So before I go any further, let me quickly address the Knopf 1988, 16th edition cover as seen on the left. The caption says:
"Why is the hero of this novel a moviegoer? Why does an intelligent, successful, young New Orleans businessman go to the movies avidly, fiercely - even to silly movies? The answer.."
When I finally picked up my copy from the library, after waiting for it to come in on loan from a different branch, I felt a slight tremor of worry. This is perhaps the worst book cover I have ever seen and makes me hate the protagonist and the graphic designer all before even opening the book. After I finally worked up enough gumption to hesitantly open the book and worryingly peer into its abyss...I was confronted with breathtaking prose and perhaps the best book I have read in a while. Percy is a brilliant author, his writing drips with elegiac prose, some of my favorite being:
"The earth has memories of winter and lies cold and sopping wet from dew..."
"...dragging his Saskatchewan sleeping bag like the corpse of his dead hope.."
"We were free, moreover to that or anything else, but instead on we rushed, a little vortex of despair moving through the world like the still eye of a hurricane."
The cover misses the point of the book entirely. This is not a book about going to the movies. It's a book about surviving, about combating the malaise that comes from living endlessly, purposelessly, alone and disconnected and the triumph of surviving day after day in a world that often doesn't make sense, filled with heartache and pointless suffering.
The epigram is taken from Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death and says "...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair."
Our protagonist is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleander who currently works for his uncle as a stock-broker. After returning from the Korean War, Binx tries to make sense of the world, while feeling alienated from his own life. Although he is good at making money, his life is sepia colored and he desperately seeks the vibrancy and order he sees in films or reads of in books. He is on a search for something beyond the everyday monotony and as he works and wanders aimlessly his quest for meaning follows strict guidelines and requires rigorous study.
"What is the nature of the search? you ask? Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everdayness of his own life...To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."
Although hesitant to discuss the true object of his search, it is evident that what Binx is looking for are the little moments that rise above the brume of the mundane. Although Binx spends hours lost in the otherness of the silver screen, searching for a sense of place, a sense of self; he never does so without first tethering himself to the here and now by having at least one conversation with the movie house staff. Relationship precedes understanding.
"Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere."
While he somewhat aimlessly searches for meaning, his interactions with his family leave him often further away from his objective. Each family member assesses Binx's life and finds it wanting. At the brink of his 30th birthday they still continue to find new goals and job opportunities for him, unsatisfied with his choice of work, thinking he has more to offer than merely deciphering stocks and bonds. But what does that mean? How is his value assessed?
Rather than search for comprehensive understanding, meaning, instead can be found in little pockets of place buttressed by the truthfulness of its identity, if any one of us can simply find the right place, "a shuttered place of brick and vine and flowing water, ...life can be lived."
In contrast to the existential nihilism that permeates the postmodern era, Binx although caught in the introductory weightlessness, the precursor to despair, is not hopeless. He has a plan for combating the soul-sucking malaise, the angst and disillusionment; he is a remarkable protagonist finding moments of hope in the never ending vapidity of life.
Binx accepts the moments for what they are, rather than fighting sleeplessness, rather than obeying societal conventions and having appropriate hobbies, Binx could care less. Hobbies are for people that suffer from the most noxious despair by simply tranquilizing it. "I muse along as quietly as a ghost. Instead of trying to sleep I try to fathom the mystery of this suburb at dawn." He combats hopelessness through what he calls rotations, which he defines as the "experience of the new beyond the expectation of the experience of the new. For example, taking one's first trip to Taxco would not be a rotation, or no more than a very ordinary rotation; but getting lost on the way and discovering a hidden valley would be."
As Binx's search culminates in a sleepy attempt to prove or disprove God he makes a note for himself for the next day's search:
"It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God. Yet it is impossible to rule God out. The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one's own invincible apathy - that is the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all. Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this god's ironic revenge? But I am onto him..."