The Moviegoer (Walker Percy)
"Binx Bolling is the moviegoer -- a New Orleans man
who lives for the bright fleeting moments of celluloid fantasy he experiences at
the movies. But real life has a funny habit of butting in ... and soon he is
more involved than he'd like to be with a beauty who is drifting toward disaster
during the Mardi Gras weekend that will change both their lives."
Walker Percy was born in Alabama in 1916 and lived all of his life in the South. His
childhood was unhappy, for his father committed suicide when he was thirteen and his
mother died in an accident two years later. He was raised from that point on by an older cousin, a stoic,
depressive man whose advice to Percy consisted of quotes from Marcus Aurelius. Percy got a degree in medicine, but
because of ill health (he contracted tuberculosis during WW2, which was treated
more-or-less successfully), he gave up his career as a physician for that of a writer.
The Moviegoer, published in 1961, introduces Percy's concept of the 'malaise',
the angst of the lucid man in a world without gods. The book
won the National Book Award for the year. Percy wrote a number of books,
including nonfiction on semantics and semiotics. Walker Percy died in Louisiana
Through every line of Percy's works live the alienated seeking certitude. Binx
Bolling, the anti-hero of Moviegoer, is, like Percy, scarred by his father's suicide. Percy announces that
scar in the very first line of The Moviegoer -- a heart-piercing quotation from Soren
Kierkegaard's 'The Sickness Unto Death':
... the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.
Both Binx and his distant cousin Kate (the beauty he's more involved than he'd
like to be with) are self-aware characters in a world of actors, the only ones to realize the inherent
falseness, the clichés, in all things. These characters have names that sound like movie stars'
screen monickers: Binx
Bolling, Lyle Lovell, and Walter Wade.
Where Binx and Kate differ is in their responses to this world. Binx is content to glide through life: he
"managed to go to college four years without acquiring a single honor", yet he has a pathological need for
information about what he is 'surfing': about the movie theaters he attends and their employees, about
whatever city he visits, the salesman's white socks and the athlete's foot on the bus. It is as though Binx
the moviegoer anchors his reality by appreciating all the details of the
cinematography and set design, wanting to know all the construction rationales, the
production design, the props.
Kate is locked into the same world, and recognizes Binx as a kindred spirit -- "You're like me, but
worse. Much worse." Kate takes the opposite tack from Binx: instead of avoiding ennui by searching for
chance events ("certifications") and delighting in observation, she creates her own crises to jar the
world out of its rut of ennui -- "she unfailingly turns everything she touches to horror." She insists
early on "have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?"
Percy shows us a rather different couple after Binx and Kate marry. Binx, who has spoken so
garrulously of his
own metaphysical quest, suddenly grows extraordinarily silent about his search,
so much so that we
wonder if he is about to throw in the towel and "make an end" of it, too. (He has
given up on movies.) But Kate seems healthier, her self-destructive practice of crisis-creation seems
quelled -- instead, Binx has become her director, her "cinematographer." The care with which they plot out
her errand -- what streetcar to ride, where to sit, where to wear her cape jasmine -- is like the close
composition of a film script's camera shot, all so that Binx, through his imagination, can keep Kate
in focus and sane. He is no longer the passive observer, but the active arranger; she no longer the out-of-control
crisis-generator, but an obedient actress looking for direction. Binx has moved on to the true movie-lover's
dream: he has become the director of his own movie.
Read it for Percy's chiaroscuro treatment of the despair that comes of excessive lucidity.
As E.M. Forster said of Lampedusa's 'The Leopard', it is one of the great lonely