Guest Post, Josef Kuhn: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

Love and Existentialism in New Orleans: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

“On this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” So says Binx Bolling, the ironical hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. At one time, Walker Percy was a literary superstar. The Moviegoer, his first book, was published in 1961 to glowing reviews, and it won the National Book Award that year, establishing Percy as one of the foremost voices of Southern literature. Since then, the novel has been included on numerous “best novels of the century”-type lists. Yet whenever I mention Percy’s name to friends today, nobody seems to have heard of him (except those in Catholic literary circles, for reasons that will perhaps become clearer below). I’m here to say that this is a crying shame.

The Moviegoer fuses the philosophical complexity and spiritual intensity of a Russian novel with the Southern tradition of the “familial decline” plot. Think Dostoyevsky meets Faulkner. Binx Bolling is a boyish thirty-year-old from a genteel New Orleans family who could do virtually anything that he wants with his life—and yet, faced with such freedom, he chooses to live in a featureless suburb, selling stocks and frittering his time away with pretty secretaries. His step-cousin Kate is similarly aimless, caught in a dialectic of mania and depression caused in part by her overbearing mother, Binx’s aunt. When this aunt puts pressure on Binx to make something more of his life, it forces a crisis that sends him and Kate careening on an ill-advised Mardi Gras journey.

For one thing, Percy’s prose is scintillating, some of the most finely tuned I have ever had the pleasure to read. He depicts the subtleties of landscapes and scenery with a painterly attention to detail: “A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight.” (Given Percy’s frequent attention to the qualities of light and atmosphere as well as his spiritual themes, it’s not a surprise that filmmaker Terrence Malick almost made a screen adaptation of The Moviegoer.) Percy has a talent for finding the exact metaphor or simile that, when you read it, convinces you that no other metaphor or simile would possibly do, as in “The blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the water like a knife.”

Physical description may be the lowest rung of mastery for a writer, but Percy brings the same level of acuity and subtlety to his observations of human character. For instance, Binx observes about his cousin’s fiancée: “What is funny is that Walter always starts out in the best brilliant-young-lawyer style of humoring an old lady by letting her get the better of him, whereas she really does get the better of him.” In a dinner-table scene involving Binx’s family, every gesture and line of dialogue seems to reveal some new element of the intricate subtext. Even in the briefest sketches, the most minor characters stand out as fully realized and lifelike:

“As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement. A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on. A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to. And all the while he talks very well. His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles-Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine. Now he jingles the coins deep in his pocket. No mystery here!—he is as cogent as a bird dog quartering a field. He understands everything out there and everything out there is something to be understood.”

But even more than Percy’s technical virtuosity, what I find most remarkable about him as a writer is his existential audacity, the boldness and originality of his intellectual vision. He is ever attentive to the particularities of history and geography, yet in The Moviegoer, he also dares to stride right past such temporal concerns to grapple with perhaps the most fundamental question faced by conscious being: How does one deal with the freedom of one’s own existence? This, in fact, seems to be the whole point of “the search,” an idea that recurs to Binx throughout the novel. Binx has a whole private lexicon of terms that seem ripped right out of Kierkegaard (e.g. “repetition,” “the malaise”) to describe his little phenomenological “researches.” Both he and Kate are acutely aware of the flimsiness of the solutions that modern society offers them—Binx claims his “only talent” is “a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies,” and Kate pokes fun at the shallow pedantry of her therapist, whose name, Merle, is suspiciously close to merde. What they’re dealing with is an emotional-intellectual problem that, as Kate describes it, is beyond the pale of 1960s psychotherapy:

“[Merle] got interested and suggested we look at the reasons. I said, Merle, how I wish you were right. How good to think that there are reasons and that if I am silent, it means I am hiding something. How happy I would be to be hiding something. And how proud I am when I do find secret reasons for you, your own favorite reasons. But what if there is nothing? That is what I’ve been afraid of until now—being found out to be concealing nothing at all.”

Percy is an ironist and a contrarian who takes pleasure in puncturing the banal pieties of his day, especially those of educated society. In one of the most hilarious passages, Binx lampoons a radio program called This I Believe in which high-minded celebrities state their personal credos. “If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared,” Binx says, “it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of niceness. … Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.” By the end of The Moviegoer, it becomes clear that Percy’s primary satirical target is a kind of shallow, toothless scientific humanism that is replacing people’s ability to independently contemplate the meaning and purpose of their own lives. It is a brave new vision of the world in which “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead.”

