Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Moviegoer

"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace: coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say."

Published in 1961, Southern writer Walker Percy's first novel is also his most famous and widely praised work. The Moviegoer plays out many of the existentialist themes of writers like Soren Kierkegaard, and focuses on man and his quest to find meaning in a seemingly boring and empty life.

The Plot:

Binx Bolling is a young stock-broker in post-war New Orleans. Though he is successful in his career, other circumstances, such as his traumatic experience in the Korean War, have left him feeling disconnected from his own life. He has a hard time connecting with those around him and finds more meaning in short flings with his secretaries and watching movies than in anything else.

In the days following Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on an undefined search, wandering around New Orleans, Chicago, and the Gulf Coast at once desiring to define himself, and also to remain open and anonymous.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Walker Percy is a name that had been popping up in my world of reading a lot in the last year or so, and I found his novel to be at once intriguing and frustrating. This is not a work that is for everyone. If you are someone who thrives on plot and action, don't even bother to pick this one up. Even the climax is so laid back that I pretty much missed it. This is a novel of reflection, of searching, and of definition.

The thing that Percy seems to focus on the most throughout this story is the idea of defining oneself. It is the one thing that Binx is afraid of, as if by defining himself he is forever regulating himself to a boring and one-dimensional existence. Instead, he chooses to lose himself in movies, living many different lives vicariously through the characters on the screen. He also is apathetic about his work, his religion, his culture, and his relationships (especially with women). It is in these four areas and how they define us that Percy particularly explores.

First, there is the area of work. Binx gave up his medical and research studies because he did not want to be defined as a "researcher". Then there is religion, which Binx barely gives lip-service to because he hates being defined as a Catholic. Then we have culture. Binx is constantly trying to distance himself from the upper-class society of New Orleans as personified by Aunt Emily (indeed, Percy puts quite a bit of emphasis on the defining powers of place and society). Finally, we have relationships which Binx shirks with a vengeance. The idea of being defined as a son, a brother, a nephew and a lover almost horrifies him.

So, here we have a man who is on a search for meaning and purpose in life. He sees all of these defining elements ("everyday life") to be chains that will hold him back from discovering these things. And yet, these very elements are the things that will help him find what he is looking for. Binx is a researcher, a Catholic, a Southerner, a son, a brother, and a lover. These things are what give him purpose. And that seems to be Percy's point. Our identities, rather than holding us back, push us forward in life. We are not left aimlessly wandering through this world because the things that define us also give us direction. We will know which way to go because we know who we are.

The Moviegoer itself is light and poetic reading and clocking in at only 200 or so pages, it is a very easy to get through. But as I said, it is not for everyone. I found it to be an interesting read, but I'm not going crazy over it. I can see as how people can claim that this novel changed their life, but I'm not one of them. Is it a must-read? No, but I'm still glad that I did.

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