The Moviegoer – Posh Literature Meets Cop Movie

The Moviegoer is the debut novel of Walker Percy, published in 1961. The central character is a 29 year old stock broker, named Binx Bolling, living in New Orleans, somewhat traumatised by his experiences as a solider in the Korean War. He is trying to make sense of his life, but resists the efforts of other people to do this for him, in terms of jobs or relationships. His contradictory struggle unfolds through days at the office, flirty trips with secretaries to the Gulf coast, visits to the cinema, and a relationship with an extremely troubled cousin.

So what to make of it? You could take the intellectual approach and note the author’s interest in existentialist philosophy, which basically means that his central character faces experience unencumbered by creed or doctrine, accepting confusion and disorientation as he tries to work things out. Alternatively you could think of Binx in terms of a character from the movies he frequents. Let’s think of a movie about a cop – unconventional, probably battling a drink problem, regretting a messed up marriage, and on his last warning with his exasperated commanding officer, who sees the man’s qualities, but jeez, he’s hard work. 

Binx Bolling is really a kind of philosophical version of the wayward but talented cop. Yes, he has problems, but his unorthodox approach allows him to see things from a different angle, noticing details missed by his more straight-up-and-down colleagues. The cop picks up clues to a difficult case: Binx picks up clues to the spiritual conundrum of how to make sense of his life.

Occasionally I did feel the writing verged on the pretentious and condescending, particularly in sections mentioning films. This was odd as Binx seems to love going to the cinema. We don’t hear much about individual films, and what we do hear is often flippant. For example, getting to the end of the book, Binx summaries The Young Philadelphians, seen on his last cinema visit:

“Paul Newman is an idealistic young fellow who is disillusioned and becomes cynical and calculating. But in the end he recovers his ideals.”

I think we’re supposed to feel that The Moviegoer is much too subtle to be reduced to this sort of trite moralising. However, I actually do think a film – a cop film of course – can give us a sense of how Binx gets on with his search for meaning. You can wonder whether Binx makes sense of his life in the same way that you can wonder whether Catherine Tramell was guilty or innocent at the end of Basic Instinct – hard to tell in both cases. The Moviegoer has airs and graces, but – and I don’t mean this critically – it’s as American as the Hollywood films it references. Binx looks for meaning and doesn’t find it in the easy American categories of religion, good jobs, money and family. He is a lost cop, a good drunk and a bad husband, who bends a few rules, only so that a vague sense of justice, rather than a clear seat of regulations, wins out in the end.

Death Comes For The Archbishop – Humane Reading For Polarised Times

Death Comes For The Archbishop, published in 1927, is a kind of Western, describing life on the American frontier in the later 1800s. The heroes in this book are not a couple of cowboys, but a Catholic bishop and a priest who are attempting to establish a diocese in New Mexico, recently ceded to the United States by the Mexican Republic.

In a normal Western, the frontier is a lawless wilderness, where outlaw gangs roam, and sheriffs attempt to impose rough justice. In Death Comes For The Archbishop, two missionaries – a couple of religious sheriffs – arrive at a frontier, which is not nearly as new and wild as it seems. There are native peoples here with ancient settlements and indigenous religious traditions much older than the Catholic Church itself. In some ways the Church is a new influence imposed on an ancient land.

The new sheriffs approach their mission in different ways. The priest, Father Vaillant is straight forward in his attempts to spread the word. His friend, Bishop Latour, is more complex and thoughtful. He values the presence in New Mexico of traditions much older than the one he represents, and has a general sympathy with many views that might seem different to his own. For some of his followers, “there was one Church, and the rest of the world was infidel”. But for Father Latour, the most senior Church official in the territory, things are not like that. As just one example, he takes an interest in the wooden saint figures displayed in many local houses, and notes never seeing two alike. Some of his flock “will not accept two ideas at once”, whilst their wooden religious images indicate as many different ideas as there are individuals to hold them. This is the sort of fundamental contradiction that Latour appreciates, allowing him to gain the friendship and respect of all kinds of people.

Given the book’s title, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the bishop dies in the end. But when he does so, he is remembered as a good man rather than a good Church leader. He is open, tolerant, wam and thoughtful. His priest friend, Father Vaillant, so much more straightforward in furthering the interests of Catholicism, is by no means depicted as an unsympathetic character, but it is Latour who becomes the archbishop, the leader of the Church. He becomes leader not by setting his organisation’s interests above all else, but by seeing those interests in the context of the wider world.

This is a humane book, from which we could learn much in our polarised times.

Kraftwerk – The Ups And Downs Of Rhythm

My lockdown workout routine involves swinging ankle weights. Since this is rather boring, I have put together a playlist of songs to help move things along. I say playlist, but for the last few days that has just meant Kraftwerk albums.

The rhythm of a Kraftwerk track gives ankle weight swinging a different feel, as though you are actually going somewhere. It certainly helps me keep working out longer than I otherwise would. Rhythm has a long history as an aid to work, on ships, in fields, or in the military. It even helps mental work, since words with a beat to them are easier to remember. But, here’s the thing: after about twenty minutes of ankle weight swinging, fatigue starts to set in. That’s when it becomes apparent that rhythm wants me to keep going and doesn’t care if I’m tired. In the unlikely event that a former life saw me as an oarsman on a Greek galley, the unsmiling, muscular chap beating out the stroke would not stop if I had sore arms. Rhythm has a ruthlessness about it.