Percy converted to Catholicism when he was about 30 years old, and Catholicism is present in a muted fashion throughout the book. But the novel rarely comes across as preachy, at least not in a religiously sectarian sense. I first read The Moviegoer when I was still nominally Catholic but teetering on the edge; the second time I read it, I was a non-religious agnostic. But if anything, I liked the novel even better the second time around. If the foregoing rant against scientific humanism sounds a tad reactionary, it’s worth noting that Binx is just as alienated from the thoughtless, conventional Catholic piety of his mother’s family as from the lofty universalist sentiments of his father’s. Percy never clearly comes down in support of any particular creed; Catholicism is just one more phenomenon that Binx is trying to make sense of as part of his existential search.

The book does, however, have a tendency to wax philosophical; if you don’t like your fiction with large doses of existential musing, then The Moviegoer is probably not for you. Reportedly, Percy’s later novels became increasingly dark and didactic (though probably no more so than, say, Sartre’s or Dostoyevsky’s). Perhaps this later didactism accounts for his relative obscurity today. I cannot vouch for the later work, but I can attest that The Moviegoer, at least, is a masterpiece of American literature that feels every bit as relevant in today’s fragmented, decentered social world as it must have in 1961. For any craft-conscious writer, or for any reader who enjoys dwelling on existential themes, this book is not to be missed.

Guest Post, Ashley Caveda: Me After Me Before You

Cover of Me Before YouUpon finishing Jojo Moyes’ popular novel Me Before You, I was heartbroken. But it wasn’t “a heartbreaker in the best sense” as promised by the New York Daily News. It was the kind that left me feeling helpless and sick—literally, like I might throw up, or punch someone.

A friend loaned me a copy, mentioning that the book dealt with disability and love. I forgot about it for a couple of weeks, until I saw a preview for the movie, released this month. The story features a young woman named Louisa Clark, whom the back cover describes as “an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life.” Louisa finds work as a caretaker for Will Traynor, a man who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident. From the preview, the two appear to fall in love, and yet Will also seems to be contemplating assisted suicide.

As a quadriplegic myself, paralyzed from the chest down since the age of 6, I value writing that subverts common disability stereotypes. I willed this book not to portray a spinal cord injury as a fate worse than death.

“Please,” I prayed, “Not another Million Dollar Baby.”

And so I read. In the novel, after being sexually assaulted at the age of 20, Louisa barely ventures beyond her hometown. Will, a rich, handsome businessman, spent his life prior to the accident engaging in extreme sports, traveling the world, and bedding beautiful, leggy blondes.

While getting to know Will, Louisa learns that he plans to commit suicide at the end of six months. She and his family are determined to prevent this. Louisa makes it her mission to show Will how beautiful and good life can still be. They attend concerts, go on picnics, visit art exhibits, and even take a dream vacation together. Through these excursions, Louisa and Will eventually fall in love.

During their last night at a beach resort, Louisa tells Will she wants to spend her life with him. But he rejects her proposal; he doesn’t want to be a burden to her and he hates living with his disability. He says,

You don’t know me, not really. You never saw me before this thing. I loved my life, Clark. Really loved it … I led a big life … I am not designed to exist in this thing—and yet for all intents and purposes it is now the thing that defines me. It is the only thing that defines me. (325)

These words, written by an able-bodied woman, are weightier in the mouth of a disabled (albeit fictional) man. Smoke and mirrors perhaps, but the illusion is effective enough for the book to be a New York Times Best Seller for 76 straight weeks and counting.

In the end, Will goes through with his suicide at a clinic in Switzerland, freeing everyone around him, including himself, from the burden of his disabled flesh. And although they are unhappy, Louisa and Will’s family come to respect his choice. In fact, he convinces them that it is the only choice he has been permitted to make for himself since his accident. As a final act of love, he leaves his fortune to Louisa. The book closes with her sitting outside of a café in Paris, finally inspired to live her life to the fullest.

Ultimately, Moyes uses Will’s suicide to transform him into a romantic hero and the able-bodied masses call it beautiful.

Numerous essays and blogs criticizing this portrayal of disability in Me Before You already exist (including this especially comprehensive critique), but there are two important points I would like to make.

First, all of the characters who try to convince Will to live make the argument that life can be good in spite of his disability; I would contend that my life is often good because of my disability. Second, this book argues that Will lived a big life and simply can’t accept a smaller one; I would contend that some of the biggest things that life has to offer at first appear to be small. These apparent blind spots on Moyes’ part inhibit her from crafting a more nuanced look at disability.

While most of the novel is from Louisa’s point of view, multiple characters receive their own chapter-long perspective shifts, including Will’s mother; his father; his medical caregiver, Nathan; and Louisa’s sister. Notably absent from this list, however, is Will himself. Moyes never bothers to put the reader inside of Will’s mind, instead largely shaping him through the interior thoughts and opinions of the non-disabled people around him. This, to me, is a grievous defect.

