The Possibility of the Search

DISCUSSED: The Moviegoer, Naked Lunch, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, The Beauty of the Young Flannery O’Connor, Reader’s Panic, Repetition According to Kierkegaard, Spring in South Hadley

The Possibility of the Search

Sven Birkerts
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Here it is, the joy and mystery of reading, the whole matter synopsized in this one little ceremony of private renewal, all beginning with the extraction—from underneath pounds of piled up other books—of the slim blue Avon paperback of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a book I’d read and read again some years ago, loving it with a sense of intimate possessiveness each time, but which I’d then, for who knows what reason, allowed to subside back into latency, not so much as thinking of it for years (the way you can live without even a thought of some person who was once at the very center of your existence), the business of other books shouldering it aside—or if not just that, then maybe also the possibility that the reading had temporarily done its work, placating or discharging those obscure needs that are at the heart of the secret Masonic life of reading.

The Moviegoer is a quiet novel, at least on the surface. It gives an account of a period of time around Mardi Gras in the life of Binx Bolling. Binx is a young man living in New Orleans; he is in some deep—and to me utterly familiar—way lost to himself. As the book turns on his reaction to a spiritual crisis in the life of his second cousin, Kate, whom he loves, The Moviegoer has been read as a work of religious exploration. But I am not religious, and I have never read it for these messages. For me, Percy’s novel is very much about the self in limbo, poised between intimations of meaning and the countervailing fear that meaning may in fact be nothing more than a face-saving construct, a bridge between one day and the next, a frail expedient holding at bay the harsher truth of things, that Burroughsian vision of the naked-lunch-reality quivering raw at the tip of the fork. And if his protagonist, the supremely likeable Binx, had felt the balance finally—hesitantly—tip toward meaning, in his case toward God, I can no longer recall if I seconded him on his, or any, terms. To be honest, when I recently returned to The Moviegoer, I didn’t even remember quite how things had finally played out. That was not the draw—or the point—of the book for me. What had stayed behind, preserved vividly, right on tap—even if I had not seen fit to tap it for the longest time—was the idea and the feeling of what Binx called the “search.”

This notion was, and remains, one of my few readerly touchstones, which I don’t mean in the Matthew Arnold sense of being an excellence I use to measure other excellences by, but rather in the sense of being one of my interior coordinates. I mean: if I were able to do the impossible—to draw the map of my inwardness, the terra incognita of my thought and dream world, my fundamental self—then Percy’s articulation of the “search” would be there as a distinctive topographical reference point, along with Charles Swann’s jealousy, Emma Bovary’s fickle romantic frenzy, Humbert Humbert’s criminal fastidiousness, Edmond Rastignac’s yet uninstructed ambitiousness, and a number of other essential expressions. In other words, Binx’s search is one of those literary imaginings that feels more real on the page than does its actual counterpart version in my own life, because even as it draws on my deepest identifications it also exceeds them.

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