“A Signpost In These Strange Times”

Reading Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer alongside Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, Will Di Novi finds the book fitting for our own downbeat era:

[The novel’s protagonist] Binx Bolling is at first glance an unusual poster boy for the current depression, an era in which the quest for self-realization might seem an unaffordable luxury. But the search for meaning has never ebbed and flowed according to the fluctuations of the stock market. Millions of Americans led interior, profoundly solitary lives during the bubble years that started the twenty-first century, and they now confront even more acute feelings of dislocation. Binx is a soulful and profane standard-bearer for that disillusionment, “smelling merde from every quarter” of American life. He fails in his half-hearted love affairs. He confounds his family with his disregard for rectitude and tradition. Alienated from both the Old South and the New America, Binx staggers towards the same sobering realization that dogged Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1979. ”We’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning,” Carter preached in his speech. “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

His concluding thoughts on the novel’s enduring lessons:

“Whenever there is a chance of gain there is also a chance of loss,” Binx declares in the frenzied aftermath of a car crash. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” There’s something strangely comforting about Binx’s equanimity, his stoicism in the face of forces beyond his control. Like Binx and his Mad Men contemporaries, unaware of the assassinations and race riots and terrifying hairstyles lurking just around the corner, we have no idea what will emerge out of the seismic changes convulsing our national governments and our global economy. Consider The Moviegoer a signpost in these strange times, a beacon lit by the eternal flames of Percy’s imagination: the alienation and despair that persist in times of plenty and paucity alike; the power of language and humor to still these tremors and give them meaning. The malaise will endure, he warns us. The search will continue.