Therefore, to remedy this and to explore the aforementioned blind spots, I wrote my own brief, alternate ending to Moyes’ novel from Will’s point of view.

NOTE: This alternate ending takes place during Louisa and Will’s final night at the beach resort after Louisa confesses her feelings to Will and he rejects her, announcing that he is still planning on going forward with his suicide.

WILL

“I wish I’d never met you.”

Those were the last words Louisa said as she stumbled away from me on the beach. Drunken strangers found Nathan and brought him to me, and he helped me to bed. He cleaned me; he changed me; he tucked me in, as though I were an infant. The only thing our routine lacked was a bedtime story. And then he went to his room.

Now, propped up on my right side where he left me, I lay still (what else was I going to do?) and thought. Thinking was pretty much the only thing I could do by myself these days.

The storms from the previous night left a breeze in their wake and I could feel the cool air through the crack in the balcony doors. My nose itched.

Bested again, I thought. You’ve won this time, Itch.

My eyes were heavy, but I fought sleep. What was it she said to me that night at the wedding? That I never would have noticed her if I weren’t disabled? She called herself “one of the invisibles.” And she was right. I never would have seen her, in my other life. We never would have met. Louisa was only made visible to me after—no, not after, because of—my accident.

These seemed to be two incongruous concepts. On one hand, there was the life I lost, filled to the brim with ocean vistas, European cobblestone, and steep mountainsides that left my whole body screaming for rest and oxygen, while still craving more exertion. In those moments, I knew every single cell was alive and active. On the other hand, there was Louisa. Louisa in her red dress at the concert. Louisa at the wedding, her arms draped around my neck, her fingers pressed into my skin as I spun us around and around on the dance floor, her perfume-like joy spinning along with us. There was the man who could walk; there was the man who loved Louisa. These two Wills could never occupy the same universe.

On the beach, I could still hear the other hotel guests carousing. A woman’s high-pitched laughter at some inaudible joke. The crackle of distant fireworks. The shrieks they provoked. I wasn’t sure if I could actually taste a hint of acrid smoke in the air, or if it were just my imagination—my mind’s nose, if that were even a thing—but the effect was convincing enough.

Louisa’s life was so small compared to my old life. She hadn’t done a fraction of the things I’d done. While I was staking my claim at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, she laid claim to nothing more than a closet-sized bedroom in her parents’ home and a job serving tourists at a second-rate café. It was my life’s purpose to see, to do, to conquer. And I conquered everything.

“Where there’s Will,” my friends used to joke, “There’s a way.”

Six months, I’d promised my mother after my failed suicide attempt. In that time, Louisa and my family tried to fill my days with excitement and action—a poor man’s facsimile of the life I once led. Although they were simply trying to be kind, pretending my life could be what it used to be was almost more maddening than anything else. I needed them to acknowledge that although some form of my body survived, Will Traynor was dead and would never be coming back. Trying to recreate my old life would never work.

And yet, there was Louisa.

I pictured her now on her side, asleep in her bed, knees pulled up high, clutching a pillow in her arms. Perhaps she cried herself to sleep after running from the beach to her room. Perhaps she was still awake, clenching and unclenching her hands, cursing the day we met. The thought pained me.

Louisa, the once-invisible-now-visible girl, came to love me only if I crossed that rainy street at the exact right moment two years ago.

And if Louisa herself were once invisible to me, were there other things invisible to me as well? Perhaps there was a whole host of unseen things that might now be seen. Perhaps I was so determined never to let the world pass me by that I passed the world by.

Louisa, with her crazy shoes and her black-and-yellow striped tights, lost to me if not for the accident. Entirely too small for me to see.

When did I decide that small was inherently less? I wondered.

I must have been young. Even as a child, my parents’ wealth afforded me such extravagant possibilities—winter vacations skiing in the Alps, weekly equestrian lessons. I never bothered with anything that seemed ordinary.

I spent so much time criticizing Louisa over the past six months for all of the things she was afraid to do, jealous that she could still live the big life I lost—if she would only seize it. But was I guilty too? Was I afraid to live an ordinary life?

The first time she shaved my face clean, her fingertips grazed my skin, adjusted the fold in my collar. She barely touched me while she worked. At the time, this was just more evidence of my own physical failings. I couldn’t even shave my beard without help. But there was a measured way she wiped my face when she was done, with the same care one might reserve for handling something precious. Would I have ever let a woman touch me like that if I weren’t disabled? Did I invest in obvious thrills at the expense of humbler joys—the ordinary that only through experience might reveal itself to be extraordinary, just like Louisa herself? My wealth and privilege allowed me to see everything I might ever want to see—except what was right in front of me.