Anyway, dismissing the image of me rowing a Greek galley, let’s get back to Kraftwerk who in 1974, released their breakthrough album, Autobahn. The opening track begins with a car door slamming, an engine revving, a playful toot on a horn, and someone driving away. Then as the beat of the song gathers pace, we get a very ominous, distorted, machine-like voice saying “autobahn”. It’s like we’re suddenly in a scene from The Omen. Perhaps this horror film voice is a reference to the origin of the autobahn network, built in the 1930s on Hitler’s orders, to efficiently move people, and soldiers, around Germany. The musicians of Kraftwerk grew up in Düsseldorf in the shadow of World War Two. They would understand that rhythm can be totalitarian. Rhythm is there in marching feet and the noise of factories. In many ways there’s nothing of the individual in rhythm. It’s suggestive of an army marching as one, of machinery, or of natural, vast, repeating patterns where planets orbit stars. The autobahn, and the rhythms of driving on it, are an expression of this inhuman scale.

But in between interruptions from that creepy Omen voice, the rest of Autobahn’s title track has a happy, summery, almost Beach Boys feel. As soon as you hear the childlike refrain “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der autobahn” (“We are driving driving driving on the autobahn”) you realise that this is a group of lads who are taking a fun road trip. There’s lots of rhythm about their journey – that little autobahn ditty they sing, the steady patter of the car’s engine and its tyres on tarmac, music playing on a car radio, the rising and falling Doppler effect of other cars approaching and vanishing into the distance. Rhythm for these boys is not a dark military march but a bright, liberating, fun, dance. The rhythms of the road and their car set them free to go on a trip to new places where they meet new friends. If rhythm is about groups rather than individuals, then this is a group who are having fun together.

If rhythm has potential for good and evil, then as far as Kraftwerk are concerned, good wins out. As the title track comes to an end, there’s a lovely section where our young travellers sing “fahr’n auf der autobahn” in a tired but happy way, as if they are all coming home after enjoying themselves. We end the day with rhythm as a good thing, even if it was touch and go there for a while.

Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me, published last year, is Ian McEwan’s first sci-fi book, set in an alternative version of the 1980s where computer scientist Alan Turing is still alive. Instead of dying in 1954, he survives to lead a revolution in computing. This creates an advanced 1980s, which we explore through the eyes of a raggedy young chap who lives in a London flat, scraping a living playing the stock market from his desktop. When not in front of his computer, he pursues an affair with a woman living upstairs. On an impulse our hero decides to spend an unexpected inheritance on Adam, a newly released android companion.

The scenario of Machines Like Me is similar to Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin, published in 2018. That book was a rom com, a kind of love triangle with a match-making AI at one of the angles. Machines Like Me is another love triangle involving AI, with a fair amount of rom but not much com. The science references are more complicated, there’s a much darker feel, and far fewer laughs. Similar themes are explored. Is empathy a specifically human quality, and can machines show it? Do humans themselves always show empathy? Without human emotional filters, might artificial intelligence actually suffer by understanding too much and being too empathetic? We get a lot of contradictions like this in both books.

Happiness For Humans and Machines Like Me are similar in one admirable way: they both use the basic fact that a novel is an exercise in empathy, to create a worthwhile thought experiment testing the way human nature might interact with artificial intelligence. But I found it much easier to feel for the characters in Happiness for Humans, human, AI or animal. Both books are clever, but Machines Like Me flaunts its cleverness, while Happiness for Humans entertains first, politely leaving its cleverness for those who wish to go looking for it. Reizin’s AI enjoys Some Like It Hot: McEwan’s AI enjoys writing haiku and discussing metaphysical poetry. That sums up the difference really.

Personally, while both rarified poetry and Hollywood rom coms have their attractions, if I were an AI seeking to understand humanity, and have fun whilst doing so, I’d rather start with Some Like It Hot.

Look What The Novel Dragged In

Last week I read a post on Facebook about a cat, a family pet, pictured curled up and cutely asleep. This helpful creature had gone out, hunted down a rabbit, and as though aware of the current value of home delivery, had left it on the doormat as an offering to her family. This reveals a history of a human/feline link stretching back to the beginnings of farming 10,000 years ago, when people started keeping cats to protect their food and grain stores. And of course any small-time hunting returned to the house was a welcome addition to the cooking pot. Female cats in particular would do this to feed their kittens, and also to teach them how to hunt. People would value these home delivery habits, which were so engrained that thousands of years afterwards, cats continue to bring back mice, birds and rabbits for their owners.

In this time of lock down, cats, and pets generally, are sought after, not for rabbit deliveries, but for companionship. Novels are equally popular, also for companionship. Here’s a thought – perhaps both cats and novels drag in an ancient offering for the benefit of their owners. Let me explain:

Until relatively recently, people in general did not read. They had to listen to their reading matter, whether that meant some kind of theatre, story-telling or singing. Ancient Greece had its epic poems. Today readers treat the Iliad or the Odyssey as if they were novels written in verse. Back in the eighth century BC, at their time of writing, you would sit with a select group of friends and listen to someone reciting them.

It took a while for society to make the step to the solitary experience of novel reading. The new form did not start to catch on in Europe until the early seventeenth century when Cervantes published Don Quixote. After that, even as novels became increasingly popular, echos of the past remained. A major requirement of a novelist is that they find a “voice”. It must seem as though someone real is talking to you through the writing. It’s as though an actual human voice, once reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey, still remains in all the books read today by solitary readers the world over. A novel brings in an atavistic, ancient offering for its owner. Instead of dragging in a dead rabbit, a novel drags in a live voice.

Thank you to Princess Lola Cat.