.S. We consider our guests the Finest People of the World.”
Well, Lin has that same kind of beautifully exact feel for the way things look and smell and sound:
Each hotel room was basically the same except that some of the black-and-white televisions had rabbit-ear antennas and some had inverted wire coat hangers. They all had a simple desk, a night stand, and a chair made of pressed wood. Push on any of the furniture the wrong way and it would splinter apart….The wall-to-wall carpeting looked like every marching band in the country had dragged flour sacks of grime across it. Every color in the carpet had been corrupted into a different shade of dark green.
Now, I don’t know anything about Ed Lin except that he’s the husband of one of my readers–and that Waylaid is a damned fine first novel. Which brings us back one last time to the subject of blogging. To review the bidding:
(1) I wrote about Cindy Cheung in the Wall Street Journal.
(2) She saw the URL of “About Last Night” at the end of the piece, looked it up, and became a regular reader.
(3) Even though we’d never met, she took a chance, wrote to me through the blog, and sent me her husband’s first novel.
(4) I read it and loved it.
(5) Now I’m passing on the word to you.
That’s the miracle of blogging. It generates serendipities.
P.S. Cindy is currently appearing in an indie flick called Robot Stories. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m going to try to catch it this weekend. You come, too.