2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Korean War, Literature, Southern Lit, Walker Percy

Thoughts: The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy


The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

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 which is 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.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is loved by many with the same passion and intensity as books like The Catcher in the Rye are loved by others. And many readers find this one just as difficult to enjoy as The Catcher in the Rye, too. It is unlikely that one will get through a graduate program in American Literature without hearing this book mentioned at least a few (dozen) times. Yet, here I am, after four years of undergraduate study in English/American literature and another 5 years of graduate study in English/American literature, and I have just now read it.

The book won the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels. At the same time, it’s a darkly didactic, existential novel. Walker Percy was an enormous fan of Søren Kierkegaard, and that influence is recognizable in this work (although much more so in Percy’s later writing). Still, the heaviness is balanced, here, with a poetic narrative structure that gives some lightness to the rather despondent tone.

The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans not long after the Korean War. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a stock-broker just about to turn 30 years old. Bolling is basically isolated from the world, though he holds a job and interacts with family and friends. Still, there is a willing distance brought on by family problems and his traumatic experiences in the war, but also by the general decline of southern tradition which is the underlying theme for the entire work.

To cope with his depression and anxiety, Bolling has taken to constant daydreaming. He enjoys routine and repetition, these are safe, and he finds meaning and comfort in movies and books rather than the real world, which is why he cannot manage to maintain any healthy or lasting relationships (even his most loving, meaningful relationship is rather disturbing).

At Mardi Gras, Bolling decides to break his routine and set out on a journey in search of his true self. This quest takes him on a rather directionless and ultimately pointless meandering around New Orleans’ French Quarter, down around the Gulf Coast, up to Chicago and back again. Although he interacts with people he meets along the way and has some insightful and poignant moments, these experiences essentially amount to little of substance. Bolling is making an effort, mostly unconscious, to maintain a vague existence. He wants to be open to life’s possibilities, or so he says, but he is basically unhappy, unsettled, and unfulfilled.

Still, though Binx is an oddball–mentally unstable, emotionally stunted, and intellectually uninspiring–he yet has a bizarre and unsettling charm, an eccentric and darkly humorous personality that is simultaneously off-putting and somehow familiar. His flaws, that he is homophobic, sexist, and racist, are not glossed; and yet, the honest depiction of this disturbed southern “gentleman” almost, almost, adds to the charm of his character.

In another place, at another time, it would be quite easy to fall head-over-heels in love with Binx and his story, for his disillusion and his complete willingness to admit that there’s just not a lot in the real world that is worth living for. We could fall for him as simply as teenage boys have, for decades, fallen for Holden Caufield’s antagonistic, self-indulgent cynicism. But, for me, I think that time has mostly passed – and for that, I am grateful. 

What is the nature of the search? 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 everydayness of his own life.

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: 21+

Interest: Southern Literature, New Orleans, American Existentialism, PTSD, Depression.

2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics, Drama, Feminism, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Play, Susan Glaspell

Thoughts: Trifles (1916) by Susan Glaspell

9780874406382Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) is a one-act play that would ultimately inspire another of her works, a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers.” The story is loosely based on an actual event, the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell reported on while working as a journalist in Des Moines, Iowa. Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, but the wife denied it. Although she was convicted, that conviction was eventually appealed and overturned.

Glaspell is an essential early feminist writer, one who was directly influenced by the likes of Kate Chopin and Fanny Fern; alas, she is often overlooked in feminist literary studies. For those unfamiliar with Glaspell, this short one-act play (my copy was only 26 pages) is a great place to start. The play is funny but poignant. It is a brief, direct example of Glaspell’s primary concerns – the inequalities between women and men, and the culture’s preoccupation with gender roles (stereotypes). It is ultimately a harsh exposé on the patriarchy’s oppressive control over women’s lives.

As its title suggests, the “trifles” of this play are “women concerns,” which men look at as relatively nothing in comparison to “real” (that is male) problems. Glaspell’s approach, however, which sets-up two distinct narrative points of view, one female and one male, creates an interesting and often comic tension between the main characters – the men and their wives. The house which serves as the play’s setting functions as both a crime scene but also as a home, and the characters, depending on their sex and their “purpose” or “role,” will view the house as one or the other of these things (the men treat it as merely a crime scene, the women cannot detach the house from its function as the home of their friend and neighbor who has been accused of murder).

