Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rereading The Moviegoer

To celebrate Fat Tuesday, here’s an excerpt from Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, set in New Orleans during the week leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.

Here’s Percy’s hero, the suburban stockbroker Binx Bolling, describing his quiet life.

In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood movie theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates identified Binx as one of a string of solitary, cool, self-absorbed males in American fiction—other examples including Saul Bellow’s Joseph from Dangling Man, and the narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. Oates’ essay was perceptive, but I thought she was a little hard on Binx, playing up his pathology but failing to give him credit for at least being a little charming and acidly funny in his alienation. But then, I’ve been a Binx fan since I first read the Moviegoer for an English class in college. (20th Century American Fiction. On the syllabus, I think The Moviegoer came right after Invisible Man and right before Armies of the Night.)

In fact, I’ve been re-reading The Moviegoer annually at Mardi Gras ever since that first reading in college. I usually try to time my reading to coincide the action of the novel—beginning on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras and ending on Ash Wednesday. That’s just the kind of geeky lit-stunt this novel seems to inspire. Binx would call it a “repetition,” which he defines as “the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

That’s the kind of the thing that used to have me furiously scribbling notes to myself in the margins of one of my four copies of the novel.

I remember identifying intensely with Binx when I read first read The Moviegoer. His ironic withdrawal seemed the ideal stance for the smart young man to adopt, and I know I spent a lot of time trying to be as cool and sardonic as Binx.

I probably just succeeded in seeming confused.

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