Alone, in that dark hotel room, the noise from the beach finally quieting, I questioned for the first time whether all dependence should be counted as loss. Or was the breaking that took place more like a seed that must shatter completely before new life can emerge?

As this thought came over me, the faint rhythmic ticking of a leaky faucet kept pace with my pulse. For two years, I resented every single heartbeat. But now, there were entire days I didn’t feel like dying.

If the old me could scale a 90° peak, couldn’t I find a way to continue just a bit further? Would my own life be the one summit I never reached?

Louisa, my visible girl. What other things have I missed?

I bandied on for so long about how this was my choice to make. But the thing about having a choice is that you can also make the wrong one.

The somber blues of the night would soon be giving way to subtler tones. And those subtler shades would soon be giving way to sunlight that would break through the thinly veiled windows. When that happened, Nathan would come and dress me, and help me into my wheelchair, and I would press my good hand forward on the motor’s control and roll myself over the dense hotel carpet until I reached the lobby. Louisa would be waiting for me, unlikely to make eye contact, but my own eyes would stay on her. They would follow her even as she avoided mine.

How odd that only through the loss of one ability did I gain a new type of sight.

I couldn’t promise her forever. I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t choose to end my life before sickness or time stepped in. But I could give her at least six more months. Not to appease her, like I did for my parents, but because it was my choice to make.

These next six months, I wouldn’t live a shadow of the life I once had, trying and failing to revive the past. But perhaps there was new life hidden inside the smaller-seeming things if I were willing to look for it, and perhaps those six months would give way to six more, and those six to another, until they kept expanding and growing and my life would be big again and I wouldn’t need to keep count anymore.

After all, I was Will. Maybe I would find a way.

Mark Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide, Review by Intern Elijah Tubbs

images“Inspiration comes after writing, not before,” Yakich states in his new book Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide. I stumbled over this for a few moments because traditionally we are made to believe that the formula is a.) become inspired, b.) now write. But really I think Yakich is saying all inspiration can do is make the poem better through the revision process, where the writer can then pull from the various resources given to them. The first time a poem is written needs to be wholly from the inner gut of the writer. I find this to be true in my own writing, a lot of people probably do, even though I hadn’t thought about it before picking up this book. Yakich will tell you the opposite of what everyone else does, making you re-think not only poetry, but also writing and the world of writing in general. It is his honest and “unconventional” advice that make Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide a memorable and valuable experience.

There are a lot of “craft” books on poetry, (Whatever that word craft means? As if writing is equivalent to a macaroni pinwheel or scrapbooking, etc.) most notably The Triggering Town by Victor Hugo or The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach. Unlike many books on writing though, Yakich’s Poetry: A Survivors Guide—I’m so happy it’s a survivor’s guide and not this bougie, talked up craft book that only academic folk can parse out—will fit right into a poet’s life like the first time they read Whitman’s Song of Myself and actually understood it.

Unfortunately, in many books like this, we find the author putting themselves in front of the work. Look at me, look at me! It turns into an ego thing, a mine is bigger than yours. “Critics will try to tell you ranking is for experts and disappointment for amateurs . . .. ”  Yakich tears apart those people who make poetry not for everyone, specifically when talking about The Best American Poetry series that is released once a year. “There are usually some very good poems in the collection; 1994 was particularly a fine year. Still, a more accurate title for the series would be something like A Clutch of Unconcatenated Poems That a U.S. Poet Kinda Enjoyed in the Small Hours Before Drifting off to Sleep.”

“There is no accounting for taste. What one reader admires, another disdains… Don’t pretend to love a poem you really find dull. Don’t be afraid of disliking a great poem or poet.”

Whether you are new to poetry or experienced, this book uncovers things about the poem that you did not know or understand or remember. Yakich’s advice and observations on poetry are real, they’re meaningful, they’re not pretentious and they’re for the greater good of poetry and its writers. “Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value.”

Yakich wrote this for his students, I am a student, this is the most genuine book on poetry I have come by. This book tackles every ounce of the poem and the poem in the real world: knowing the poem, reading the poem, writing the poem, publishing the poem, reviewing the poem. It really is a survivor’s guide and all of us poets and poetry readers can get something from it.

Reading this survivor’s guide will make you feel why you fell in love with the poem. Not only will it remind you why you fell in love, Yakich’s smart, playful, humble and sometimes brash words towards the poetry will make you realize (hopefully you already knew) the importance of the art in your life, others, and the social setting.

“Poetry’s irrelevance, therefore, becomes its importance,” he says.