51aea1cdd79ba.preview-620What is most interesting about this play is how much of a wallop it really packs. It is deceptively simple, not just because it is short, but the language, scenery, dialogue, stage direction – everything about the play is designed to be easy. Everything, that is, except for its subject matter. A reader (or audience member) could easily lose herself in the comedy of the situation, in the banter between husbands and wives, or in the knowing looks passed between the ladies, but the reality of the play, the feminist charges being raised and the dark, despondent yet somehow liberating mood created by the plight of the play’s absent Mrs. Wright (pun intended?) creates a rich paradox impossible to ignore.

The final moral crisis, which the women must face together and alone, reveals much about the meaning of justice and the role of women in seeking or fulfilling that justice. Although it is the men who “own” the law (quite literally, as the two male characters represent the police force and the county law offices), it is the women who will determine Mrs. Wright’s fate.

Notable Quotes:

“I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John.”

“Women are used to worrying over trifles.”

“She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was thirty years ago.”

“I know how things can be–for women. I tell you, it’s queer . . . we live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.”

2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics, Poetry, Sylvia Plath

Thoughts: Ariel (1965) by Sylvia Plath

220px-ArielPlathAs someone who tends to avoid poetry (with a few exceptions, such as the British Romantics, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman, all of whom I love), this new year has found me reading quite a bit of it! I’ve spent time with Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath. I’ll also be spending the next 15 weeks reading poetry in Old English (think Beowulf) as well as seventeenth-century poetry (John Donne, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Ben Johnson, John Milton, etc.). So, I guess you could say… I’m not shying away from poetry anymore?

Anyhow, my first “review” of the year is for Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection of poems, Ariel. This book is on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list, and boy am I glad to have finally read it. It is coincidental that I read it within days of reading Lowell’s Life Studies, which I knew little about. As it turns out, Plath was a great admirer of Lowell and both of them were “Confessional Poets.” This seems to be a style I respond to, because I adored both collections.

Plath herself, as many know, suffered from clinical depression. She married the infamous Ted Hughes and would eventually separate from him, after having two children. She committed suicide two weeks after publishing her now-classic novel, The Bell Jar.

Ariel was published posthumously in 1965, two years after her death. It was originally edited and compiled by Hughes, who apparently dropped twelve poems that were intended for the collection and inserted twelve others. He also altered the arrangement — fortunately, a restored version  was published in 2004. I look forward to reading that edition, eventually.

Ariel is intensely personal, which is to be expected from confessional poetry. The darkly lyric poems address issues of sexuality, motherhood, marriage, depression, suicidal thoughts, family and depression. These deeply personal poems, delivered with such raw directness, were perhaps too much for publishers of the time. Despite the positive critical reception of her first book, Colossus, the poems in Ariel were roundly rejected by many publications. Even The New Yorker refused to publish more than a few lines (it’s worth noting that The New Yorker also shied away from some of J.D. Salinger’s darker pieces).

Nevertheless, this later collection includes what would become some of the best-known poems in the English language, including “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” and “Morning Song.” I was moved by many of the poems, deeply touched by their personal and emotional expressiveness.

In addition to the famous poems mentioned above, some of my favorites of the collection include, “Nick and the Candlestick,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The Rival,” and “Edge.” The intensity of these poems is at times difficult to bear. Take, for example, the first stanza of “The Moon and the Yew Tree:”

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue. / The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God, / Prickling my ankles and murmuring their humility. / Fumey, spiritous mists inhabit this place / Separated from my house by a row of headstones. / I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

This is a stunning example of awareness of self-in-the-world. Plath is applying direct symbolism to her surroundings and illustrating how the environment she’s in directly affects her mood and state of mind. She’s also expressing, in this poem, the realities of her masculine and feminine natures (the yew tree and the moon) in a way that is somehow divine but also dangerous. There’s a nod to Mother/Female and Father/Male figures, but where one would expect the Mother/Female symbols (the light, the moon) to be soft, warm, and nurturing, here it is cold, dark, distant. Similarly, the Father/Male symbol (the tree) is akin to Eden’s “Tree of Knowledge” – there is wisdom in it, but the tree is black, its fruit poisonous.

I could go on and on about this poem, and others in the collection, but suffice to say I found myself wholly absorbed with Ariel as a whole, though some poems spoke more to me than others. Plath had an uncanny ability to make her poems equally about the self and about the universal. Anyone who has experienced self-doubt, loneliness, and depression, or a terrifying love (like the love of a parent for a child they fear they might lose, fail, or corrupt) will find Plath’s poems deeply affecting.